Arming Libya's rebels would be a tricky gamble

Libyan rebels rest in Uqayla, 20 kms (12 miles) east of Ras Lanuf, on March 30, 2011
Libyan rebels rest in Uqayla, 20 kms (12 miles) east of Ras Lanuf, on March 30, 2011. Libyan battered rebels, driven back some 200 kilometres by the superior firepower of Moamer Kadhafi's forces, were cheered by the first air strike in two days against loyalist positions in the east

With Libya's rebels steadily losing ground, the debate over arming them is growing louder.

CBS News correspondent David Martin reports the Obama administration has good reason to move carefully on that issue.

The rebels' sudden reverses have revealed them for what they are: a rabble, not an army. Allied air strikes can probably keep them from losing. The rebels say they could win - if only someone would give them better weapons.

"We don't have arms at all," said Mahmoud Shammam, spokesman for the Interim National Council. "Otherwise we finish Qaddafi in a few days, but we don't have arms."

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The rebels have weapons they captured from Qaddafi's army, but they don't necessarily know how to use them. So as the U.S. considers its options, it will have to consider not just weapons but training.

"One of them certainly will be arming the rebels which requires American Special Forces on the ground to do it right," said Michael O'Hanlon, of the Brookings Institute.

O'Hanlon believes a few hundred anti-tank weapons would swing the tide of battle in a matter of days, but it would also violate president Obama's repeated pledge not to put American boots on the ground in Libya.

"It may not have to be the United States. There's good reason to think that some European special forces could do comparably well, do even better in some ways, given their contacts," O'Hanlon said.

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But who would they be arming? Although Secretary of State Clinton has met the rebel leaders, U.S. intelligence is still trying to determine what lurks behind the public face. The admiral who is taking command of the operation says there are concerns the rebels may include some of America's worst enemies.

Admiral James Stavridis, NATO supreme commander for Europe, said: "We have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential al Qaeda, Hezbollah."

The president has not yet decided whether to arm the rebels, and he may not have to after a top Libyan minister defected, representing a major crack in Qaddafi's government.

Regardless, the president recently signed an executive order making it legal for the CIA to open contacts with the rebels. However, Obama would have to sign off on specific operations.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.