Raising the Stakes

The UN's approval of a no-fly zone over Libya has raised the diplomatic and strategic stakes for all parties - but will it be enough?

By Michael Clarke for RUSI.org

19 March 2011 - Events are moving quickly in Libya. The international community has found itself, somewhat to its own suprise, directly confronting Colonel Qadhafi's regime with the imminent prospect of military action. In response, the Libyan Foreign Ministry confused the issue by declaring an immediate ceasefire, notwithstanding all Tripoli's bellicose rhetoric of recent days. And within twelve hours, Qadhafi's forces were anyway attacking Benghazi in an apparent attempt to seize the opposition's city before international forces could make a decisive impression on the situation. If anything propels the allies, meeting in Paris on Saturday 18 March, into an earlier military reaction than they had anticipated, it is the spectacle of Colonel Qadhafi ducking and weaving to make a fool out of the international community. After its experiences with Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban's Mullah Omar, it is a triumph of hope over experience for Tripoli to believe that an international military response will not now follow swiftly.

Agreement on a strongly-worded United Nations Security Council Resolution over Libya did not come quite out of the blue, but it was nevertheless a surprise to see it adopted, albeit with significant abstentions and many reservations.  Ten members of the Security Council voted for it while five abstained.  Nevertheless, the Resolution has been passed and its implications are potentially dramatic. The key was an interesting combination, with the United States not trying to take a political lead, whilst the Arab League did.  This circumstance created an atmosphere where a British/French push for a carefully worded Resolution suddenly found some traction at the eleventh hour.  The British Prime Minister had also been very assiduous in calling other leaders around the world to gain support for the Resolution as it was taking shape. The United States, having played down the initiative all week, switched to support it and other Security Council members evidently felt that the Resolution would offer international legitimacy to a regional approach, driven by the Arab League itself. So it was that the United Nations has authorised a no-fly zone and - using the magic words - 'all necessary measures' to authorise air attacks, but not ground operations, to prevent Colonel Qadhafi's forces  from attacking his own people.

Events since last Thursday evening's UN meeting in New York have moved so quickly that all possibilities remain on the agenda.

The practical difficulties of establishing an effective no-fly zone over Libya are no less this week than they were last week.  Libya is a very large country, and even the front-line along the coastal strip is two to three times bigger than the area of the Iraqi no-fly zone and eight to nine times larger than the Serbian/Croatian no-fly zones of the 1990s.  The US Air Force chief insists that it will take 'upwards of a week' to get a no-fly zone organised over Libya.

Limits of the NFZ

Even after establishing a zone, the fact remains that it would have a limited practical effect on Libyan air operations where they are directed against ground targets using short-flight aircraft and ground-hugging helicopters.

Events are propelling the military reaction forward, however. More militarily relevant would be the prospect of allied aircraft bombing Qadhafi's air bases, particularly the large Okfa Ben Nafi airbase just seven miles from Tripoli, and using their power to disable his air infrastructure - radars, communications and logistic lines. Beyond that, allied aircraft might attack Qadhafi's artillery and armoured vehicles, which are the real battle winner for government forces. But this would be taking a bigger step into the Libyan civil war and, though internationally authorised, also raises the prospects of civilian casualties, follow-up action if it doesn't seem to be working, and other unpredictable consequences.

The allies could also attack the supply lines of Qadhafi's forces approaching Benghazi. His troop numbers are known to be low and his supply lines are extended and vulnerable. A number of African mercenaries are known to be fighting for him, and they will almost certainly disappear if the tide of battle begins to turn. Concerted air and covert intelligence action to isolate Qadhafi's eastward offensive might be the best short-term option the allies have to make a difference on the ground. Cut off his forces, create the momentum for a reversal, and put the emphasis back on events in Tripoli - where this struggle will evidently be determined.

If the allies do excite such a reversal of fortune, however, they will face the need to see through what thet are starting; something even the British, French and Americans may not have thought through very carefully.

Potential Pitfalls and Political Possibilities

A great deal, of course, could go wrong. But it might also go right. And there are some attractive political possibilities arising from this UN resolution. Firstly, through the Arab League, the Arab world, in contrast to the deafening silence that normally accompanies crises in the Middle East, has made a political pledge, and Western forces can be seen to back it up. Everything Western air forces do should be with the explicit agreement - indeed at the request - of the Arab League. This is no new Western military adventure into a Middle East country, but a united front where the Western allies give weight to an Arab initiative. There is some longer-term diplomatic advantage to be derived from that. Furthermore, the US's backing-up of a British/French military lead could open the way to more constructive approaches in the strained transatlantic relationship. We may have pleasantly surprised ourselves in this particular case.

The prospect of a united Arab and (more or less) united UN front against the Qadhafi regime may do quite a lot to weaken it from within, re-open the critical political front in Tripoli itself and dishearten his relatively few soldiers - unlikely to be more than 10,000 actively involved - in the next critical phase. At worst, the resolution and attendant air action might create a stalemate between the rebel east and the cowed west of the country. Such a stalemate is unlikely to last indefinitely, albeit if only because it would be inherently unstable. If the allies do excite a reversal of fortune, however, they will face the need to see through what they are starting; something even the British, French and Americans may not have thought through very carefully.

Nevertheless, the last two days have raised the stakes, and the risks, for all parties concerned. The crisis has been internationalised in the most obvious way, and the rest of the Arab world will be wondering what it may presage as the winds of change continue to blow through the traditional autocracies of the region.


Professor Michael Clarke

Distinguished Fellow

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