A No-Fly Zone in Libya: Pros and Cons

Mar 14, 11 A No-Fly Zone in Libya: Pros and Cons

The African Union is against it, the Arab League encourage it (yet refuse to really participate in it), NATO is considering it, and America is not competely against it. But what will the creation of a No-Fly Zone (NFZ) mean for Libya and the region?

In strategic terms, imposing a NFZ is a relatively low-risk method of forcing Col Qaddafi to either give up air supremacy, and therefore his edge over the destruction of the rebels, or try and fight it out. The Libyan air force is not completely ineffectual, and may be able to put up a fight depending on who is on the other side of the NFZ, but either way, a NFZ would be feasible under a USA/NATO framework with few losses. While the Libyan Air Force is the largest in North Africa on paper, initial defections and a general lack of organisation typical of centralised dictatorships suggest that there would not be much fight against a technologically superior, well-trained NATO force.

Removing Qaddafi’s air forces from the equation gives the rebels a fighting chance, is completely feasible, and enables NATO to enact an effective, non-ISAF solution to a thorny problem.

So on paper, a NFZ is entirely possible without many losses, meaning the potential cost in material terms is nothing significant.

The real cost comes in understanding whether the rebellion will be sufficiently encouraged under friendly skies to depose Qaddafi completely. The Rebels are not well-organised, and lack the leadership necessary for a co-ordinated offensive. It is far easier to hold a town friendly to you than to feed, arm and fuel forces moving en masse into enemy positions. Even with NATO jets flying overhead, their role would likely be restricted to neutralising anti-air batteries and enemy in the skies, rather than participating in the kind of close air support of troops which the rebels perhaps anticipate.

And therein lies the second major risk of a NATO-enforced NFZ. After the Persian Gulf War in 1991, America learned the hard way that encouraging locals into a rebellion against a dictator and then swiftly leaving them without support on the ground results in disaster. Saddam’s reprisals were harsh, and bordered on genocide. There is little doubt amongst any serious political scientist that Qaddafi is capable of equally-brutal measures. With the AU showing very little spine in intervening in Libya (and to be fair, they lack the ability), the NFZ could be the start of a string of unrealistic expectations by the rebels that assistance will come in fast and furious. It won’t. A NFZ will level the playing field somewhat, but it will not guarantee Libyans freedom. That must be won by forces on the ground, however difficult that may be.

In purely Just War Theory terms, imposing a NFZ is completely legitimate by almost any measure. Removing Qaddafi’s air forces from the equation gives the rebels a fighting chance, is completely feasible, and enables NATO to enact an effective, non-ISAF solution to a thorny problem. However, the potential for harsh AU and Libyan backlashes cannot be discounted. In the age of multilateralism, an AU which jumps even further away from Western powers into the velvet shackles of Sino-African relations is a loss for all concerned.

But ultimately the NFZ is an ideological decision fueled by economic interests (ie oil.) Qaddafi is an evil tyrant by any measure, and deserves removal from power. But if Western leaders are no longer prepared to intervene in legitimate strategic crises thanks to a poorly-handled Iraq and Afghanistan, then they have already lost an important component of what made the West different from those they removed from power. Without an insistence on good governance and respect for human rights, through force if and when necessary, allowing Libyan rebels to be destroyed piecemeal can be the first precedent in the West’s decline into appeasement.

Image by Obskurantist