Libya: When Bombs Fall and Allies Fall Apart

Protests in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi, in power for 42 years, began in mid-February. As Gaddafi’s repression turned increasingly brutal, calls emerged within the Middle East, Europe and the US for limited intervention – a no-fly zone to stop his forces from launching aerial attacks against civilians and rebels. Decision-makers were divided: Among the concerns was reinforcing the impression that the West is more intent on protecting oil in the Middle East than human rights. On 12 March, the Arab League, though divided, called for a no-fly zone over Libya, with conditions. On 17 March, the UN Security Council, with five abstentions, approved Resolution 1973, with an open-ended authorization "to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians." Disagreement over intervention and the limits show deep divisions within regional and global institutions and governments at every level, explains author Dilip Hiro. But in case of prolonged, expanded conflict in the Middle East–North Africa region or violation of the conditions for the intervention, the tenuous cooperation among regional groupings could quickly disintegrate. – YaleGlobal

Libya: When Bombs Fall and Allies Fall Apart

The no-fly zone over Libya divides many, from the Arab League to the UN
Dilip Hiro
Monday, March 21, 2011

LONDON: The violence in Libya has exposed divisions far beyond its shores – in the Arab League, the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the UN Security Council, and among top officials in the United States. As foreign intervention in Libya intensifies and the toll mounts, the limited unity behind establishing a no-fly zone over Libya has begun fraying.

The roots of this emerging split lie in the chastening experience of US-led military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq – and resulting weariness of Western publics to wars in Muslim countries. This factor weighed heavily with US President Barack Obama as the crisis unfolded.

During his election campaign, Obama highlighted his opposition to the Iraq War. Decrying President George W. Bush’s policies of unilateralism and proclivity for exercising military force, he renounced Washington’s self-appointed role as global policeman and committed himself to multilateralism – with major international decisions to be implemented collectively with the legal sanction of the United Nations.

As civil war erupted in Libya, Obama deliberately let the European powers take the lead in debating how to handle the conflict. The idea of a no-fly zone over Libya was first mooted in European capitals.

The proposal proved controversial, dividing not just France and Germany, leading nations of the EU, but also Obama’s cabinet. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argued that enforcing an air-exclusion zone in Libya would be tantamount to a declaration of war and getting embroiled in a Muslim country’s civil strife. By contrast, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton favored the idea.  

Across the Atlantic, French President Nicolas Sarkozy zoomed ahead of other Western leaders, recognizing the Benghazi-based Libyan Interim Transitional National Council, also known as the Interim Governing Council. By so doing, he tried to underscore the primacy that France claims in the Mediterranean region. In addition, he seemed eager to make amends for the unconditional backing his government gave to Tunisia’s military dictator.

Sarkozy’s rash, unilateral step antagonized German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the extent that she disagreed with him publicly, violating their long-held understanding that the Mediterranean region was to be left to Paris while Berlin focused on eastern and central Europe.

In Germany, the idea of an air-exclusion zone was put to maximum scrutiny, with most politicians lambasting it. Cautious by nature, Merkel emerged as its foremost opponent. She calculated that, with two out of three Germans against Germany’s continued involvement in the Afghan War, it would be unwise to involve her government in another military operation.

Like other European leaders weary of military entanglements, Merkel realized that, after imposing a no-fly zone, air strikes was just one more step in the slippery slope of deeper involvement – as the Pentagon’s activities in Iraq between 1992 and 2003 had shown.

Such considerations weighed on Arab League foreign ministers as they debated the Libyan crisis in Cairo on 12 March. They therefore called for a no-fly zone in Libya, nothing more. Of course, as Gates pointed out, to create a no-fly zone, destruction of anti-aircraft capabilities is a necessary precondition. The presiding Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Allawi emphasized that the Arab League was “opposed to any foreign intervention” in the Libyan crisis, and that a no-fly zone “must end with the end of that crisis.”

Allawi’s statement that all Arab states supported the call for a no-fly zone clashed with reports by Al Jazeera TV and Daily News Egypt: According to these sources, Algeria, Mauritania, Syria, Sudan and Yemen voted no at the meeting.

Nonetheless, the Arab League resolution provided the basis sought by Obama. That plus the prospect of a bloodbath in Benghazi in the wake of its capture by the forces of Muammar Gaddafi, who had issued a “No Mercy” warning to Benghazi’s rebels, apparently tipped the scale for Obama to join the interventionist camp.

Those who drafted the resolution on Libya at the UN Security Council based their case on a need to protect Libya’s civilians from attacks and facilitate dialogue between warring camps. On 17 March Resolution 1973 authorized UN member states to “take all necessary measures” to achieve theses aims, but ruled out the presence of foreign troops on Libya’s soil. Although the resolution called for an immediate ceasefire, the US ambassador to the UN later said that it would permit helping the rebel forces with weapons.

Proposed jointly by Britain, France and Lebanon, seconded by the US, it was backed by the three non-permanent members of Africa, raising the total yes vote to 10. The remaining five members abstained.

Russia and China questioned the merit of using force when other means had not been exhausted, an argument backed by Brazil and India. The four nations pointed out the lack of clarity about who would enforce the measures. Thus, for the first time the major powers denoted by the acronym BRIC – Brazil, Russia, India and China – adopted a unified stance on a matter of war and peace. Brazil’s ambassador raised the prospect of the resolution exacerbating current tensions and “causing more harm than good” to the civilians targeted for protection.

While refusing to contribute forces to any military operation, Germany’s ambassador warned that those who participated in implementing the Security Council resolution could be drawn into a protracted military conflict that draws in the wider region.  He also pointed to the lack of exit strategy. This stance by Germany, backed by another NATO member Turkey, illustrated the fissure in the Western military alliance.

Soon different interpretations of Resolution 1973 followed. At one end was Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League – credited by Western capitals as the font for the robust UN Security Council resolution – and at the other end were British Prime Minister David Cameron and Sarkozy.

Moussa reiterated strict limits on foreign intervention: The Arab League had not backed invasion of Libya; all it had done was to call for a no-fly zone over Libya, not aerial bombardment or attacks – a restriction ignored by the French bombing of Gaddafi’s forces near Benghazi on 19 March.

Of the 21 Arab League members, excluding Libya, four attended the Paris summit. Of the 12 countries that signed up to implement Resolution 1973, only two – Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – are Arab, each contributing a token number of aircraft. Calling for a no-fly zone is one thing, imposing it is more difficult. Washington’s repeated attempts to persuade Saudi King Abdullah to participate in enforcing an air-exclusion zone in Libya have failed.

By contrast, on Friday, Obama repeated his call that Gaddafi “must leave.” Cameron said that he and Obama had agreed that Gaddafi should depart form power now.” In short, it was a call for regime change.

The inexperienced Cameron is suspected of using the Libyan crisis to make a mark on the international scene. Sarkozy’s aggressive stance on Libya could be aimed at recovering from low approval ratings as he heads to an election. On a broader level, the clash between the BRIC nations and the West is centered on the vexing issue of sovereignty. BRIC views humanitarian interventions as violations of national sovereignty by a powerful West, selective about human-rights violations to suit its economic and strategic interests.

Military and diplomatic stalemate is likely after the initial blitzkrieg by the US-led coalition, as well casualties among civilians it claims to protect. Only then will more fundamental issues of sovereignty and humanitarian intervention come to dominate the debate in the international community.


Dilip Hiro is the author of “The Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide.” His latest book is “After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World,” published by Nation Books in New York and London. Click here to read an excerpt.
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