What Would Prompt a Military Intervention in Libya?

The tide of Libya’s revolt-turned-civil-war has turned against the rebels. Internationally-isolated dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s forces are retaking town after town in rebel-held areas of Libya and are now advancing on Benghazi, the country’s second largest city, where the youth-led rebellion began last month.

Badly outgunned and facing possible defeat, the rebels are asking, “Where is the West? How are they helping? What are they doing?” In Benghazi, the rebels’ newly-formed National Council has repeatedly called on the international community to enforce a no-fly zone to limit the regime’s ability to assault rebel positions from the air and slow the flow of pro-Gaddafi foreign mercenaries into Libya.

The United States and its NATO allies are weighing their options. While NATO has deployed spy planes to monitor the violence in Libya, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has stressed the limits of what a no-fly zone could achieve (protection against jets, but not against equally if not more lethal helicopters and tanks) and what it would actually entail on the part of the intervening parties (destroying Gaddafi’s air defenses; in other words, fighting an air war).

The European Union has been equally cautious so far. Its 27 member states are divided on what, if anything, to do about the violence in Libya. Powerful member states such as Germany have expressed intense skepticism about the wisdom of any military action against Gaddafi, but have stopped short of ruling out the possibility.

At what point might the US or NATO decide to carry out a military intervention in Libya? My guess is, when we see a combination of at least two of the following conditions:

  • – Gaddafi’s forces carry out a massacre large enough to shock the global conscience –something akin to a Libyan Srebrenica, or a re-enactment of the fall of Mazar Sharif to the Taliban in 1998.
  • – The Arab League endorses outside military intervention.
  • – The UN Security Council authorizes an intervention.
  • – The Europeans agree to participate in a multilateral effort against the Libyan regime.

Libya’s rebels want Western air power on their side, but the US and its allies, bruised by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, are in no hurry to join another war.