Libya – Is there case for a No Fly Zone?

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One of the tactics deployed by the regime has been air strikes. This has raised concerns inside and outside Libya, there have been calls from some in the West for a ‘No Fly Zone’ to be imposed over Libya.

While the call for a ‘No Fly Zone’ by Libyans who have experienced them first hand is perfectly understandable, in a wider context, is a ‘No Fly Zone’ a viable option? What are the difficulties of mounting such action? What are the possible consequences?

The case for a ‘No Fly Zone’ can be posed in three parts:

Firstly, what is the nature and extent of the air threat? The greatest use of jet aircraft was at the outset of the protests. Benghazi in particular was a target. Most of the pilots seemed to defect, ditch their aircraft, or drop their bombs off target. The number of verifiable hits at the moment seem to be well below a dozen. It would appear to be a reasonable contention that most of the air force has defected to the anti-Gaddafi protesters.

The other air threat is from helicopters, either in the form of gun ships or as transport for militia and military supplies. A helicopter was reported to have been shot down in Misurata. This indicates that the protesters have, given the right weapons, the capability to defend themselves from helicopter attack.

Secondly, what are the practical issues with instituting and conducting a ‘No Fly Zone’? The primary threat appears to be from helicopters. The problem with them is that they can take off from small areas, make short trips and land in small areas before they can be intercepted by a conventional jet fighter. How would the helicopter threat be nullified?

Libya also possesses a number and variety of surface to air missiles. Should pre-emptive strikes be launched against these missile and radar systems?[1] What if they are located in residential areas or are surrounded by human shields made up of arrested protesters?

Some aircraft are in the hands of the revolutionaries. What happens if they choose to use them? How would the West distinguish friend from foe? Would the anti-Gaddafi forces have to ask permission or inform the West before they can use their aircraft?

Thirdly, what are the possible political consequences of a ‘No Fly Zone’? In taking on Gaddifi, a clever, volatile and unpredictable dictator, no one is ever in full control of events. The consequences will resonate far beyond Libya. As soon as a Western aircraft engages a Gaddifi installation, jet or helicopter, the West is militarily involved in Libya.

What happens if a helicopter is downed and Gaddifi and his son Saif, present it as the shooting down of a craft carrying aid? How will that play to wavering Libyans thinking of throwing in their lot with the protesters?

An agreement to a ‘No Fly Zone’ runs the risk of being exploited as a cover to establish the precedent for wider intervention into Libya by the West.

While the West may pat itself on the back in regards of the ‘No Fly Zone’ policy in Iraq, those feelings are not shared by the majority of ordinary Arab people. This will be exploited by Gaddafi and other tyrants in their propaganda campaigns against pro-democracy supporters.

There are those amongst the protesters who are vehemently opposed to western involvement. A ‘No Fly Zone’ carries the risk of splitting the anti-Gaddafi movement and handing an advantage to Gaddafi.

On balance, though satisfying an urge to do something useful, a ‘No Fly Zone’ is fraught with danger, including it developing into a wider military intervention in Libya.

A ‘No Fly Zone’ is a policy that can’t afford any accidents, but is in fact accident prone at every stage.

Uprising in the balance

Starting with virtually no weapons, just their tenacity, the protesters are tantalisingly close to victory. Only Tripoli, along with some smaller towns, guarded by the rump of Gaddafi’s loyalists remains to fall. The uprising faces several twists and turns before it is settled.

Though they may have passing doubts, the pro democracy movement have shown that they need no military help from the west to achieve the overthrow of Gaddafi.

Gary Hollands – March 1st 2011.

Update 18th March: UN passes No Fly Resolution

Will the UN No Fly Zone help the Libyan uprising?

Watching the celebrations break out in Benghazi on receiving the news of the UN vote for a No Fly Zone[2], one felt churlish at being a dissenting voice.

Mainstream and social media lit up with the news, Many supporters of the uprising expressing euphoria and predicting the demise of Gaddafi.
All this is perfectly understandable. Those in Libya have experienced the terror of the increasing use of air attacks and those outside Libya with family in the country desperately want the terror alleviated.

The background and the motive force behind the resolution was the plight of the Libyan people at the hands of a merciless dictator. Commentators, politicians and experts all aligned behind a unified called for intervention. Those disagreeing were met with the cry, “we can’t stand by and let the Libyan people be murdered by the monster, Gaddafi”, a cry that implies that opponents of the No Fly Zone are heartless.

Support for No Fly Zone not universal

The support hasn’t not been anywhere near universal. Many ordinary people in the West, with the memory of the lies that led them into the Iraq war, have few illusions in the honeyed phrases of concern pouring from their politicians. There are dissenting voices in the region as well with comments such as, “The West is intervening to stop the revolution not to save it.”[3]

What was the case presented

The reasons given by politicians and media pundits to support a No Fly Zone were based on two broad premises.

Firstly, that the situation on the ground for the Libyan people was dire, that Benghazi was surrounded and the uprising faced imminent defeat which would be followed by massacres of the civilian population[4]. In other words, there was no time to debate, action had to be taken now.

As it happens, there was and is no evidence on the ground to support this assertion. Yet is was repeated by willing parades of politicians and pundits for several days. Interestingly, these assertions were not denied by the Gaddafi regime. In fact, the Gaddafis went out of their way to lend weight to the narrative portrayed by the West. Very few have noticed that Saif Gaddafi has been a willing accomplice is this propaganda campaign.

