Western allies planning for a possible no-fly zone over Libya may find their deliberations overtaken by events, as Muammar Qaddafi’s forces close in on the opposition’s stronghold of Benghazi with tanks, infantry and air support.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Feb. 28 that the U.S. and NATO allies were considering a no-fly zone. Since then, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations Security Council have failed to decide on taking any kind of military action. And the Arab League didn’t give its support until March 12, by which time the rebels were losing ground.
Qaddafi has taken advantage of that indecision, starting an offensive that has pushed the rebels back from town after town.
“The sad truth is that Qaddafi accurately read the unwillingness of other countries to get involved,” said Kori Schake, an associate professor of international affairs at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have been the most forceful advocates for a no-fly zone as a way to limit Qaddafi’s forces and protect civilians. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been wary of the commitment, as has the Obama administration.
The Sooner, the Better
“A no-fly zone may not make a decisive military difference, but could make a difference,” Cameron said in London yesterday. “The sooner it is done, the better, because the effect it will have will be so much the greater.”
Violence in Libya, holder of Africa's largest oil reserves, pushed the price of crude to a 2 1/2 year high this month on concern the turmoil sweeping the Middle East will disrupt the flow of crude. Oil has since pared gains on traders’ anticipation the earthquake in Japan will reduce demand.
Elliott Abrams, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says the moment when a no-fly zone would have been most effective may have passed.
“Qaddafi was losing and all the momentum was with the opposition, and that momentum was lost when the United States and others, like Merkel, refused to act,” Abrams said. “I recognize that it may be too late, and if it is, the administration will have to live with their inaction here.”
The no-fly zone the U.S. and its allies enforced over Iraq in the 1990s failed to stop Saddam Hussein from killing Iraqi Shiites, said Oliver Miles, a former U.K. ambassador to Libya.
“There is the option of doing nothing, which people are uncomfortable with, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” Miles said. “It makes one feel bad to feel one has to let people go on killing each other, but sometimes it’s realistic because anything you do could make things worse.''
A senior Libyan opposition figure, Mahmood Jibril, met with Clinton in Paris yesterday and extended rebel requests beyond a no-fly zone to include air strikes to disable three Qaddafi-controlled airfields, supplies of combat material, and other measures, according to a U.S. official who briefed reporters on the condition his name not be used.
The U.S. official said afterward that the administration is trying to determine what actions Arab nations may take to support the rebels.
While the Arab League has called for a no-fly zone to be imposed over Libya, a move seen as crucial to winning UN endorsement, Arab countries have made it clear that they don’t intend to take part and may not contribute significantly to paying its costs. It would be “carried out by the international community and by those countries who are able to impose it, like the NATO countries, for instance,” the Arab League’s ambassador to the U.S., Hussein Hassouna, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television March 8.
Before the Security Council acts on a no-fly zone, the air forces involved and the strategy for enforcing the zone must clearly defined, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said yesterday.
“To say we need to act quickly, as fast as possible, but not to provide answers to those fundamental questions is not really helping, it is just beating the air,” Churkin told reporters after a three-hour closed-door Security Council meeting in New York.
U.S. Senators John McCain, an Arizona Republican who was his party’s 2008 presidential nominee, and Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, introduced a resolution yesterday calling for Obama to grant official recognition to the rebels and take “immediate steps to implement a no-fly zone.”
“A no-fly zone was never going to be the decisive action that tipped the balance against Qaddafi, even when Senator Lieberman and I called for it almost three weeks ago,” McCain said in a speech on the Senate floor. “A no-fly zone would take one of Qaddafi’s most lethal tools off the table, and thereby boost the confidence of Libya’s opposition.”
The Libyan rebels need various forms of help, said Schake, who is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. “To be effective, a no-fly zone would have to be one part of a broader commitment to assist the rebels to overcome the military forces remaining loyal to Qaddafi,” he said. “But that was true two weeks ago, also.”
Qaddafi may have a limited number of men or tanks, which makes an air interdiction campaign more likely to succeed, said Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former analyst with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.
Press reports and television images suggest that Qaddafi’s forces number about 1,200 to 1,500 soldiers in about three battalions, White said, with Soviet-designed armored personnel carriers that are vulnerable to hand-held anti-tank rockets. They may also lose momentum as their supply lines stretch farther from Qaddafi’s stronghold in Tripoli.
A no-fly zone would need to be followed with a “no-drive” zone, preventing Qaddafi’s tanks and armored vehicles from following after the rebels, White said.
“These guys are out in the open -- a few raids would probably have a pretty good effect. The problem is that it’s a real step up in terms of levels of intervention,” White said.
NATO allies are unlikely to support a no-fly zone, said Charles Kupchan, a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington and an expert on NATO affairs.
“The factors keeping NATO out are similar to the ones keeping the Obama administration from sticking its toe in the water -- the financial crisis, lots of troops in Afghanistan, pressure to get those troops home,” Kupchan said in an interview. And, he asked, “does Merkel, who’s really been on a tightrope vis-à-vis Afghanistan, really want to send troops to Libya?”