Monday, 21 March 2011

War in Libya

US, British and French air and sea forces have begun to impose a ‘no fly zone’ over Libya after the United Nations, with regional support from the Arab League, authorised this and further to ‘use all necessary measures’ to protect civilians from attack by military forces. This phrase is very similar to the widely recognised UN language of ‘all necessary means’, which is code for military action. The resolution does though specifically prohibit the use of international ground troops.

Colonel Gaddafi has responded by declaring two ceasefires so far, but reports from Libya say that fighting has continued in a number of cities, and western air and missile strikes have targeted Gaddafi’s forces and air defence systems, with over a hundred Cruise missiles being fired at Libya, causing widespread damage to air defences and almost certainly involving civilian casualties, or ‘collateral damage’ as the military likes to call them.

I think everyone who has watched the scenes unfold in Libya, has been shocked by the brutality of Gaddafi’s forces, firing on unarmed protesters and shelling residential areas where the opposition have taken over towns, with hundreds and maybe thousands of civilian deaths the result. But this move by the west is an extremely dangerous one, as Gaddafi has been quick to use foreign attacks on Libya to rally support for his regime in Tripoli particularly.

In the east of the country much of which is under rebel control, foreign intervention has been welcomed, indeed the town of Benghazi, the centre of resistance to Gaddafi, would probably have been overrun by now, without the action to take control of Libyan airspace. These situations can escalate though, and ‘mission creep’ is common once military action is taken, although I do not think that there is any great appetite amongst western governments for a ground invasion. It is difficult to know what the west thinks it can achieve by its actions.

It seems to me that there are three possible scenarios resulting from western forces controlling Libyan airspace. Firstly, it will limit Gaddafi’s army’s mobility, as any columns of military vehicles will be subject to air attack, and given the huge distances involved between Libyan cities, this is a severe handicap to Gaddafi. The hope appears to be, that his regime will implode as those around him see that they will be unable to win the war, and either defect or even assassinate the leader. There are no signs of this happening yet.

Secondly, once the situation in the east of the country is stabilised, it may be envisaged that the rebels will be able to march towards Tripoli without fear of their convoys being attacked by Gaddafi’s forces, and eventually take the west of the country. If this does happen it will be a slow process, and much intense fighting will take place in those towns held by Gaddafi. It is hard to see how the UN resolution will allow western forces to support the rebels when they are attacking these towns, as in effect, they will be causing civilian casualties, and should according to the resolution, be stopped by western forces from doing this.

Thirdly, and I think this is the most likely outcome; Libya will be in effect partitioned with Gaddafi holding the west and the rebels the east of the country. This would mean that western forces will have to stay in Libya (or whatever the east decides to call itself) for the long term, which is a highly undesirable and costly situation. Of course the east contains most of Libya’s oil reserves, and so it could be that the western powers will settle for this state of affairs, and try to throttle Gaddafi’s regime in Tripoli through economic sanctions, but Saddam Hussein managed to cling onto power for over a decade in Iraq under similar circumstances.

It is clear to me that western governments want Gaddafi gone, but the UN resolution does not authorise regime change, and there appears to be cracks already surfacing in the coalition that has backed foreign invention. Liam Fox, British Defence minister, has said that Gaddafi might be targeted himself by war planes or missiles, the US Defence secretary Robert Gates, has disagreed with this statement, saying it would be ‘unwise’ to set goals that might be unachievable. Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, has said that he doesn’t support the missile strikes, and didn’t think that this would be part of applying a no fly zone.

Whilst it is understandable to want to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s brutal tactics, western intervention in Muslim countries has an unhappy history, and the situation in Libya has all of the ingredients, for another long term disastrous foreign policy intervention by western governments.

Photo from Al-Jazeera


chris foren said...

I have reservations about the NATO action but I am not a pacifist. There are times when you have to fight. If action had not been taken to stop Gaddafi then he would, without any doubt,have massacred the people of Benghazi and other eastern cities. His reprisals would have included widespread torture.

In 1982 President Assad of Syria used artillery against the citizens of Hama. Many thousands of innocent people including children were killed. Gaddafi is no different.

If the United Nations had taken no action it would have sent a clear signal to other Middle East despots that they could use military force with impunity. That would have been the end of Arab democracy for a few more decades.

Too often in the past the USA has used force to instal or support dictators. This time they appear to be on the side of democracy.

I believe that what is happening in the Middle East now is fundamentally different from the situations that obtained in either Iraq or Afghanistan. I did not support US/UK action in those cases.

The present uprisings are genuinely popular efforts to throw off despotic rulers who routinely use torture and brutality. We should not stand by and allow this flowering to be put down by military force.

Mike Shaughnessy said...

I'm not a pacifist either Chris, and I say in this post, that Benghazi would probably been overun by now, with brutal consequences.

But, we are already in mission creep territory, we shouldn't be air cover for a rebel advance. Un resolution 1973 only allows protecting civilians, where we are bombng them.

We have rallied support for Gaddafi by bombing, and I'm pessimistic that this will end well. We don't even know who the rebels are really.

chris foren said...


I agree that there are serious worries about "mission creep" and uncertainty about how to end UN/NATO involvement.

My view is that Nato force should be a shield, not a sword. That might result in a divided Libya, in which case we should recognise and defend "Free Libya".

I think this would result in large numbers of Libyans crossing from Gaddafi's Libya to Free Libya.

There are other, peaceful, ways we could support democratic Libya.

Mike Shaughnessy said...

I'm not Paul?

I can probably support the air strikes on tanks etc shelling Benghazi, that is a shield. But we are not covered for anything else under UN 1973.

We are palying the regime change game again, without legal cover for this.