The second premise played on the lack of confidence in the revolutionary people, whether it be the armed fighters, the citizens running the public utilities or those organising the committees. Politicians went out of their way to paint the revolutionaries as a rag tag bunch of disorganised, albeit enthusiastic amateurs. Unfortunately, some supporters of the No Fly Zone unwittingly played to that prejudice. The tragedy is that this view seemed to spread amongst some sections of the revolutionaries as well.

All this was in-spite of the clear evidence on the ground. The revolutionary forces had managed to hold back the armed forces of the Gaddafi regime, who are armed with superior weaponry, and confined their advance to just a few small towns in a couple of hundred kilometres of desert.
Extraordinarily, the western media and politicians avoided mentioning any gains made by the anti-Gaddafi forces, these included reports of downing four jets on the day of the UN vote! Numerous defections of army and air-force personal were weakening the Gaddafi forces, yet not a word. The list could go on.

Western hypocrisy

The hypocrisy and opportunism of the West in supporting a No Fly Zone for Libya is clear for all to see. They limit their action towards Bahrain with plaintiff calls for restraint.

Excuse after excuse tumble from the mouths of these worthies. They sagely lecture us, “we have to take each situation on a case by case basis”. This can only be taken as code for “we must be allowed to pick and choose our response depending on whether the tyrant in question is our friend or not.”

Another one, “It’s a different situation, the government tried negotiations with the protesters first”.
It would be difficult to find a more cynical re-writing of history! The first response of the Bahrain Government to the protests was precisely the same as Gaddafi’s, they opened fire and mowed down unarmed, peaceful demonstrators. The Bahrain Government only negotiated when the Bahraini people re-acted with fury and bravely stepped up their protests.

The apologists for the interests of the western powers used to wait a few years to re-write history, now they only wait a few weeks!

The UN resolution, the devil’s details

As with any legal document, the devil’s in the detail. While a point by point analysis is beyond the scope of this piece, it is worth casting an eye over it and drawing general conclusions.

Implicit in the call for a ceasefire is that the revolutionaries, along with the Libyan regime, also suspend any military action. That would include the liberation of cities in the west of Libya.

The resolution also announces it will be, “facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary”. Dialogue with who? Gaddafi? The same Gaddafi busy torturing victims in Tripoli? What happens if Gaddafi refuses to negotiate?

On the protection of civilians, “while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”, does that exclude military sorties on the ground, hit and run missions?

Those pointing to reassurances of the politicians should remember that it wouldn’t be the first time that the spirit of a UN resolution has been subverted to serve ulterior motives.

The description of the UN resolution as a resolution for a No Fly Zone is a bit of a misnomer, it may prove closer to being a contract for an open ended intervention by the Western powers.

Those who argue that the UN was needed to save the revolution need to answer this question: How can the mixed bag of reactionary, repressive and warmongering countries that make up the UN security Council be held up as friends of the Libyan revolution, of any revolution for that matter?

The real consequence of the UN resolution is that it supports the status quo, it leaves Gaddafi in power and it neuters the revolution. There is a real danger is that it will allow Gaddafi and his forces to regroup and consolidate the territory they hold.

While criticising the policy of a No Fly Zone, one has to understand the reasons why many Libyans and Libyan exiles support it, and it would be completely unfair to criticise them.

However, it is entirely fair to question the motives of western politicians. It is quite clear they have their own interests to serve and do not want victory for either side.

It is also fair to question the naivety of some of the supporters of the revolution. Offering friendly advice based on experience is a duty when supporting movements even though it may be rejected out of hand. What one doesn’t do is stand aside and play cheer leader to tactics that may back fire at a later date.

These supporters failed to look beyond the version of events on the ground as narrated by the likes of Cameron and Hague, Sarkozy and US politicians. They have also, like many others, been thoroughly disoriented by the propaganda war waged by Gaddafi.

Where does Gaddafi go from here?

Gaddafi was presented the bald choice of either crushing the uprising or being overthrown by it. With the UN resolution he now has a third choice, grab and consolidate as much territory as possible before a No Fly Zone is set up. There is no formal obligation for him to stand down, just to engage in dialogue. He can try to sit it out in his chunk of Libya and bide his time.

Can the revolution succeed?

A resounding yes! Consider the gains made by the revolutionaries since the start of the uprising just a month ago? See what they have consolidated. As to the true situation in Libya, to quote from yesterdays update[5]:

“When a sober assessment is conducted, one sees that the military situation on the ground does not bear any relation to that claimed by the Gaddafis or the media. The battle in the East has been confined within the same strip of land for days. It also has to be borne in mind that superior weapons are all well and good but it needs boots on the ground to hold territory and the regime does not seem to have the numbers needed.”

For those who support the revolution we should call for:

  • Full support should be given to the revolutionaries to continue the uprising
  • Recognise the The Interim Transitional National Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people
  • UN should play no part in the decisions making of The Interim Transitional National Council
  • Open the borders to allow military supplies to the revolutionaries
  • No compromise with Gaddafi, he and his cohorts must stand trial for their crimes against the Libyan people

As with all revolutions, there will ebbs and flows, periods of euphoria and gloom. At the moment there is a stalemate and the revolutionaries are having to hold onto and consolidate their gains. They still have significant resources of military equipment and personnel in reserve. Most of all they still retain the tenacity and determination to carry through the revolution.

Gary Hollands – March 18th 2011.

Notes and references

1. Since this piece was written the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, has stated that strikes against air defense systems are a prerequisite of a ‘No Fly Zone’.

2. UN Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011)

3. Twitter 3arabawy 18 march

4. Cameron House of Commons statement 11am 18 march

5. Fatbellyman Libya Update March 17th 2011.

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