Special Forces in Libya: A Breach of UNSCR 1973?

The presence of Western Special Forces in Libya does not contravene the terms of UN Security Council 1973. In fact, they may well be important in helping to facilitate it.

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British special forces in desert fatigues.
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George Grant
On 25 August 2011 15:50

An interesting report in today’s Daily Telegraph regarding the presence of foreign Special Forces in Libya who, it is claimed, “played a key role in coordinating the fall of Tripoli”.

Already, the revelation of their presence – which should come as absolutely no surprise – is causing unease, not least with regards to the question of whether this is a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973.

It is worth, therefore, making a few observations on this point, and on the importance of their presence in Libya more generally:

First, UNSCR 1973, from which NATO derives its mandate in Libya, does not preclude the presence of Special Forces on the ground. The resolution does not, as is commonly believed, proscribe the deployment of ground forces, but rather “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”. This is no mere technicality. Special Forces do not constitute an occupation force.

Second, what UNSCR 1973 does authorise, however, is for UN Member States to utilise “all necessary measures... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” excluding the aforementioned occupation force. On that basis, given that NATO depended on airpower to execute this mandate, the presence of Special Forces on the ground in Libya could actually be said to have facilitated UNSCR 1973’s legitimate fulfilment, not contravened it. In providing accurate targeting, especially in built-up civilian areas, Special Forces are often invaluable.

Third, though the presence of Special Forces will certainly have facilitated the rebels’ advance on Tripoli, I do not believe this was the decisive factor. What really counted was the sheer fragility of the Gaddafi regime. We saw in the case of last week’s assault on the oil refinery in Zawiyah, where a single regime sniper was able to hold up the rebel advance for more than a day, how comparatively limited their capabilities were, and how difficult urban warfare against a determined enemy can be. The political and psychological battle has always been the most important in this conflict, more so than anything Western Special Forces could achieve.

And fourth and finally, with Gaddafi still on the run, there is no reason why Special Forces should not assist in tracking him down. His regime was, and remains, the primary threat to Libyan civilians, and not until Gaddafi himself is apprehended will it be possible to bring this conflict to a decisive end. As mentioned in point three, gains and losses in this conflict have always been primarily centred on the psychological power of the regime to exert authority over its loyalists, as opposed to the actual military capabilities of either side. Whilst Gaddafi remains at large, this hold remains, along with the threat to civilians. 

George Grant is the Director for Global Security at the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think tank in London, UK 

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