Who will rescue Libya if all goes haywire?


Opposition fighters maintained a tenuous hold in Ras Lanuf on March 8, 2011 as Libyan jets ramped up the pressure with multiple air strikes.


Nichole Sobecki

NEW YORK — Libya may not be violent enough to save. There, I’ve said it. After days of watching Al Jazeera, reading reports from the region and speaking to policymakers and analysts, it seems that 2,000 dead does not a humanitarian intervention make.

At current levels of violence, and with recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan top of mind, it appears the international community — still, for all its faults, a euphemism for “The West” — lacks the political will to intervene in the conflict.

Yet a serious escalation in the violence could change this picture. A number of factors are at work. There is the pressure that a full-blown civil war would bring on global oil markets, concerns in the European Union for refugees who have already sought refuge along its southern periphery, and concern among Libya’s neighbors — particularly Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt — that civil war or even a stubborn, low-level conflict will ignite new troubles at home.

And yes, there is moral pressure from some governments and a host of human rights activists for the United Nations to invoke the doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” or R2P, developed in the wake of the 1994 Rwanda massacres and the Serb mass murders at Srebrenica which followed a year later.

The hot air Western governments blew for years over Darfur’s genocide set no great precedent, either. Still, Sudan is a pariah (again, at least in the West’s book). Such is progress on such things.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi elicits a deep, nearly universal distaste. His regime over the years has launched terrorist attacks (including the downing of the American jumbo jet Pan Am 103 in 1988) and provided training, financing and weaponry for terrorist groups ranging from the Irish Republican Army, the Red Army Faction and Basque ETA to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines and the so-called Islamic Legion, a Libyan-financed group whose members participated in the recent genocide in Darfur.

So what, then, can be done? Here are some ideas for the dithering would-be deposers of dictators who run the West’s declining, but still great(ish) powers.

The major publicly mooted option would seek international permission from the United Nations Security Council for a coalition of more sophisticated military powers — the United States, France, Britain and perhaps Italy — to establish fighter patrols over Libyan airspace to remove Gaddafi’s advantage in air power from the conflict.

Libya’s air force, while small by Western standards and short of spare parts, has already been used to harass rebel units, soften up defensive positions and — most importantly — destroy ammunition dumps to deny arms to the rebellion. It is unclear how successful any of this has been, but together with strafing runs by attack helicopters, even ineffective air power can prove devastating to untrained, ill-equipped rebel forces.

The advantage, of course, is that by establishing no-fly zones, the international community would remove a harrowing advantage and help level the battlefield. Perhaps more importantly, it puts the international community on record and signals to Gaddafi’s loyalists the extent to which they are battling not only the rebels but also world opinion (i.e., history).

NATO forces in the region — based in Europe but also from large U.S. and French carriers, and smaller Spanish and Italian vessels — could easily establish air superiority, though only after significant action to take out Libyan surface-to-air missile batteries. In the United States, some support exists in both parties to do this, though Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has spoken out against it.

Sen. John McCain, however, is leading Senate lobbying in favor.

“Libyan pilots aren't going to fly if there is a no-fly zone and we could get air assets there to ensure it. Recognize some provisional government that they are trying to set up in the eastern part of Libya, help them with material assistance, make sure that every one of the mercenaries knows that ... they will find themselves in front a war crimes tribunal. Get tough."

Words an Obama supporter can rally behind.

But obtaining U.N. Security Council permission will require trade-offs with both Russia and China in order to obtain their support or, more likely, abstentions. In both cases, demands on future Libyan oil production might be involved — if only behind closed doors — which ultimately could haunt any post-Gaddafi government.

Militarily, as Gates has pointed out, Libya’s Revolutionary Guard and other security forces pose the greatest threat to the rebels and to civilians, not its warplanes. Additionally, Libya’s air defenses pose a not insignificant problem. Given the likely political sensitivities any Western casualties would cause (and the desire to avoid a POW or hostage situation), U.S. and other air forces are likely to insist on preemptive strikes on SAM sites, raising the possibility of civilian casualties as well as a propaganda victory for Gaddafi.

A more aggressive option under discussion within NATO militaries would seek to extend the “no-fly” concept to land and sea warfare. In effect, this would establish the participating militaries as the air and naval support arms of the rebellion — a daunting political prospect given the uncertain nature of its leadership.

In theory, in addition to the no-fly provisions described above, this “No-Fly Plus” plan would create a cordon sanitaire that would be established around major rebel-held areas and serve as notice that movement of any troops, armor or weaponry into those zones will invite air or missile strikes.

A naval blockade would prevent the use of Libya’s small navy — already deployed to shell some rebel-held coastal towns. These naval units would enforce an economic blockade, as well, allowing humanitarian aid through but preventing the regime from earning money via oil exports or importing weapons or mercenaries.

This more aggressive stance would signal doom to Gaddafi’s regime, freeze its heavy equipment in place and ultimately starve it of fuel, ammunition and the levers of patronage that keep praetorian units loyal.

But there are dangers lurking here. The more complicated the military engagement becomes, the more American-centric it will be. Cross-national military operations of this nature are highly complex, likely to involve not only civilian casualties but also friendly fire incidents.

Politically, this crosses the Rubicon from the protection of civilians against air attack (no-fly zone) to full-blown support for the armed rebellion, a fact that will make Russian and especially Chinese support almost impossible to obtain.

Should the conflict spiral badly out of control, with civilian casualties and rebel losses amounting in the tens of thousands, the United States, NATO or a coalition of nations (perhaps the United States, France, UK, Australia and Italy) might launch an unsanctioned intervention.

Diplomatic cover for such a move would never come from the Arab League, an institution notorious for its tolerance of internal bloodshed (see Darfur, Saddam’s gassing of Kurds in Halabja in 1988, or Syria’s 1982 destruction of the city of Hama).

However, NATO itself — in something of a stretch — could invoke its own self-defense should the conflict threaten free navigation in the Mediterranean or if Gaddafi were to be so foolish as to reengage his terrorist cells. It’s worth noting here that, whatever the morality of the issue, NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was based solely on vague references to the U.N. charter. Even the EU, which “intervened” to keep the peace in Macedonia in 2003, might provide this fig leaf.

What can’t happen is another Rwanda. As unpleasant as it might be to imagine Western forces invading yet another an oil rich Arab tyranny, the moral case, at least, is there. And thankfully, this particular tyrant dealt away his “Weapons of Mass Destruction” program before the shooting began.