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The Libyan no-fly zone: for and against

How coherent are the arguments provoked by the no-fly zone over Libya?

I teach ‘Air Power and Modern Conflict’ to MA students studying International Relations at Nottingham. This critically evaluates the utility of air power and asks whether expectations of its effect are exaggerated and if the belief that it can lead to ‘quick and clean’ victories has encouraged politicians to resort to military force too easily. The current Libyan no-fly zone has understandably provoked a lot of debate between the students and myself.

First of all we raised questions about the grand strategy underlying the no-fly zone. For, analysing the successes and failures of air campaigns in recent decades, it is clear that operations succeed only where there is a clear strategy linking military means explicitly to a specific and limited political goal.

The air campaign in the 1991 Gulf War, for example, aimed at ending Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait and the coalition was able to achieve this fairly ‘conventional’ military mission with impressive speed. In contrast, the use of air power in Afghanistan over the past ten years has yielded far from impressive results. Here grand strategy was less clear and included aims such as fighting ill-defined terrorist groups of international reach, as well as regime change and turning Afghanistan into a stable and secure state. Many have questioned the relevance of conventional military power, including air strikes, for achieving these political goals and some have even argued they have been counterproductive.

What, then, are the political goals of the Libyan no-fly zone and are the chosen military means suited to achieving them? Due to the swift decision and implementation of the no-fly zone questions remain about the operation’s grand strategy.

The immediate goal is to prevent further human rights violations and the killing of civilians by forces loyal to Qaddafi. However, have coalition members properly considered the variety of possible outcomes? No-fly zones are coercive missions and their success depends on the coercee’s susceptibility to those means. How likely is Qaddafi to respond to the no-fly-zone in the way the coalition hopes? He has after all experienced decades of economic sanctions as well as previous attempts to alter his behaviour militarily – notably following the 1986 US air strikes.

Is there a strategy in case the no-fly zone fails to prevent human rights abuses? Is there a strategy to avoid much feared ‘mission creep’? Or is the coalition willing to escalate and to implement its demands with greater force, for example, by the use of ground troops (a prospect that seems highly unlikely)? Longer term prospects for political developments in Libya and the no-fly zone’s potential contribution in this respect also remain unclear. Does the coalition expect Qaddafi to continue ruling the country in the aftermath of the no-fly zone or is he, indeed, a target of the operations? If so, does the coalition have enough intelligence on the intentions of the rebel forces and their ability to establish a stable and more democratic regime in the future?

We had, secondly, wider questions concerning the ability of no-fly zones to influence events on the ground. Operation ‘Deny Flight’ – a no-fly zone imposed in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, for example, prevented the use of air power by Serbia, but was unable to prevent the Srebrenica massacre in which 8,000 people were killed. Several no-fly zones were in operation in 1990s Iraq. Whilst they limited Saddam Hussein’s freedom to manoeuvre they did not prevent the persecution of civilians by ground forces. Moreover, Saddam’s grip on power was not significantly weakened.

Criticism of the no-fly zone in Libya as a mere compromise that does not show sufficient resolve and can only have limited effectiveness for the protection of civilians on the ground can therefore be understood. Having said this, its imposition needs to be evaluated in consideration of what alternative options there were for dealing with the problem.

One option would have been to focus on diplomatic efforts and to try and influence Qaddafi with further economic sanctions. Arguably, given the acuteness of the human rights situation, this would have amounted to ‘doing nothing’. It would have also sent a problematic message to rulers in other Middle Eastern and North African states currently facing challenges to their authority. The second option would have been to go for a more comprehensive military operation, possibly including the use of ground forces. This, of course, would have been very unpopular in the UK and US especially as they are already stretched militarily due to ongoing commitments in Afghanistan. More importantly, it is unlikely that a UN resolution for such an option could have been achieved. Support from the Arab League, too, for a ground option would have been weak to say the least. In consideration of these alternatives, and in view of the decision made by UN resolution 1973 that swift action was required, a no-fly zone seems to have been the least worst option.

Of course, none of these arguments will satisfy critics of the very idea of humanitarian intervention. For them, the most important question is: why do international actors decide to intervene in some cases, but not in others? Why Libya but not, say, Yemen? However, as one student argued, if a criminal is caught robbing a bank it would be wrong not to arrest them ‘just because a murder committed elsewhere had not been solved’.

Bettina Renz and students on the MA module ‘Air Power and Modern Conflict’

Published inArab SpringInternational PoliticsLibya

One Comment

  1. Nick Nick

    How is destroying tanks in the desert? Protecting civilians (as shown on the news last night), its more like destroying the Gaddafi regime, which is not what this is about. Its for the Libyans to destroy Gadaffi, not NATO.

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