Lessons from Libya

Celebrating the capture of the city of Al Bayda from Gaddafi's forces (picture ليبي_صح)

It looks as if Colonel Gaddafi is losing his battle for control in Libya, something this website is not sorry about.  It is a victory for the rebels, and a victory of a sort for the countries that supported them, by providing air cover for the rebel advance on Tripoli.

But it is worth a moment to reflect on how we got to where we are now, for all is not necessarily well.

David Cameron airily spoke of imposing a no fly zone over Benghazi without, I suspect, fully realising what such an action would entail.  It is not enough simply to prevent planes from flying, to simply manoeuvre an Icelandic volcano into a convenient position: no, a no fly zone first must be established by making it safe for the enforcers’ planes to fly, which means attacking the radar and air defence installations on the ground of the country over which the no fly zone is to be established.  That means that a no fly is a positive, offensive act, not merely a negative, defensive one like cutting off trade links.

And, as this website pointed out earlier, if one side has air power and the other side does not, removing air power from combat is in any case to act in favour of one side and not the other.

But the Nato intervention went far beyond a no fly zone.  The UN resolution 1973 that supposedly provides the legal base for this intervention speaks of a no fly zone and authorises member states

“to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi”

“All necessary measures” is the UN code word for military action (words missing from the resolution relating to Iraq, we recall), but the use of close air support to assist the rebel forces in their civil war goes beyond the resolution’s scope of protecting civilians under threat of attack.  The Nato intervention started with one mission, narrowly drawn and capable of gaining support or at least acquiescence from the whole UN Security Council, but during the course of the fighting acquired another, namely regime change.  Had the UNSC been presented with this proposal at the outset, it is hard to imagine that there would not have been a veto forthcoming from Russia or China.  (The other two BRIC countries, Brazil and India, also abstained in the vote, adding to the uncertainty about the shape of a future multi-polar world.)

Resolution 1973 was careful not to avoid the experience of the Iraq resolutions by explicitly ruling out “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”.  It is likely that resolutions in future crises will have to be more explicit about the admissibility or otherwise of regime change as the goal of any military action.

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