The former UK ambassador to Libya warns Channel 4 News allied forces could be in the country “for the long haul” unless Gaddafi’s internal allies turn against him – a process which has halted.
According to claims by Libyan state television, 48 civilians died in the bombardment – figures dismissed as “propaganda” by the coalition.
Channel 4 News spoke to the former British ambassador to Libya, Sir Oliver Miles, who said civilian casualties were, sadly, unavoidable – and warned we could be “in for the long haul”.
I think this is going to become a war of propaganda and a war of morale and a war of determination. Former Ambassador to Libya, Sir Oliver Miles
He said: “War is an impossible thing to read. The fog of war more than just a cliché, it’s a fact.
“Until recently, I was inclined to take optimistic view that Gaddafi would go – people were defecting, both the military and civilians, and even, it seemed, members of his family – but that process seems to have stopped. And unless it starts again, and there’s no sign of that, I’m afraid we’re in for the long haul.
“I think this is going to become a war of propaganda and a war of morale and war of determination. I think the momentum of the rebellion against Gaddafi is faltering and the morale of the pro-Gaddafi camp has held up pretty well.”
Sir Oliver, who now works as an executive director at MEC International, said that neutralising Libya’s air defences is “not a clean, civilian casualty free option.”
“What we have done so far is to try and establish air supremacy – to do that we had to attack a lot of sites, some of which will be adjacent to civilian sites – either because it is inevitable, or deliberately placed there by the Libyans.
Get the latest on our Libya live blog
“At any rate, knocking out air defences is not a clean, civilian casualty free option. It does involve killing civilians. But the immediate question is how many?
“The numbers killed in military action so far have, by the standard of these ghastly events, been not so high. The rebels put victims at 8,000 so far – that happens to be the same number as just one incident in Kosovo, Srebrenica. I’m not saying that killing 8,000 people is okay but what we do has to be proportionate and if we kill substantial numbers of civilians, we are not fulfilling our mandate.”
And even if the allied forces establish a no-fly zone, there are still major hurdles due to the confused nature of the situation on the ground, he said.
“The next problem is that having established air supremacy, what do we do next? The next step is to try to remove the ability of Gaddafi‘s forces to go on killing civilians – target heavy weaponry, tanks.”
To say our aim is to get Gaddafi out is to say we have some idea of what is going to replace him, which I do not there is. Sir Oliver Miles
He said there had been one incident outside Benghazi where this had been done successfully, but warned this was unlikely to be the main pattern as weeks of fighting has left the battleground confused.
“Most of the fighting has been taking place inside towns, for example in Misrata, where the fighting has been going on for a couple of weeks and has been inconclusive, with killing on both sides.
“Gaddafi has the advantage but some tanks have defected, the picture is completely unclear. I don’t understand how the Royal Air Force or the US Air Force or whoever is going to be able to tell which side is which – I fear we will reach the stage where we have air supremacy but we don’t know what to do with it.”
Read more: Prime Minister David Cameron says Libya is 'not another Iraq'
Foreign Secretary William Hague and Defence Secretary Liam Fox have both refused to explicitly rule out targeting Gaddafi, although other officials have said he is not a target, despite attacks on his compound.
“I have been rather shocked by that,” said Sir Oliver.
“It is something that as far as I know we have never done. Churchill notoriously considered doing it to Hitler but did not – for me that’s the end of the story.”
After the UN resolution was passed on Friday, the coalition had to react very quickly to reports that Gaddafi was advancing on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
“The aim which is written down in the UN Security Council resolution is to protect civilians, so if we do anything not in line with that, there is no legal basis,” he said.
“This doesn’t sit very well with the fact that the British government and all the other governments said the only solution is for Gaddafi to go – regime change. There is a disconnect between our real aim and our legitimate aim.
“Moreover, I don’t think our real aim is an adequate one – to say our aim is to get Gaddafi out is to say we have some idea of what is going to replace him, which I do not there is.”
In Pictures – Libya air strikes