Libya's government announced an immediate cease-fire on March 18, a day after the U.N. Security Council approved a no-fly zone over the North African country. The move complicates European efforts to spearhead a campaign against Libyan government troops. Assuming Tripoli follows through on its declaration, the effect on operations against the Libyan rebels remains in question.
Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said March 18 that Libya would positively respond to the U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a no-fly zone over Libya. The statement was soon followed by a declaration by Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa of an immediate unilateral cease-fire and halt to all military operations. Tripoli added that it was ready to open "all dialogue channels with everyone interested in the territorial unity of Libya," that it wanted to protect Libyan civilians, and that it was inviting the international community to send government and nongovernmental organization representatives "to check the facts on the ground by sending fact-finding missions so that they can take the right decision." The Libyan declaration comes as members of the NATO military alliance were ramping up for airstrikes authorized by the United Nations against troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. French diplomatic sources have been quoted as saying airstrikes could start "within hours." Libya's move potentially throws a wrench in plans to establish and enforce a no-fly zone — and take additional military action — against the Gadhafi government. France and the United Kingdom have led the international community in its push to intervene in Libya. Washington had signaled that it would let the European nations lead. Italy, formerly a strong Gadhafi supporter, announced March 18 that it would consider supplying aircraft to the intervention, as did Norway, Denmark and Belgium. By offering a cease-fire and inviting nongovernmental groups to conduct fact-finding missions, however, Gadhafi is betting that the European nations will lose the political justification for an attack and that political disagreements over military action within European nations can further weaken their already weak resolve. Europeans in general are war-weary from their involvement in NATO's operations in Afghanistan. They only will support an intervention in Libya if Gadhafi clearly is committing gross violations of human rights. It will be difficult for Paris and London to prove that Gadhafi is indeed committing such acts or to ignore the cease-fire announcement or the invitation to verify it. The immediate reply from France was that it would deal with the cease-fire declaration with caution and that the threat on the ground was unchanged. But the backlash at home against an intervention in light of Gadhafi's comments is not something European governments can overlook easily, especially since the most powerful EU member state, Germany, already has buckled under the domestic political strain and expressed skepticism toward a military operation. Assuming Gadhafi follows through with the cease-fire, how it will affect his operations against the rebels remains in question. Gadhafi may feel the rebels have been suppressed such that he can mop up the remainder through police actions in urban settings. Alternatively, he may feel the rebels are so thoroughly entrenched in their stronghold of Benghazi that he cannot dislodge them under the threat of Western airstrikes — and is therefore cutting his losses and preserving the integrity of his forces from potential Franco-British-American air attacks. Ultimately, the cease-fire could be a delaying action while Gadhafi builds a stronger position around Benghazi. This would not be without risks, however, as it will give French and British air assets time to deploy in air bases in the Mediterranean, better positioning them to enforce a no-fly zone. That said, the Security Council has authorized a no-fly zone, which means that while assaulting Gadhafi's ground forces directly may be stalled by the cease-fire statement, establishing a no-fly zone is not. It is also likely that Europeans will respond to the statement with further demands on Gadhafi, such as that he must resign as leader of the country or that he must withdraw his troops from eastern Libya and possibly even other cities in the west that have seen fierce resistance, like Misurata and Zawiya. Both of these demands would be difficult for Gadhafi to accept. The establishment and enforcement of the no-fly zone may still go ahead, but attacking Gadhafi's forces directly will become difficult in the immediate term.