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Analysts remain skeptical about plans for a no-fly zone

As world powers consider imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, analysts say the measure, though part of NATO's range of capabilities, is controversial and fraught with risk.

A US F-16 bomber

Analysts say imposing a no-fly zone would entail a huge military operation

Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya's deputy United Nations ambassador, was one of the first to denounce leader Moammar Gadhafi and call for a no-fly zone over Libya. In an emotional speech, he spoke of the beginning of a genocide in his country which could only be halted through military intervention by the international community. But just how realistic is that option?

Carlo Massala, political analyst at the German army or Bundeswehr university in Munich pointed to a 2005 UN General Assembly meeting that committed itself to protect civilian lives.

"The international community has a responsibility to protect people in every place where a massacre is being committed against a civilian population with genocide-like tendencies," Massala said, citing the 2005 resolution.

NATO members divided

But experts remain divided over whether the atrocities being committed in Libya amount to genocide. Besides, some say, the international community has so far been extremely hesitant in acting on its commitment to protect lives.

A fire burns on a street in Tripoli

Will a no-fly zone be able to effectively halt the fighting in Libya?

"Compared to what happened in Darfur a few years ago, Libya is still – though it sounds cynical – relatively harmless," Massala said. "And still, we didn't intervene in Darfur. Nations usually only intervene when they want to protect their own interests and not because of a higher obligation under international law to intervene."

The imposition of a no-fly zone or any far-reaching military intervention would require a clear mandate from the UN Security Council. Last week, the world body agreed on sanctions against Libya. But it remains doubtful whether it will show the same unity when it comes to a military intervention in Libya, even in the form of a no-fly zone.

China or Russia are likely to use their veto power to shoot down such a move. And then the West would be forced to act without a UN mandate.

‘A complex affair'

But doubts are also emerging among members of NATO, which alone has the military means, about imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.

Turkey remains firmly opposed to such a move whereas France and Germany are still hesitant. Henning Riecke, security policy expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations is equally skeptical:

"A no-fly zone is such a complex affair that it's unlikely to be set up soon," Riecke said. "NATO would be capable of imposing such a no-fly zone. But the question is how long should it stay, how large an operation it will entail and what exactly the UN mandate will include."

A no-fly zone is certainly part of a revamped NATO's range of military capabilities. With its "NATO Response Force", the security body now has a mobile force which can be deployed even outside Europe within a week, with up to 14,000 troops.

But any Libya operation carries special geopolitical risks. The desert nation is about five times the size of Germany. To monitor its vast territory from the air would require between 100 and 150 flights a day. Even NATO would be not be capable of sustaining that over a long period of time.

Analysts also doubt whether the imposition of a no-fly zone would be effective in ending the bloodshed in Libya.

"I think that no-fly zones would have no direct effect on the battles between Gadhafi's troops and rebel forces," Riecke said. "That means you would set the ball rolling on a very complex operation with very limited consequences for the actual fighting in the country."

Mixed record on no-fly zones

The international community does have some experience with no-fly zones. In 1991, it imposed one over northern Iraq to protect the Kurdish population from Saddam Hussein's air force. And in the mid-1990s, a no-fly zone was imposed due to a UN mandate in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But even in that case, it didn't suffice to prevent the massacre of more than eight thousand civilians in Srebrenica.

People léaving Libya

A humanitarian crisis is unfolding on Libya's borders

Analysts believe that in the present case in Libya, ground troops would be eventually required to effectively stop the murderous campaign by Gadhafi's militias against the country's opposition.

Many believe that the most likely military intervention will be in the form of a humanitarian relief operation for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled to Libya's borders. For example, using cargo planes to transport tents, food and medicines to the refugee camps.

The fear now is that Libya's neighbors, Algeria and Egypt, will be prompted to send their own troops into the country to cope with the swelling tide of refugees.

Author: Daniel Scheschkewitz (sp)
Editor: Michael Knigge

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