Intervention in Libya

By Ian Davis – NATO Watch

On the day that NATO members started intervening in the civil war in Libya, here’s some background detail.

NATO’s top decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, met yesterday in an emergency session to review military plans for enforcing a UN resolution authorising the use of “all necessary measures” to protect civilians under attack by government forces in Libya. The resolution was approved by 10 members of the UN Security Council. Brazil, China, Germany, India and Russia abstained from the vote. It still remains unclear, however, as to whether any military action in support of the UN resolution will be NATO-led or under the auspices of an ad hoc ‘coalition of the willing’, which would likely utilise some NATO assets and bases. Reservations expressed by Germany and Turkey suggest that the latter outcome is the most likely.

A NATO source says that participation “may happen in phases”, with NATO taking over within several days after the “first phase”. The official also said that France was eager for the operation to remain a ‘coalition of the willing’, while Britain is seeking an early NATO buy-in.

On Thursday, the UN Security Council approved the resolution (UNSCR 1973) backed by the US, Britain and France. It effectively sets up a no-fly zone to prevent Col. Gaddafi’s forces from mounting air strikes against anti-government rebels, although it also makes clear there is no mandate for the deployment of ground troops in Libya. A no-fly zone has the support of both the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation Council – although this support is not universal: both Syria and Algeria voted against it.

In a statement NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, “There is an urgent need, firm support from the region and a clear UN mandate for necessary international action. Allies stand behind the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom, democracy and human rights”.

Last week, NATO’s defence ministers agreed that the alliance would act only with a clear legal mandate and strong regional support (see NATO Watch News Brief, 11 March). Thus, a key difference between Libya today and Iraq in 2003 is that there is a much firmer legal framework for military action. However, when asked whether the North Atlantic Council had considered the possibility of airstrikes against Libyan air defence and other ground targets during its meeting on Friday, Martin Povejsil, the Czech Republic’s ambassador to the alliance, replied: “We only discussed enforcing the no-fly zone and the arms embargo, and providing humanitarian assistance”.

Also yesterday, Gaddafi was handed a “non-negotiable ultimatum” by President Obama to accept an immediate ceasefire, pull back from Libyan rebel strongholds and permit humanitarian assistance – or face UN-endorsed air strikes. The UK and France later released a joint statement with the backing of Arab allies supporting Obama’s ultimatum. Gaddafi did announce a ceasefire and has called for international observers to verify it, although reports continue to indicate fierce fighting in Misrata, a key port between the capital and Benghazi.

Aircraft flying from the NATO base in Sigonella, Sicily could reach Libya in about half-an-hour, while the NATO bases at Aviano in northern Italy, Istres in southern France and Ventiseri-Solenzara in Corsia are also likely to be used. A US carrier in the Mediterranean and another in the Red Sea also offer options for enforcing the no-fly zone. Most of the aircraft taking part in the initial phase are likely to be French and British, and in an attempt to reassure Middle East opinion and his own domestic audience, Obama said the US would help to co-ordinate a no-fly-zone but not lead the operation. Other NATO nations to be considering supporting the no-fly zone include the US, Canada, Belgium, Norway and Denmark (with both the latter countries having made their F-16 fighter jets available and could also provide Hercules transport aircraft to assist in humanitarian efforts). Greece has also said that its bases can be used for NATO operations in Libya. In addition, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are seen as the most likely Arab nations to provide support, and possibly Saudi Arabia and Jordan, although no formal announcement has been made as yet.

Military action to enforce a no-fly zone is likely within the next few days once a commander has been appointed and the make-up of the coalition has been established. However, many analysts see the no-fly zone, by itself, having little effect in deterring Gaddafi. Only ground attacks by coalition aircraft – or the threat of them – are likely to halt the progress of his forces, which are now reported to be on the outskirts of Benghazi.

The action in support of the rebels in Libya also raises difficult questions regarding the scope of the mission and the linkages with other Arab unrest in the region. Some may question, for example, why similar support is not being granted to the Shia Muslim majority in Bahrain which is facing a crackdown from Bahraini and Saudi troops. Or why humanitarian interventions are not on the cards in Yemen or Côte d’Ivoire. The two major concerns, however, are the risk of civilian casualties from ‘precision airstrikes’ and an escalation in the conflict from a purely humanitarian mission to one that seeks to enforce regime change in Libya. And as Britain’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Andrew Green says, “the reality is that we will not get out of Libya unless we can remove the Gaddafi regime” something that some of the coalition leaders were already acknowledging in their public statements, However, regime change is certainly not authorised by the UN resolution.

While the sincerity of the ceasefire announced by Gaddafi is seriously questioned, it does open up the opportunity, as advocated by the International Crisis Group, for dialogue on the modalities of a transition to a new government that the Libyan people will accept as legitimate. The Crisis Group recommend that the UNSC send a regional contact group composed of officials or respected personalities drawn from Arab and African countries, including Libya’s neighbours, to initiate discussions with the regime and the opposition backed, if necessary, by the deployment of a regional peacekeeping force.

But ultimately this intervention could simply pave the way to eventual partition of Libya, described in one editorial, as the “worst of both worlds: the tyrant and his sons would still exist and the revolution, half finished, could halt on tribal lines”. An assessment prepared by the Congressional Research Service in Washington this week also paints a gloomy picture: “The apparent proliferation of small arms, man-portable air defence missile systems, and some heavy weaponry among fighters on both sides, also is leading some outside counterterrorism and arms trafficking experts to express concern about the conflict’s longer term implications for regional security”.

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