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Weighing a Libyan No-Fly Zone

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
March 8, 2011


Libyan government warplanes pounded the oil port of Ras Lanouf (WSJ), stepping up a campaign to push rebel forces east and check their advance to Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte. As the United States and its allies continued to discuss intervention, there were reported attempts to make contact (al-Jazeera) between Qaddafi and rebel leaders. Government officials refuted reports that Qaddafi is offering to step down (CNN) in return for safe passage from the country for him and his family as well as immunity from prosecution, and denied the opposition has presented counteroffers and demands.

With fears rampant that Libya is lurching toward civil war, U.S. President Barack Obama confirmed that the U.S. and NATO allies (WSJ) are looking at military options. The Gulf states are in favor (Reuters) of a no-fly zone (NFZ) "to protect Libyan civilians," and have called for an Arab League meeting. Britain and France began drafting a UN resolution (Guardian) supporting a no-fly zone over Libya--a move that would authorize military intervention. A British diplomat said the draft would be ready in the event of a serious attack on civilians by Libyan air power. The plans will be presented on March 10 to the twenty-eight defense ministers from NATO's member states who are meeting in Brussels, but NATO insists nothing will move forward without the consent of the UN Security Council.

There is no unanimity among UN Security Council members (Reuters) about the imposition of an NFZ. China wants the Council to focus on implementing its current resolution against Libya, which imposes an arms embargo, sanctions on Qaddafi and his inner circle, and refers the Qaddafi regime's assault on civilians to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. And Russia, like China, is opposed to an NFZ resolution (DerSpiegel). "We don't see foreign intervention, [particularly] the military one, as a means of solving the crisis," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, according to Russia's state-controlled RIA Novosti news agency. "The Libyans have to solve their problems by themselves."

Nor is there agreement among military experts or policymakers about the effectiveness of a no-fly zone. In its Military Balance 2011 report, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies says an NFZ would have little impact on Qaddafi's use of attack helicopters against rebel forces and civilians. It says Libya's military has around thirty-five attack helicopters. CFR's Micah Zenko, in a recent op-ed, argues that the real problem for Libyan civilians is persistent oppression from ground forces, so an NFZ would have little or no impact in protecting the vulnerable. And CFR President Richard N. Haass, in the Wall Street Journal, stresses that an NFZ would "be a potentially costly distraction" for the United States.

However, a number of U.S. congressmen and others have become strong advocates for intervention, among them Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and John Kerry (D-MA). And Gareth Evans, former Australian prime minister and president emeritus of the International Crisis Group, recently argued forcefully in the Financial Times for a no-fly zone. "No state can abdicate the responsibility to protect its people from crimes against humanity, let alone justify perpetrating such crimes itself," Evans writes. "When it manifestly fails in that protection, it is the responsibility of the international community to provide it, if necessary--should peaceful means be inadequate--by taking timely and decisive collective action through the United Nations Security Council."

Background and Analysis

This CFR Report says the United States must improve its responsiveness to mass atrocities and, absent action by the UN, make clear its willingness to act unilaterally.

CFR's Steven Simon and other experts debate the case for international intervention against Qaddafi.

Ongoing shortages could leave Libyan rebels too weak to oppose Qaddafi, but the United States is in a position to help, argues this Atlantic post.

For decades, the outsized personality of Qaddafi has obscured the many rivalries among Libya's domestic groups, from the tribes to the military, writes Frederic Wehrey in Foreign Affairs.

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