Beyond the Point of a No-Fly Zone for Libya

David Bosco says:

The Council’s self-imposed focus on protecting civilians is part of the problem.  It signifies an unwillingness to intervene in a manner that would determine the outcome of the fighting and, by ending the conflict decisively, actually protect civilians. In the Security Council chamber, thousands of miles from events on the ground, it’s easy to believe the fiction that antiseptic intervention limited to only preventing abuses of civilians is possible. It’s not. Decisive intervention could still save lives and oust Gaddafi; intervention solely to protect civilians is a recipe for disaster.

I’d argue that “civilian protection” is not a much discussed impetus for imposing a no fly zone.  A no-fly zone can actually do little to protect civilians on the ground, and I think no-fly zone advocates realize that. Rather, no-fly zone advocates are wedded to the belief that a no-fly zone would tip the military and political balance in favor the rebels.

Bosco’s larger point, though, is worth emphasizing. If intervention is what is called for, it must be done decisively.  Half-measures like a no-fly zone just won’t cut it.  Louise Arbour of the International Crisis Group argues this eloquantly in a letter to the Security Council:


In light of the grave situation in Libya, we urge Security Council Members to take immediate effective action aimed at achieving a ceasefire in place and initiating negotiations to secure a transition to a legitimate and representative government.  This action should be backed by the credible threat of appropriate military intervention, as a last resort, to prevent mass atrocities.

We welcome the steps taken thus far by the Security Council, including an asset freeze, arms embargo and the threat of prosecution for war crimes. These were adopted in response to widespread abuses against civilians and were meant to prevent a humanitarian disaster.  But the situation has now evolved into a full-scale civil war.  The most urgent goal now must be to end the violence and halt further loss of life, while paving the way toward a political transition, objectives that require a different response.

Imposing a no-flight zone, which many have been advocating, would, in and of itself, achieve neither of these. It would not stop the violence or accelerate a peaceful resolution.  Nor would it materially impede the regime from crushing resistance.  Government forces appear to be gaining the advantage mainly on account of their superiority on the ground, not air power.  In short, a no-flight zone under existing circumstances would not address the threat of mass atrocities it purports to tackle.  The debate over this issue is inhibiting the necessary reflection on the best course of action.

If the objective is, as it should be, first and foremost to end the killing, there are only two genuine options.  One is an international military intervention explicitly on the side of the revolt with the avowed goal of ensuring its victory or, at a minimum, preventing its defeat.  Given widespread lack of knowledge of the situation on the ground, it is unclear what it will take to achieve this.  At a minimum, however, this would involve providing the rebel forces with substantial military assistance and taking action against Qaddafi’s forces.  Should those measures not suffice, it could well require direct military involvement on the ground.  It is incumbent on those pressing this view to think through its logical implications; it would be reckless to enter a military confrontation on the optimistic assumption that it will be ended quickly, only to see it turn into a bloody, protracted war.

Although there are legitimate arguments for a swift and massive military intervention on the opposition’s behalf, it presents considerable risks.  Besides the obvious downsides entailed in what could well come to be viewed as another Western military engagement in a Muslim country and the Middle East and North Africa region, it could also lead to large-scale loss of life as well as precipitate a political vacuum in Libya in which various forces engage in a potentially prolonged and violent struggle for supremacy before anything resembling a state and stable government are reestablished.  Such a situation could lead to wider regional instability and could be exploited by terrorist movements, notably Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The alternative option, which Crisis Group has advocated, is to engage in a vigorous political effort to achieve an immediate ceasefire in place to be followed by the prompt opening of a dialogue on the modalities of a transition to a new government that the Libyan people will accept as legitimate.  To that end, we urge the Council to delegate a regional contact group composed of officials or respected personalities drawn from Arab and African countries, including Libya’s neighbours, to initiate discussions with the regime and the opposition without delay.   Their mandate would be to secure agreement on:

  • An immediate ceasefire in place, which respects international humanitarian law;
  • Dispatch of a peacekeeping force drawn primarily from the armed forces of regional states to act as a buffer, operating under a Security Council mandate and with the support of the Arab League and African Union;
  • Initiation of a dialogue between the regime and opposition aimed at definitively ending the bloodshed and beginning the necessary transition to representative, accountable and legitimate government

To enhance the credibility of the threat to use all necessary means — including military steps beyond the imposition of a no-flight zone – to protect against mass atrocities, member states should begin planning for such an eventuality.  The Security Council has a responsibility to live up to its commitments, even and especially if a member state does not.

Crisis Group’s proposal addresses head-on the overwhelming priorities of stopping the bloodshed and initiating the necessary political transition in a way that avoids the dangerous prospect of a political vacuum and is in line with both the African Union’s proposal for African mediation and the Arab League’s recognition that Arab countries have a role to play. It further backs up the vital and long overdue political effort we have called for with the only kind of military deployment that can help end the violence rather than aggravate it. We urge the Security Council to adopt this proposal and to take immediate steps to put it into effect.

Sincere regards,

Louise Arbour
President and CEO
International Crisis Group