As the late Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces prepared to crush the Libyan uprising last summer in Benghazi, Britain, France, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and other allies moved quickly to reinforce the beleaguered rebel forces.
With military supplies, training, advice — and of course the backing of NATO war planes — this coalition of governments provided critical support to change the course of the conflict, ultimately leading to Qaddafi’s downfall.
The U.N. Security Council’s arms embargo was primarily intended to constrain Qaddafi’s capacity to use its massive oil wealth to import new stocks of weapons and foreign mercenaries to help put down the rebellion. But it also placed restraints on the supply of weapons to the rebels, prompting the Security Council to later introduce an exemption — providing significant cover for governments seeking to arm the rebels.
A new report by a U.N. panel of experts responsible for monitoring the arms embargo in Libya sought to itemize a list of military supplies — everything from sandbags to shouldered propelled rockets — that flowed into Libya after the U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Libya in February 2011. The list, however, is incomplete because NATO and some of the insurgents’ chief military backers, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have refused to provide a full account of their contributions.
The report identified numerous attempts by the Qaddafi regime "to secure arms deals and use mercenaries from neighboring countries," citing reports in the Globe and Mail about a July 2011 visit to Beijing by Libyan officials seeking to purchase military supplies from three Chinese arms manufacturers. (China denied that the talks led to any deals.) The panel also cited reports that much of Libya’s military capacity had been reconstituted after 2004, following years of Western and U.N. sanctions, with the aid of Western European countries and ex-Soviet states (The panel also noted that is conducting an ongoing investigation into Qaddafi’s use of mercenaries, adding that so far it had found "no conclusive evidence.")
But the 78-page report provides insights into how the international community combined diplomatic pressure, military airpower, and clandestine arms deliveries, to topple a regime. It would not be surprising if some of those countries considering backing the Syrian campaign to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad in Syria are drawing from the same playbook.
The United States
Though U.S. airpower proved decisive in crippling Qaddafi’s defenses, the United States maintains that it provided only non-lethal military support to the rebels. The report notes that on February 6, the United States provided the panel with a list of its contributions, including 8,000 uniforms, 8,000 boots, 5,825 load-bearing vests, 2,850 bullet proof vests, 1,975 military helmets, and "items for defensive positions (sandbags, Hescos…)."
The Italian government notified the panel on February 14 that it supplied 10 military trainers, 10,000 uniforms, 5,400 helmets and 2,800 leather boots.
On February 9, the United Kingdom informed the panel that it supplies the rebels with 6,000 sets of body armor and no more than 20 military personnel. The British action, according to the report, was intended to "provide a military assistance team to the Libyan authorities for the purpose of providing operational assistance, training and mentoring on security issues, including reform of the armed services, counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency."
In April 2011, the French government notified the United Nations that it had sent a small team of military advisors to Libya to provide the National Transitional Council with "support and advice on ways to organize its internal structure, manage its resources and improve its communications." In June, it went further, notifying the UN that it had "airdropped self-defence weapons for the civilian populations that had been victims of attacks by Libyan armed forces." The panel’s report contains no detailed list of these contributions as the French asked it to keep the details confidential.
The panel said that it has obtained information that several flights operating from Tirana, Albania, transported military materiel to Benghazi over a three day period in September, 2011. The case remains under investigation.
One of the more tantalizing revelations in the panel report is the suggestion that Darfuri rebel groups, including members of the Zaghawa tribe and fighters from the Justice and Equality Movement, may have backed Qaddafi’s counterinsurgency campaign. The panel said that while it was not able to "definitely corroborate" numerous reports of the military role in the conflict, ‘the accumulative strength of intelligence gives substantial credibility to these findings." No to be outdone, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, extended overflight rights over Sudanese territory to NATO, according to senior U.N. diplomats, and allegedly supplied arms to the insurgents, according to the panel. The panel cited claims by the Benghazi rebel defense ministry that Sudan provided "small arms and light weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades," and transported other supplies to Bengazhi on two Ilyushin-76 aircraft. "According to media reports, on 26 October, the President of the Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir, gave a speech in Kasala in which he acknowledged weapons deliveries from the Sudan to Libya and that the weapons had reached revolutionaries in Misratah, Al-Jabal Al-Gharabi and Zawiya." The Sudanese government did not reply to the panel’s request for information.
In March 2011, Qatar notified the United Nations that it would participate in NATO enforcement of the U.N.-authorized no-fly zone over Libya, contributing "a number of military aircraft, military transport aircraft and helicopters." Qatar categorically denied media reports that "it had supplied the revolutionaries with arms and ammunition," saying only that it had "sent a limited number of military personnel to provide military consultations to the revolutionaries, defend Libyan civilians and protect aid convoys." The only weapons and ammunition it had furnished was for the use of Qatari military advisors in self-defense.
But the Qatari contention had one big hole in it. In July, 2011, a Swiss television station discovered spent Swiss ammunition used by the Libyan revolutionaries. The Swiss ammo had been exported to the Qatar armed forces in 2009 by a Swiss arms company, FGS Frex, and made its way to Libya. Confronted by Swiss authorities, who noted that Qatar was prohibited from re-exporting the ammunition, the Qatari ambassador appeared to have confirmed its role in the supply of ammunition. "The ambassador of Qatar explained to the Swiss representatives that the ‘transfer of the aforementioned ammunition to the Libyan opposition was a misadventure in the course of his country’s support of the NATO operation in Libya.’ He reassured the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs that ‘Qatar took the appropriate measures to prevent similar errors in the future.’"
The United Arab Emirates
The panel provided few details about alleged arms transfers by the United Arab Emirates, partly because it is conducting an ongoing investigation into the matter, and partly because the Gulf state refused to provide the panel with a list of its contributions. On March 25, "the United Arab Emirates notified the [UN] Secretary General that it would participate, within the framework of the international coalition, by providing military aircraft. No notification was given regarding transfers of weapons or ammunition or provision of military personnel." The panel visited the UAE to inquire about its role in arming and advising the Libyan insurgents. The government insisted that it had acted in conformity with UN resolutions and under the umbrella of the NATO operation" to protect civilians. "They did not provide more precise information and said that NATO would be in a better position to answer those questions."
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s role in Libya was decisive in crippling Qaddafi’s military defenses and providing support for insurgent offensive operations. While its air campaign is not the subject of the panel’s inquiry, the report notes that it wrote to NATO "asking it to provide a detailed list of military materiel, including weapons and ammunition, sent by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates or any other country that participated in the NATO operation and information regarding the number and roles of military personnel sent by those countries to Libya since the imposition of the embargo. While NATO acknowledged the receipt of the panel’s request for information on 25 January 2012, no answer has been provided to date."
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