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ARGUMENTS FOR a No Fly Zone over Libya

Commentary, 3 March 2011
Middle East and North Africa
As the Qadhafi regime unleashes slow-motion slaughter in Libya, a no-fly zone is the most compelling response, particularly in the face of growing demands for limited assistance from Libyans themselves. Critics of such an idea have yet to explain why the limited efficacy of NFZs means that they ought to be shunned altogether, or why a time-limited NFZ cannot be later withdrawn if proven impotent.

As the Qadhafi regime unleashes slow-motion slaughter in Libya, a no-fly zone is the most compelling response, particularly in the face of growing demands for limited assistance from Libyans themselves. Critics of such an idea have yet to explain why the limited efficacy of NFZs means that they ought to be shunned altogether, or why a time-limited NFZ cannot be later withdrawn if proven impotent.

By Shashank Joshi, Associate Fellow, RUSI


See also: Arguments AGAINST a No Fly Zone over Libya

Libya Map Mediterranean

Colonel Qadhafi now reads from the tyrant's playbook: delusion, desperation, and brutality in equal measure. There is no silver bullet to bring to an end the awful irony of his self-declared revolutionary regime. But a no-fly zone, or NFZ, bears out the greatest hope of checking the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe and furnishing the beleaguered opposition with the breathing space it needs to end Qadhafi's reign of terror. 

There is some misapprehension that even limited military intervention by NATO states would be a major operation with enormous and unbearable risks; that it would shatter the legitimacy of the opposition and the indigenous quality of the revolution; and that it could not hope to be effective. Each of these concerns is reasonable, but mistaken.

Is a NFZ technically feasible?

In Iraq, the NFZ imposed between 1991 and 2003 saw about 34,000 sorties each year, at an annual cost of nearly $1.5bn. The predominantly Anglo-American endeavor was neither cheap nor simple. But that operation encompassed vast swathes of the country's airspace. It also spanned the non-contiguous Kurdish and Shiite areas at opposite ends of Iraqi territory.  In Libya, by contrast, NATO - or, as is far more likely, a willing coalition that passes by wary Germany and hostile Turkey - might only need to cover Tripoli, its transport corridors, and a handful of urban areas threatened by Qadhafi loyalists.

The comparison with Iraq is also misleading in another sense. Libya's obsolete air defense systems and its depleted air force are incomparably inferior to the reasonably capable Soviet hardware faced in Iraq during the 1990s, certainly relative to the present capabilities of NATO powers. Even with its many advantages, Iraq failed to shoot down any manned aircraft despite trying extremely hard to do so between 1998 and 2003.

More than this, an unprofessional military, shorn of many of its units, will hardly be able to effectively operate an air defence network that relies on robust command and control, and strong training. With defections rising and pre-rebellion servicing anyway poor, Qadhafi's  stock of usable fixed-wing aircraft is thin, leaving attack helicopters as the primary danger.

NATO states also possess bases in both Cyprus and southern Italy, with the possibility of using and Malta. The southern flank of the European continent, serving as a sort of sprawling aircraft carrier, would be safer a launchpad than the Persian Gulf was for Iraqi operations. This is in addition to the wealth of naval airpower supplied by the twin US carrier groups in the region. On Wednesday, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates cautioned that a NFZ would require more aircraft than are hosted on a single carrier - but why would any operation confine itself to this arbitrary standard? NFZs do require a massive supporting apparatus, ranging from AWACS and refueling aircraft to round-the-clock monitoring. But these are within the abilities of even a purely British and American effort.

Would an NFZ hurt the opposition?

Second, are critics correct that intervention would be perceived as a neo-colonial intrusion that might burnish Qadhafi's efforts to tarnish the opposition as foreign lackeys?

This is unlikely. Thirty-five prominent Arab intellectuals and over 200 Arab organisations from across the region have signed a letter exhorting 'the rapid imposition of a UN Mandated no fly zone over Libya'. [1] The Libyan delegation to the UN, having defected after what they described as Qadhafi's 'crimes against humanity', have been vocally urging likewise.

