NATO’s 2011 war on Libya: myth and reality
by Ian Sinclair
27 April 2019
Last month retired British major-general Rob Weighill gave a public lecture at the London School of Economics titled The Cauldron: NATO’s 2011 Operation to Protect Civilians in Libya – based on his new co-authored book of the same title published by Hurst.
Triggered by the Libyan government’s crackdown on anti-government rebels, Operation Unified Protector ran from March 2011 to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011. The official NATO war aim was the protection of civilians, set out in United Nations Resolution 1973.
As the person who led the planning and directed operations during the Libya intervention from NATO’s Joint Force Command, Weighill provided an insider account of NATO’s air campaign, which he considers a success. However, during the lecture Weighill made a series of misleading statements about the conflict which deserve to be challenged.
Myth: Weighill said “We [NATO] had no direct comms [communications] with the rebels. We were unable to talk to the anti-Gaddafi rebels.”
Reality: Special Forces from NATO member nations, including France and the UK, were deployed in Libya to support the rebels. “By every account, the presence of foreign ground advisors working with Libyan opposition forces had a transformative effect on [NATO] airpower”, Dr Frederic Wehrey wrote in Foreign Policy in 2013, after conducting two dozen interviews with anti-Qaddafi commanders. “Libyan interlocutors described how, in the operations rooms of Misrata, Zintan, and Benghazi, these advisors built trust between Western forces and the opposition and — most importantly — coordinated [NATO] airstrikes.”
According to Wehrey “Opposition forces and their sympathizers across the country formed a complex network of spotters, informants, forward observers, and battle damage assessors… The problem that NATO faced, therefore, was not a shortage of targeting information, but a flood of it.” In May 2011 a “senior European diplomat” confirmed to the Guardian that NATO’s bombing campaign was “relying strongly on information supplied by rebel leaders”.
Why does Weighill deny there was any communication between NATO and rebel forces? With the rebels fighting to overthrow the Libyan government committing “serious violations, including war crimes and breaches of international human rights law”, according to a 2012 United Nations Human Rights Council report, admitting support would likely have significant legal implications. For example, Wehrey notes “there was an acute awareness” among rebels “that NATO was only engaging weapons that were firing at civilians. In response, several opposition commanders acknowledged trying to provoke Qaddafi’s artillery into firing in the direction of civilians so that NATO would strike.”
Myth: Weighill referred to NATO’s “maritime embargo… the prevention of the movement of weapons and ammunition et al.”
Reality: Writing in Foreign Policy in 2016, Micah Zenko, a Senior Fellow with Chatham House, noted United Nations Resolution 1970 “was supposed to prohibit arms transfers to either side of the war in Libya”. NATO officials repeatedly claimed their air and sea blockade was successful, with NATO’s Spokesperson stating on 7 July 2011 “the arms embargo is effective.”
In reality, the US – the dominant military power in NATO – “gave its blessing to arms shipments to Libyan rebels from Qatar” and the UAE in spring 2011, according to a 2012 New York Times report. “NATO air and sea forces around Libya had to be alerted not to interdict the cargo planes and freighters transporting the arms to Libya from Qatar and the emirates”, according to US officials.
Moreover, an October 2011 Guardian report noted Qatar had deployed “hundreds of troops” to Libya in support of the rebel forces. “We acted as the link between the rebel and NATO forces”, Qatar’s Chief-of-Staff told AFP news agency.
In addition to NATO contravening the very UN resolution  they claimed to be upholding, it is important to note supplying arms to rebel forces is itself illegal, according to Olivier Corten and Vaios Koutroulis, two scholars in international law, in a 2013 article in the Journal of Conflict & Security Law.
Myth: Weighill referred to “the fact that every single mission that was undertaken by NATO air and maritime forces was done so with the key effect to protect civilians.”
Reality: In 2016 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee concluded “If the primary object of the coalition intervention was the urgent need to protect civilians in Benghazi, then this objective was achieved in less than 24 hours.” Contrary to Weighill’s claim, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Director of Policy Planning at the US State Department, explained to the New York Times in 2016 that “we did not try to protect civilians on Qaddafi’s side.” However, even Slaughter’s admission downplays the extent of NATO’s anti-civilian actions in Libya: the evidence suggests NATO didn’t just “not try to protect civilians” supporting Gaddafi, as Slaughter asserts, but provided air cover for rebel forces as they killed – and committed war crimes against – civilians.
The rebels “used inherently indiscriminate weapons in their military offensives against cities perceived as loyalist”, noted a 2012 UN Human Rights Council report. Nowhere more so than in Sirte, which was pulverised by rebel ground forces supported by NATO airstrikes in September-October 2011. “The Commission found that almost every building exhibited damage”, the UN Human Rights Council found. The Washington Post confirmed Sirte was “largely destroyed” in the fighting, with “the revolutionaries… firing purloined antiaircraft guns and artillery at apartment buildings where pro-Gaddafi snipers have holed up, causing heavy damage.”
Myth: “We had a policy in the [NATO] Joint Task Force that if anybody mentioned regime change they were instantly expelled from the headquarters”, Weighill said. “NATO’s view… was not about regime change.”
Reality: Weighill himself shoots holes in his own account by noting earlier in his lecture that “Number 10 [the UK], the White House [the US] and Versailles [France] were constantly referring to regime change.” So apparently the three dominant military powers in NATO wanted regime change but this wasn’t translated into NATO policy, according to Weighill. Confused? Others observers of the conflict are more honest. After hearing testimony from scholars and government officials and senior military figures, including former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord David Richards, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee confirmed “a limited intervention to protect civilians drifted into a policy of regime change by military means.”
The Royal United Services Institute, an establishment think-tank very close to the UK military, concurs, referring in a 2012 report to how “the initial security council resolution was contorted out of all recognition from the protection of civilians to, in effect, outright regime change”. Zenko simply states “In truth, the Libyan intervention was about regime change from the very start.”
Why is Weighill so explicit in his rejection of regime change? The answer, once again, likely concerns international law, which explicitly prohibits regime change, as Attorney General Lord Goldsmith warned Tony Blair in 2003.
Discovering the truth about NATO’s intervention
The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded “The result” of NATO’s intervention “was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.” This indictment, combined with the serious legal questions raised by Weighill’s lecture, suggests British historian Mark Curtis was right to call for a public inquiry into the Libya intervention last year.
The Cauldron: NATO’s Campaign in Libya by Rob Weighill and Florence Gaub is published by Hurst, priced £40.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.