Tuesday, March 15, 2011

West Walks A Tightrope On Libya

Sami Moubayed writes: No-fly zone is expensive and difficult to enforce, but Gaddafi's survival will mean unprecedented bloodshed
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 15/03/2011

Depending on who one listens to, the no-fly zone that might get imposed on Libya is either a brilliant idea, or a sad excuse for international engagement to prevent the spilling of more blood in the country.

Advocates of the no-fly zone are many, starting with British Prime Minister David Cameron who first proposed the idea, followed by the US, France and, surprisingly, the Arab League, which endorsed it over the weekend despite a famed reputation for inaction in times of crisis.

With only a handful of exceptions, like its dealing with Egypt after Camp David in 1978, the Arab League has rarely sanctioned any member state in its 67-year history. Amr Mousa, Secretary-General of the Arab League, however, described the no-fly zone as a "pre-emptive measure" whose goal is to "protect Libyan citizens" while the League extended legitimacy to the interim transitional government in Benghazi.

Within the US administration, there are sceptics like Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who realises that a no-fly zone would be practically ineffective without air support. The US can certainly commit itself militarily, but what about the political costs — given that the US army is already suffering from bloody wars in two Muslim countries?

According to the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, a Washington-based think-tank, a no-fly zone in Libya could cost the US up to $300 million (Dh1.10 billion) a week — an astronomical sum to which American taxpayers are certainly going to object.

Upon returning from a recent visit to Bahrain, Gates said, "A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defence. That is the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down." Basically, he added, "it requires a big operation in a big country".

Obama's dilemma

President Barack Obama clearly finds himself caught in a bind while his ships are stationed off Libyan shores, ready for battle — awaiting orders. He is aware of the fact that he needs to do more to help the revolutionaries, but is also certain that the greatest disservice he could ever do to them would be outright US protection or support.

That would simply add to Muammar Gaddafi's argument that the revolutionaries are nothing, but western infiltrated "rats" who are connected to the US and Zionism. The interim transitional government in Benghazi, however, is strongly in favour of the no-fly zone, arguing that if Gaddafi's forces return to the second-largest Libyan city, a "catastrophe" can take place with up to 500,000 people killed.

One option is to impose the no-fly zone only on the Libyan coast or in the northern part of Libya in order to minimise costs and damage. Those speaking out against the no-fly zone are many, including Syria and Algeria, who voted against it during the Arab League meeting in Cairo.

Russia and China are also critical of the no-fly zone and would probably veto it when the matter is referred to the UN Security Council. Nobody wants to impose a no-fly zone on Libya without clear cover from Nato and the UN, to avoid the controversy that surfaced in 1991 when a similar decision to demilitarise the skies of Iraqi Kurdistan was imposed by the Security Council.

The US, France, UK and Turkey — architects of that no-fly zone — claimed that they had authorisation to do so from UNSCR 688. Boutros Boutros Ghali, then-UN secretary-general, argued that the Resolution contained no such explicit authorisation claiming that a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan "was illegal".

Military personnel in the US are also worried, given that a new no-fly zone means the air force must strike at the slightest signal originating from any radar on the ground within the designated zone. This runs the risk of Gaddafi placing radars in schools and civilian neighbourhoods in order to accuse the Americans of bombing Libyan civilians. That happened in Iraq after all, forcing France to suspend its participation, precisely because the no-fly zone was leading to civilian deaths.

One question that is currently being debated in world capitals is: how useful would a no-fly zone be in Libya? Would it really deter Gaddafi, who has relied more on artillery and troops — rather than an air force — to crush the rebellion? It would ground his war planes for sure but it certainly would not halt his massive ground assault.

How harmful would outside intervention be, both to the Libyan revolutionaries and other protesters in the streets, for example, in Yemen? An upcoming meeting between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Libyan interim government will likely only serve as a blessing in disguise for Gaddafi.

The world, however, is also aware that if Gaddafi survives, it would send the wrong message to both Arab masses and leaders: Hosni Mubarak and Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali did it all wrong; had they killed their own people, they would have survived. If a no-fly zone is not implemented and the world does not take immediate action, Gaddafi may survive longer than many might think.

Sami Moubayed is a university professor, political analyst, and editor-in-chief of Forward magazine in Syria.

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