Libya and Syria: The costs of war

The head of the Royal Navy sparked debate over the sustainability of British operations in Libya today, saying the government must make "challenging decisions"

Muammar Gaddafi

Libya

The head of the Royal Navy, admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, sparked debate over the sustainability of British operations in Libya today, after he said the navy had planned for a six-month commitment in Libya and the government must make “challenging decisions” over what should happen afterwards.

Sir Stanhope said to Admiralty House:

“How long can we go on as we are in Libya? Certainly – in terms of Nato‘s current time limit that has been extended to 90 days – we are comfortable with that.

“Beyond that we might have to request the government to make some challenging decisions about priorities…

“There are different ways of doing this. It’s not simply about giving up standing commitments, we will have to rebalance.”

The government and the head of the armed forces were quick to dismiss the comments and maintained the necessary capabilities of UK forces.

Dr Liam Fox, the Defence secretary, said:

“We continue to have the resources necessary to carry out the operations we are undertaking.”

General Sir David Richards, the head of the armed forces, said that the military could “sustain this operation as long as we choose to”.

General Richards speaking to the BBC about the comments of Admiral Stanhope, said:

“He was actually answering a different question that has been misconstrued, but we can sustain this operation as long as we choose to. I am absolutely clear on that.”

The debate re-opened arguments over the government’s Strategic Defence Review, which imposed heavy and controversial cuts on Britain’s armed forces, as the admiral suggested elements of the operation would have been cheaper and “much more reactive” if the scrapped aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal had been available.

In support of these statements, former security minister Admiral Lord West commented that the government were “stupid” not to look again at the decisions made in the review.

This comes against the worrying background that the Libyan conflict could escalate. It was reported this morning that Muammar Gaddafi’s troops fired Grad rockets into neighbouring Tunisia.

One witness said:

“At least five rockets fell on Tunisian soil today in the Mrabeh. It was a heavy bombardment from Gaddafi’s side of the mountains.”

It is possible the rockets were aimed at rebel troops controlling border crossings.

A local police officer said Tunisian security forces were worried the rockets might hit the main border crossing at Wazen, where thousands are often gathered.

Omar Hussein, a spokesman for the rebels, said government forces were also targeting rebels holding the road leading toward the Dehiba border crossing. Dehiba being key supply point for the rebels who won control over a string of mountain towns from Gaddafi’s forces earlier this month.

As the crossing points also form supply points, there was speculation from a BBC News 24 correspondent in the region this morning, that rebel arms might be smuggled into the West of Libya through Tunisia and the action was designed to prevent the flow.

Such rocket attacks from Libya have happened before. The Tunisian government threatened to report Libya to the UN security council for committing ‘enemy actions’ after it last happened on 17th of May. Although quite what else the Tunisians expect the UN to do in light of resolution 1973 is unclear.

The BBC News 24 correspondent also reported fierce fighting outside Misrata and that rebel fighters were in no way close to advancing on Gaddafi’s stronghold in Tripoli, the capital of Libya.

The rebels were said to be advancing “inch by inch” and experiencing “huge retaliation in the form of rocket fire”, and the port nearby, previously thought safe, has “come under attack from rocket fire”. The rebels were said to be “utterly dependent on NATO” for defence from such rocket attacks and were asking why they were not receiving more support against Gaddafi’s heavy arms fire.

Foreign secretary, William Hague, in the commons today, cut a confident tone on Libya calling Gaddafi’s regime “isolated and on the defensive” and said he was impressed by what he saw on a recent trip to Benghazi, the rebel stronghold.

Syria

Mr Hague also said in Foreign Office questions, that the Syrian government ” continues to use unacceptable levels of violence” against protesters. He went on to condemn the brutal oppression and said that the government had reports from “reliable sources” that “over 1000 people have been killed” since the protests started. He then reiterated that the “violence is unacceptable and must stop”.

In response to a question from Labour, Hague also confirmed that the Red Cross had not been given open access to Syria by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and thus were not able to provide necessary humanitarian help to civilians.

Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, asked whether neighbouring Turkey, who have taken on many refugees from Syria, could be encouraged to “step up their regional leadership role” and stand against the Syrian oppression.

Mr Hague said Turkey has a “strong regional leadership role and has tried to persuade the Assad regime to change course”.

Bloomberg has reported that Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has “promised to keep the border with Syria open, and slammed the resort to violence by Assad, previously his ally”.

Bloomberg writes:

“The flow of Syrian refugees to Turkey accelerated, stretching the country’s capacity to accommodate them, after President Bashar al-Assad’s forces attacked the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour.

“There are now 8,538 refugees in four tent cities in the border province of Hatay, up from 6,817 yesterday.”

The Guardian have reported on the possible support for the Syrian government’s violence, from the Iranian theocracy:

“More evidence has emerged to suggest that Iranians are involved in the crackdown in Syria.

“Last week refugees fleeing the north-western town of Jisr al-Shughour talked of bearded non-Arabic speakers acting alongside Syrian security personnel.

“Now al-Arabiya TV has unearthed footage of two men being questioned by Syrian activists and admitting that they are Iranian Shias.”

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