BRUSSELS (Reuters) - France’s acknowledgment that it has supplied arms to rebels fighting Muammar Gaddafi is a sign of the pressure on Western powers to get quick results in Libya, but risks further erosion of support for the campaign.
Some governments have already questioned whether France’s action contravenes an arms embargo imposed by the U.N. Security Council in February. Russia called it a “crude violation”.
France argues that a later Security Council resolution authorising the air war also created an exception in the arms embargo for weapons needed to shield civilians.
Analysts say the French revelation could be just the start of more overt military support for the rebels, but such a strategy would be fraught with risk.
The French move comes in the fourth month of the Western bombing campaign, with frustration growing that air strikes have failed so far to dislodge Gaddafi and signs that resolve within NATO is fraying under the effect of domestic political concerns.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. President Barack Obama are both seeking re-election next year.
“The French giving arms to the rebels is a sign of domestic problems, because Sarkozy — and indeed Obama — want this war to end sooner rather than later,” said Daniel Keohane of the European Institute for Security Studies.
“Both Obama and Sarkozy will be going into presidential campaigns at the end of the year and will want this done and dusted by then. I suspect domestic political considerations are driving things as much as facts on the ground.”
Signs of strain have been growing elsewhere within NATO, with Italy calling last week for a ceasefire and the Dutch defence minister warning on Wednesday against “mission creep”, while forecasting heated debate about the future of the NATO campaign if it was not over by the end of September.
Military chiefs in Britain and France, the countries at the forefront of the eight NATO nations taking part in the bombing campaign, have also said it may be too costly to sustain in the long term. But there has been no sign that other allies are willing to step into the breach.
“So it’s in everybody’s interest that this operation doesn’t go on well into next year, and if arming the rebels helps prevent that, then I am sure that’s part of the reasoning,” Keohane said.
Shashank Joshi of London’s Royal United Services Institute said the French weapons supplies could be just the start.
“Now that’s it’s been announced, they may as well do more,” he said. “There will be caution — you don’t want to be just dropping guns everywhere — but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the precursor to more.”
This could also involve arms from Britain, he said, despite British statements to the contrary and concern about whether this would conform with U.N. resolutions. The United States also might also be willing to supply weapons, but via third, Arab, countries rather than directly.
However, Joshi and other analysts said that perhaps more important than any shortages of arms was the continued lack of organisation of the rebel forces.
“Arms will help,” Joshi said, “but they won’t be decisive. This is about more than arms — the rebels are very poorly armed and still lack basic equipment but they also lack organisation.”
French strategic analyst Francois Heisbourg said that, while there might be a need and justification for supplying arms to besieged rebels, the need to deliver them more broadly was far more questionable — and risky.
“In most instances there is no lack of weaponry and, more seriously, there is a real risk of leakage to unpleasant people like al Qaeda,” he said.
While rebels around Misrata and in the Western Mountains had shown significant resolve under difficult circumstances, with the eastern rebel movement based in Benghazi in the region of Cyrenaica it was a different story.
“They have been constantly complaining about lack of money and weaponry, but I would argue there is more significantly a lack of fighting spirit among the Cyrenaica rebellion,” he said.
“Providing arms to the rebels of Cyrenaica, with all the attendant risks of leakage and where the purpose would clearly not be the protection of the population, would be skirting perilously close to the limits of the U.N. resolution,” he said.
Still, raising the stakes by providing the rebels with greater capabilities could be preferable to a war that drags on indecisively.
NATO would have to get the agreement of all 28 allies for an extension of the campaign beyond its current, second 90-day operations cycle until September 27.
A real crunch would come if the air campaign is still going on at the end of the year, when France says it would have to pull out the mission’s only aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, for a refit.
Withdrawal of the carrier, which has launched an average of 40 percent of the daily strike missions in Libya, would mean having to fly more missions from land bases, but European nations lack the air-to-air refuelling tankers to sustain these.
Analysts say the United States, the only country able to fill this gap, might be ultimately be willing to do so, but it would be a decision that Obama, who has been under congressional pressure over Libya, would prefer to avoid.
Given the pressures, there are strong incentives for the British and French to up the ante in coming weeks, but while Gaddafi’s fall appears inevitable, it is difficult to judge how soon it may come.
“If I had a probability diagram, I would say two to three months is the most likely range,” said Joshi. “But you never know, collapse could come in two weeks, or well into the New Year.”