reflections

Mar 18, 2011 | 02:34 GMT

8 mins read

Libya and the U.N. No-Fly Zone

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
The U.N. Security Council voted on Thursday to authorize "all necessary measures ... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." The resolution banned "all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians," essentially setting up a no-fly zone. The resolution — and specifically the U.S. administration — are calling for the participation of Arab League members, with diplomatic sources telling AFP hours before the resolution passed that Qatar and the United Arab Emirates might take part. Five Security Council members abstained from the resolution: Russia and China (both permanent members holding veto power) joined by Germany, India and Brazil. The Security Council resolution clearly invites concerned member states to take the initiative and enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. The most vociferous supporters of the resolution — France and the United Kingdom from the start and the United States in the last week — will now try to build a coalition with which to enforce such a zone. Including members of the Arab League appears important to all involved to give the mission greater legitimacy — and to keep the intervention from appearing like another Western-initiated war in the Muslim world. As U.S. defense officials have repeatedly stated — and as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated on Thursday while in Tunisia — enforcement of the no-fly zone will require more than just combat air patrol flights and will have to include taking out Libyan air defenses on the ground. With the nearest U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, still in the Red Sea and the French carrier Charles de Gaulle in port in Toulon — both some two days from Libya — French forces in southern France and potentially select air assets using Italian NATO bases, as well as six Marine Harriers aboard the Kearsarge (LHD-3), would have to make any initial strikes if actual military action is to happen soon. Italy has reversed course from its ambiguity on whether it would allow its air bases for enforcement of the no-fly zone, making available the U.S. Naval Air Station at Sigonella, Sicily, and the U.S. Air Base at Aviano. The U.N. support for airstrikes has made it difficult for Italy to keep hedging its policy on Libya. A hastily assembled no-fly zone with a clear limit to its mandate might simply push Gadhafi into a more aggressive posture toward the rebels and sow the seeds for long-term conflict in Libya. The question now is how quickly the United States, France and the United Kingdom can array their air forces in the region to make a meaningful impact on the ground in Libya. An anonymous French government official told AFP earlier on Thursday that bombing missions could begin within hours of the resolution's passage. Whether this actually will be the case remains unclear, however. Gadhafi loyalists apparently are closing in on Benghazi and Tripoli has offered the international community a deal under which it would not engage rebels in Benghazi militarily, but instead would move police and counterterrorist forces into the town to disarm the rebels "peacefully." Considering that Gadhafi's forces have crossed the long stretch of desert between Tripoli and Benghazi and are threatening the rebel's de facto capital, it is not clear how quickly any potential array of forces might rapidly assemble to change the situation on the ground from the air alone. In fact, a hastily assembled no-fly zone with a clear limit to its mandate — no boots on the ground — might simply push Gadhafi into a more aggressive posture toward the rebels and sow the seeds for a more aggressive or long-term conflict in Libya. The rebels' defensive lines have crumbled in the face of the loyalist onslaught, so the prospect of taking the already fractured rebels and forming a coherent offensive force from them is questionable at best. Even arming them better (and arms are not their primary problem) might well not change anything. If the no-fly zone and airstrikes fail to push Gadhafi's forces back (and the prospects of that are also questionable), any alliance of air forces will have to begin targeting Gadhafi's armored and infantry units directly, rather than just limiting themselves to striking air assets and air defense installations if there is to be any meaningful impact on the ground. This could rapidly draw the West deeper into the conflict, which could easily spur Gadhafi into a more violent approach against the rebels in Libya's east. The no-fly zone thus might prevent Gadhafi from winning but not unseat him either, potentially drawing the conflict into a longer and deadlier affair. With the coalition, the mission and the degree of commitment by each contributor still so far unclear, there is also the real problem of how far each individual member wants to take this. Another open question relates to Western unity on the decision. While France and the United Kingdom have been eager for such a step throughout, Italy and Germany have not. For Italy, the situation is particularly complex. Rome has built a very strong relationship with Gadhafi over the past eight years. The relationship has been based on two fundamental principles, namely, that Italy would invest in Libyan energy infrastructure and that Tripoli would cooperate with Rome to ensure migrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa do not flood across the Mediterranean toward Italy. When it seemed as if Gadhafi's days were numbered, Rome offered the use of its air bases for any potential no-fly zone. Italy was hedging to protect its considerable energy assets in Libya in case Gadhafi was overthrown and a new government formed by the Benghazi-based rebels took power. But as Gadhafi's forces scored several successes over the past week, Rome, before the vote at the United Nations, had returned to its initial tacit support for the legitimacy of the Tripoli regime while still condemning human rights violations so as not to be ostracized by its NATO and EU allies. That Italian energy major ENI continues to pump natural gas to — as the company has alleged — provide the Libyan people with electricity, highlights this careful hedging. Now that Rome has thrown its support for the U.S.-French intervention, the stakes will be high for Italy. Gadhafi will have to be removed, as his continued presence in the country would put Rome's considerable interests in Libya at risk. For Germany, the issue is simple. Three German state elections are coming up in the next 10 days, with another three later in the year. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing an electoral fiasco, with a number of issues — from resignations of high-profile allies to mounting opposition over the government's nuclear policy — weighing down on her government. With German participation in Afghanistan highly unpopular, it makes sense for Berlin to be cool toward any intervention in Libya. Germany abstained from the resolution, and its ambassador to the United Nations reiterated Berlin's line, refusing to participate in the operations and calling any military operation folly that may go beyond airstrikes. This creates a sense that Europe itself is not entirely on the same page in Libya. Considering that the sinews that hold the NATO alliance together have begun to fray, it is not clear that a French-American intervention without clear support from Berlin is the best thing for the alliance at the moment. Furthermore, it is not clear that Tripoli really needs an air force to reach the rebels, nor that Gadhafi's forces are sufficiently exposed, enabling surgical airstrikes to cripple them. Airstrikes are not a tool with which one can resolve urban warfare, and Gadhafi may very well decide to precipitate such warfare now that the West is bearing down on him. This may mean that for the U.S.-French intervention to work, the West would have to become far more involved. Now that the West has decided to square off with Gadhafi, it may not be able to disengage until he is defeated. A Libya — or even only Western Libya or even just Gadhafi stewing in his Tripoli fortress — ruled by a Gadhafi spurned by his former "friends" in Western Europe could be quite an unstable entity only few hundred miles from European shores. Gadhafi already has threatened to turn the Mediterranean into a zone of instability for Western military and civilian assets if foreign forces attack him. He has a history of using asymmetrical warfare — i.e., supporting terrorism throughout the 1980s — as a strategic tool. A belligerent Gadhafi looking to strike across the Mediterranean is not something Europe can permit. The decision to enforce the no-fly zone may therefore very quickly devolve into a need to remove Gadhafi from power via more direct means.

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