For now it seems as though the United States and other western powers are refusing any military engagement in Libya, where Moammar Qaddafi is ruthlessly fighting a growing opposition force. Qaddafi is being increasingly isolated by the international community and rapidly losing support on the ground in Libya. The United States has frozen over $30 billion in Libyan assets – joining Switzerland, Austria, the EU, and the UK in economically punishing the Libyan regime – in addition to imposing unilateral sanctions to complement the recently approved UN and EU sanctions. In addition to the UN suspending Libya from the Human Rights Council, the United States also backed the UN resolution calling for an international investigation by the ICC and – more provocatively – has moved warships closer to Libya. This last move – considered by many a bluff – is obviously a step closer to western military intervention in the North African country. Interestingly, as calls from the west to intervene in Libya continue, there are still major questions about the ability and will of the west to effectively engage Libya as well as about how much Libyans want such a military move.
As more towns fall to the opposition there are mixed reports about Libya’s use of the air force against protesters throughout the country, pressuring Secretary of State Clinton to acknowledge that the US is contemplating imposing a no-fly zone across Libya. Such a move would certainly have support; a letter urging the establishment of a no-fly zone was signed by around 200 Arab groups, complementing a similar letter sent to President Obama by American neo-conservatives. In the Guardian, Muhammad from Libya wrote an impassioned article supporting a no-fly zone but rejecting any ground invasion or limited air strikes by western forces (though apparently some opposition forces are considering requesting UN-sponsored bombing raids).
Unfortunately, the idea of a no-fly zone is much simpler than actually implementing one. The legality of a no-fly zone, as Josh Keating notes, is debatable without the agreement of the UN – something that is unlikely to happen in the case of Libya. In the two most well-known precedents of no-fly zones – in Bosnia and Iraq – reveal a rather spotted history. In Bosnia, there were few legal questions surrounding the no-fly zone as is was sanctioned by the UN, though there are many questions concerning the effectiveness – the imposition of a no-fly zone did nothing to prevent the massacre at Srebrenica. In Iraq, the use of a no-fly zone is more widely contested as the was no UN consensus, raising questions of legality. If anything, the experiences in Bosnia and Iraq demonstrate the limitations and risks of a no-fly zone.
Beyond the difficulties of logistics, a no-fly zone is immensely difficult to implement correctly and, even then, has no guarantees of protecting the Libyan people from massacre. In Bosnia, the no-fly zone was unable to stop ground hostilities, including the Srebrenica massacre and, in Iraq, the policy did nothing to protect the Shi’ite villages in the south that were decimated by Saddam Hussein’s army. In addition to the differences between Iraq, Bosnia and Libya, the implementation of a no-zone in the latter country would be much more difficult to implement. Despite the US moving warships closer to Libya and Italy offering its military bases for the cause, a no-fly zone would be more difficult to implement in Libya. The no-fly zone in Bosnia was around 51,000 square miles while it was approaching 100,000 square miles in Iraq. Libya has nearly 700,000 square miles of air space and, while a no-fly zone would hardly be enforced across the entire country, western forces would certainly need to cover a greater area than in Iraq. Of course, the logistics of such a feat is hampered by the fact that the US (or any allies) are not present inside the country, as they were in Iraq:
Firstly, the proximity of airbases in Turkey and Europe made it easy to deploy persistent and wide coverage. Secondly and most importantly, the Kurdish peshmerga militia already controlled much of the contested ground. The NFZ only had to complement that ground-based force. No such dominantground force exists today in Libya.
James Mattis, the head of US central command, sees the establishment of a no-fly zone in Libya to be extremely unlikely, noting that a prerequisite to establishing a no-fly zone is taking out the regime’s air defense capabilities – including anti-aircraft guns and radar. Of course, such a step means the initiation of a targeted bombing campaign inside of Libya, a prospect that is rejected by many Libyans. As Andrew Exum notes, that the US must bomb Libya in order to establish a no-fly zone may turn some Libyans off of the idea:
There is an entirely different question about whether or not the Libyans even want us to intervene militarily. I suspect that if the question is phased, “Would you like us to make sure planes and helicopters cannot attack you?” the answer would be a resounding yes. But if the question was instead, “Would you be in favor of a U.S. bombing campaign in Libya if it hastened the fall of the Gaddafi Regime?” the answer would likely be no. The problem, as Gen. Mattis nicely illustrated, is that you might need to do the latter to do the former.
Photo from Mondoweiss