While an international coalition led by the United States continued military action on Tuesday against the forces of Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi, there was much talk about whether the U.S. government should back additional measures like helping to arm opposition rebels. U.S. officials cited progress in creating a no-fly zone over Libya in order to prevent Qaddafi’s military from killing civilians. But rebel forces continue to struggle in battle with Qaddafi’s military on the ground, raising the specter of a stalemate under which Libya will face a protracted, deadly civil war.
But moving from a no-fly zone to supplying rebels with arms comes with a series of trade offs. Here are five advantages and five disadvantages to doing so.
5 Reasons Against Arming the Rebels:
1. We Don’t Know Who They Are. Perhaps the strongest argument against arming the rebels is that it is not clear who they are or what their agenda is. Opposition leaders have formed an interim governing council in Benghazi. But it is not clear how much control the council has over different rebel factions or if the council will emerge as a legitimate governing force, said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Downie noted that the U.S. government armed the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which backfired with the rise of al-Qaida.
2. It May Not Be Needed. When the no-fly zone is fully enforced, the rebels may have enough firepower to prevail over Qaddafi on their own. Also, as more members of Qaddafi’s military defect to the opposition, they will likely take weapons with them. That alone could swing the tide in the opposition’s favor.
3. It May Not Be Legal. Questions have arisen as to whether it is even legal to arm the rebels at this point, as an arms embargo has been placed on Libya. “In the U.N. Security Council resolution passed on Libya, there is an arms embargo that affects Libya, which means it’s a violation for any country to provide arms to anyone in Libya,” former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters March 8. “It would be illegal for the United States to do that.” Due to that interpretation, another U.N. Security Council resolution might be needed to allow arming the rebels.
4. It May Stir up a Hornet’s Nest. Some critics fear that arms intended for the rebels could fall into the wrong hands or be used as a recruiting tool by terrorists in the North African region. For example, the group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is active in the region, issued a statement in February calling on all Muslims to support the revolt against Qaddafi in order to install an Islamic regime in Libya.
5. It May Cost Too Much. Little has been said about what the cost of arming the rebels might be. The costs of enforcing the no-fly zone already are piling up for the U.S. military and could surpass $1 billion. Supplying weapons might push the price tag too high.
5 Reasons For Arming the Rebels:
1. It May Level the Playing Field. Perhaps the strongest argument for arming the rebels is that doing so would give them a fighting chance at overthrowing Qaddafi. “The point of multilateral action against Qaddafi’s forces is to prevent a humanitarian crisis they’re more than capable of creating,” said a U.S. official who asked not to be identified. “Of course, anytime people are handed more weapons, you have to take into account the threat of further escalation. It’s your classic cost-benefit calculation -- one that’s at the heart of the policy discussions on Libya. At the end of the day, it’s entirely possible that giving the rebels a boost in arms could, at a minimum, level the playing field.”
2. U.N. Resolution Authorizes All Necessary Measures. Supporters argue that U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya already recognizes that additional measures may be needed beyond a no-fly zone. The resolution authorizes member nations “to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi.”
3. It May Stymie al-Qaida. While critics worry that a fresh infusion of arms could fall into the wrong hands, others say giving the rebels weapons can help prevent Libya from becoming a failed state. They fear that al-Qaida or other terrorist groups would exploit a failed state to operate terrorist training camps and plan operations.
4. Regional Stability is at Stake. Helping the rebels overthrow Qaddafi could also help bring stability to a region experiencing great turmoil. The Obama administration maintains that Qaddafi has lost the legitimacy to rule Libya. If he remains in power, that would send the wrong signal to other countries.
5. Other Countries Can Provide the Arms. The U.S. government does not have to be the weapons supplier. Other countries can take the lead, with the United States in the background. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., raised this point during an interview on Tuesday with CBS, saying it is “very possible” the U.S. could work through other countries. “There’s already reports that the Egyptians have been supplying them with some weapons; not only giving them the weapons, but it also requires some training,” McCain said.