Victory in Libya is close -- maybe too close

For Gaddafi’s troops, in other words, this is not a stalemate at all, but a one-sided conflict against an enemy they are incapable of opposing. The devastating recent attacks against Gaddafi’s warships, or the concerted air raids this week against targets in Tripoli itself, provide ample illustration of that. The increasing damage to such cardinal elements of the regime’s infrastructure may undermine loyalty to Gaddafi among senior military officers, as they are a much clearer illustration of the severe and enduring penalty of remaining loyal to the dictatorship. There will also be a limit to how long mercenaries, with only monetary interests in Libya, and Gaddafi’s troops, who lack effective leadership, will keep fighting.

To make matters worse for Gaddafi, the fighting is only going to grow more unequal. With the announcement that France and the UK will use attack helicopters in Libya, the military imbalance will become acute. Attack helicopters such as the Apache AH-64 used by the British Army are extremely capable weapons systems, which could either devastate Libyan forces with their own armaments or provide pinpoint targeting information for other combat aircraft. While the use of helicopters flying at low altitudes does raise the possibility that Nato crews could be shot down, using their ability to operate at night minimises this risk.

The real danger, in short, is not of a protracted stalemate, but of a sudden regime collapse: as the campaign goes on, and the capability of Gaddafi’s dictatorship to intimidate the population is eroded, the true extent of support for him among the Libyan people will be exposed. If it turns out to be shallow, the regime could suffer an abrupt end.