Those in the liberated east are proud of their self-propelled uprising, but they are no less aware that they require defence against slaughter from the sky. They are not the anti-American ciphers implied by much of the discourse on intervention. Many - though not all - would rather be free with a Western hand, than crushed under the fist of a homegrown despot. After a string of renewed bombing raids at the beginning of this week, the Benghazi-based opposition National Council explicitly requested airstrikes on 'strongholds of mercenaries' and asked for a US-led NFZ to be imposed. The Arab League also suggested it would explore the idea of a NFZ, enforced in concert with the African Union.

It is obvious that ground troops are profoundly unwelcome. Moreover, many advocates of an NFZ may not fully understand the dangerous preparatory bombing that would accompany it. And many Arabs, particularly outside Libya, remain deeply opposed to any outsider intrusion into the Middle East. But in the ongoing scramble to assert that Libyans want to decide their own fate - a reasonable point -  many observers have scarcely bothered to listen to what many Libyans and Arabs are actually saying. 

Nor is there any reason to think that Qadhafi's increasingly unhinged pronouncements - such as declaring the protesters to be fueled by drugs supplied by Al-Qa'ida - have any bearing on the population of Libya. Why would they be swayed by efforts to taint a liberation movement that has borne enormous casualties at the hands of the government and repulsed superior forces in battle. Those who repeatedly invoke the danger of the opposition movement being tainted must answer the question: tainted in whose eyes?

It is true that widespread perceptions of US belligerence and intrusion have fueled extremism in the Middle East. But twelve years on, Kosovo is hardly a major incubator for Al-Qa'ida or anti-western radicals. Turkey's prime minister condemned the notion of any military intervention as an expression of the West's use of Arab states as 'pawns in oil wars'. But there is no purpose in appeasing such transparently facile and dishonest interpretations of Western foreign policy at the cost of standing by as a regime unleashes slow-motion slaughter.

Would it work?

A no fly zone is our best hope of averting a repeat of Bosnia, Kosovo, or Rwanda, and salvaging a 'responsibility to protect' that already lies in tatters. Aerial bombardment has been a central means of repression over the last seven days. On Monday, two MIG-23s flying from an air base near Qadhafi's hometown in the city of Surt, struck at targets far into the rebel-held east of the country, and were only barely repelled from Benghazi by rebel antiaircraft units. More bombing runs followed later in the week. So far, aircraft do not appear to have inflicted grave damage on opposition personnel. But as waves of attacks are successfully parried in the opposition-held territories around Tripoli, it is only a matter of time before Qadhafi resorts to harsher methods. 

Aircraft are also the only realistic means by which Qadhafi could deliver any mustard gas he may possess. Though he destroyed thousands of chemical weapon munitions over the last seven years, there is every possibility he retains stocks at his Tripoli compound and could find pilots willing to spray suitably weaponised forms over an advancing force.

There is an unavoidable danger that downed pilots enforcing the NFZ will have to be rescued by special forces, that the necessary efforts to suppress air defence systems will lead to the accidental bombing of civilian buildings, and that friendly fire incidents will generate domestic pressure to cease operations. The lives of armed forces will be imperiled, and the decision is therefore the most serious that a leader can make. It should also be clearly understood that a no fly zone is an imperfect measure, and it was powerless to stop the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. In Kosovo, NATO's operations may even have induced a speeding up of Milosevic's ethnic cleansing in the short-term. And even with the enforcement of no-drive zones, there is simply no way of altogether precluding war crimes or giving rebels a military edge by purely aerial means. Finally, our sorry experience of urban warfare in Iraq and the enormous damage inflicted upon that country must also compel us to approach military action with the greatest possible humility. 

But duly cautioned, we must be equally resistant to overstating the risks of an operation that is vital in both humanitarian and democratic terms. Nor have critics explained why the limited efficacy of NFZs means that they ought to be shunned altogether, or why a time-limited NFZ cannot be later withdrawn if proven impotent. The Libyan death toll, according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, now stands at over one thousand. For the sake of the thousands more who will surely die in the coming weeks, clearing Libya's skies should be one of the foremost imperatives of the international community.

The views expressed here are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal United Services Institute.


[1] Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Open Letter by Arab Organisations to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the European Union (EU) and the League of Arab States (LAS), 28 February 2011,


Shashank Joshi
Advisory Board

Shashank Joshi is Defence Editor of The Economist, where he writes on a wide range of defence and... read more

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