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Libyan quandary

March 9, 2011

With the Gadhafi regime's military offensive against rebel forces in Libya increasing in scope and intensity, the United States and its NATO partners find themselves in a quandary as the pressure to act increases.

A NATO Tornado fighter-bomber
NATO will consider enforcing its own no-fly zone over LibyaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The US appears reluctant to act unilaterally or lead a non-UN approved coalition against Gadhafi with the experiences of doing so in Iraq still fresh in the minds of many and the consequences of doing so still evident in the Obama administration's subsequent foreign policy.

Washington came under severe international criticism for its 2003 invasion which Kofi Annan, the then secretary general of the United Nations, said "was not in conformity with the UN Charter." The criticism, coupled with the fallout from the complicated and fierce military campaign in Iraq, severely chastened the US and led to a review of its interventionist strategy.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week that any decision to impose a no-fly zone over Libya should be taken by the United Nations and not the United States in compliance with the wishes of the Libyan people.

Clinton added that the US wanted to see a peaceful transition to a new government in Libya but would work with the international community if that change could not be achieved from within. However, she said that with some countries opposing international intervention, finding a consensus on how to act could take some time.

As air strikes continued to pound anti-regime forces across Libya and Gadhafi's troops spread out across the country in an effort to put down the rebellion, time is not on the side of the international community - a reality which could force the United States and NATO to consider imposing a no-fly zone without waiting for United Nations authorization.

According to US and European officials quoted in the Washington Post this week, NATO military officials began briefing governments on Tuesday night on a full range of military options on Libya while Washington and London conferred on the legality of mounting operations without UN approval.

Serbia seen as precedent

NATO symbol on the gates of the bloc's HQ in Brussels
NATO could join with other blocs to take action in LibyaImage: dpa

NATO defense ministers will gather at the bloc's headquarters in Brussels for a two-day summit on Libya on Thursday to discuss contingency plans for implementing a no-fly zone over Libya outside of the UN structure. It is thought that the precedent set by NATO's air attacks on Serbia in 1999, which came without UN backing, could be cited as justification should the bloc decide that the situation requires immediate action.

The officials quoted in the Washington Post said that the international backing needed for the no-fly zone to go ahead without a UN mandate could come from regional blocs, as was the case in Serbia, and that if the EU, Arab League, the African Union and NATO all agree then the approval of "every country within 5,000 miles of Libya" would give the action "a certain level of legitimacy."

"If Gadhafi instigates a massacre then it will be virtually impossible for Washington and other capitals to hold back," Giles Merritt, the director of the Security & Defence Agenda think-tank in Brussels, told Deutsche Welle. "And what exactly are they holding back from? There's no reason not to implement a no-fly zone."

Permanent UN Security Council (UNSC) members the US, Britain and France, along with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Arab League, have all called on the UN to agree upon and enforce a no-fly zone but it is believed that UNSC members Russia and China, who wield veto powers, are opposed.

Russia and China are generally reluctant to intervene in countries' affairs but their recent support for UN sanctions against Gadhafi and his family suggest that they could be persuaded to approve a UN-backed no-fly zone.

Gadhafi determined to fight

Libya's leader Moammar Gadhafi
Gadhafi will violently oppose any international interventionImage: AP

In addition to the legal question of enforcing a non-UN approved no-fly zone, those advocates of the move also harbor concerns over where such action may lead with Gadhafi warning that Libya will fight against any international intervention.

"Gadhafi would indeed view any military action as an act of aggression, with or without a UN mandate," Dr. Alia Brahimi, a North Africa expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Deutsche Welle.

"We should therefore expect an attempt at a military reaction from the regime, but there are doubts about its capability."

A no-fly zone would seek to prevent Libyan forces from conducting attacks on the populace and would likely require any coalition to mount its own air strikes aimed at crippling Libyan air defenses. Should US or NATO warplanes come under attack while enforcing a no-fly zone or attacking Libyan positions, an escalation involving land forces - thought to be among the military options on the table - could not be ruled out.

Dr. Brahimi believes that recent experiences would convince the US and NATO that a land offensive should remain a last resort, with a more compelling option for all multilateral institutions being the offer of air support and the supplying of arms to the anti-regime rebels.

"The spectre of Iraq looms large, and it would be an enormous geopolitical risk to embark on any action which can be represented as another US-led invasion to 'occupy' Muslim lands," she said. "This could also complicate and indeed compromise the position of the rebels and risk bolstering support for Gadhafi."

"There really is no diplomatic way out of this crisis but far from being the last resort, a land offensive is no resort at all," said Merritt. "Getting boots on the ground in Libya would take months of planning and logistical preparation. Besides, there's no appetite for armed intervention after Iraq and Afghanistan."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge