The United States have asked Saudi Arabia if it can supply Libyan rebels with weapons. It wasn’t clear as of Monday whether the kingdom, a key American ally in the region, had answered the request yet.
While anti-government militias are in control in the east of Libya, longtime ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi managed to retain power around the capital of Tripoli. His armed forces have responded violently to uprisings in nearby cities, deploying tanks and air force against demonstrators and strategic targets in the east.
The United States have been contemplating their options in Libya after hundreds if not thousands were reported killed in confrontations with Gaddafi’s security forces.
Despite political support for a no-fly zone, the military has been hesitant to endorse intervention. Defense secretary Robert Gates warned lawmakers last week that “a no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses.” He added that the navy would have to field more than the single aircraft carrier currently near Libyan waters to effectively mount such an operation although airfields in nearby NATO countries could be used.
Two influential American senators while in Cairo two weeks ago suggested that their country could supply Libya’s rebels with arms and humanitarian aid. The Independent reports that America has since reached out to the Saudis to facilitate such a policy.
The Saudi king is known to loathe Gaddafi who supposedly tried to assassinate him several years ago.
While anti-government resentment swept the Middle East, Saudi Arabia remained fairly isolated from the unrest of recent weeks. The country is home to a sizable religious minority in the oil rich east and has witnessed minor outbursts of dissent but announced increases in welfare spending and a nationwide ban on protests may prevent further turmoil.
If the Saudis accede to the American request and demonstrations do take place, it would be difficult for the Obama Administration to condemn their likely suppression.
A major benefactor of American military support, Saudi Arabia has aided in covert operations in the region before. It facilitated the sale of military equipment to Iran in the 1980s in exchange for the release of American hostages and funneled military resources to the Taliban when they were fighting the Soviets from Afghanistan.
Opponents of Gaddafi’s regime have asked for anti-tank weapons to deter armor and portable air defenses to shoot down his planes and helicopters.
Rebels have been reluctant to advance on Tripoli, the regime’s final stronghold, fearful of attacks from the air against which they would be helpless.
The regime has denied using the air force to attack people but witnesses reported helicopter gunships firing into crowds last week. On Monday, foreign media reported airstrikes in Ra’s Lanuf, an oil port on the Mediterranean coast.