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The Perils of a “No Fly Zone” for Libya

The crisis in Libya is shaping up to be what those in the industry call a mass atrocity event. Marc Lynch captures the mood among several commentators who are rightly calling for some sort of intervention to halt the ongoing atrocities.

We should not be fooled by Libya’s geographic proximity to Egypt and Tunisia, or guided by the debates over how the United States could best help a peaceful protest movement achieve democratic change. The appropriate comparison is Bosnia or Kosovo, or even Rwanda where a massacre is unfolding on live television and the world is challenged to act. It is time for the United States, NATO, the United Nations and the Arab League to act forcefully to try to prevent the already bloody situation from degenerating into something much worse.

By acting, I mean a response sufficiently forceful and direct to deter or prevent the Libyan regime from using its military resources to butcher its opponents. I have already seen reports that NATO has sternly warned Libya against further violence against its people. Making that credible could mean the declaration and enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya, presumably by NATO, to prevent the use of military aircraft against the protestors. It could also mean a clear declaration that members of the regime and military will be held individually responsible for any future deaths. The U.S. should call for an urgent, immediate Security Council meeting and push for a strong resolution condeming Libya’s use of violence and authorizing targeted sanctions against the regime. Such steps could stand a chance of reversing the course of a rapidly deteriorating situation. An effective international response could not only save many Libyan lives, it might also send a powerful warning to other Arab leaders who might contemplate following suit against their own protest movements.

There has been a sort-of coalescing around the idea that a No Fly Zone is useful way to intervene to stop the killing. I am not so sure. While it is true that some of the slaughter has been perpetrated by Libyan air force, air assets alone are not responsible for the killing. If Qaddafi and his inner circle are intent on violently suppressing this revolt, they will use their superior ground forces as well.

A No Fly Zone is a humanitarian half measure. It would let the international community say that it is doing something, but there is very little a No Fly Zone can actually do to stop ongoing slaughter. Using Lynch’s comparisons to slaughters of the 1990s, people need to ask themselves: would a no-fly zone have stopped the Machete wielding Interhamwe from perpetrating the Rwandan genocide? Definitely not. In Bosnia, there was an effective NATO enforced no fly zone over in 1995 when Srebrenica occurred. During the 1999 Kosovo air campaign, as NATO was bombing Serbia, Serb forces accelerated their ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. No Fly Zone’s may be good at enforcing a stalemate like interwar Iraq, but it is lousy at preventing slaughter.

This is not to say there is no utility in trying to enforce one over Libya—as Marc Lynch says, it could be one of several demonstrations of the resolve of the international community (along with multilateral sanctions and, perhaps, a Security Council referral to the ICC.) But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that a no-fly zone is an effective humanitarian response to a mass slaughter event. It is a gesture. Not a response.

If stopping a slaughter is our top priority, then a more robust response is probably required. That means not just preventing airplanes and attack helicopters from flying over Libya, but defeating the Libyan military infrastructure that is perpetrating the violence. The word for that is war.

While a U.S/NATO backed military intervention might be effective at halting the ongoing violence, it may also undermine some of the longer-term goals of a nascent democracy movement in Libya. After all, the United States/NATO would be intervening on behalf of one side of a civil war (that’s true, even if the level of intervention is only to enforce a No Fly Zone). Given the level of mistrust of the United States, such overt support for the anti-Qaddafi side may backfire — not to mention the fact that people generally don’t like to be bombed by foreigners.

This is the big policy dilemma facing the international community—and especially the United States. Intervene forcefully to stop the slaughter and risk undermining the long-term prospects for democracy, or “stand by” and watch the Libyan military massacre hundreds or even thousands of people.

That’s probably why half measures like a No Fly Zone seem so attractive right now. But we are deluding ourselves if we think that this alone will stop the slaughter or serve the long term interests of Libyan democrats.


  • http://twitter.com/leftflank Joseph J. Steinberg

    What ties does the US or EU, government or business, have with the Libyan government that could be used materially by Libyan security forces against its population? Isn’t a first step to cut off all ties to Libya, if any exist? Also, wouldn’t Russia and China veto any UNSC resolution against Libya?

  • Anonymous

    First, intervening forcefully against Gaddafi will increase the prospects for democracy. God knows leaving Gaddafi in power won’t. East Libya has looked quite good the last few days. I simply do not understand the logic of this statement.

    Second, a no fly zone would stop merc shipping and stop heli and plane attacks on civilians. That would probably be enough tip the scales towards the protesters.

    • http://twitter.com/leftflank Joseph J. Steinberg

      China and Russia would block a resolution anyway, so this is all just a media exercise in self-aggrandizement. The other issue is, that it’s not just the protests that matter. What happens when the protests end, and when a new transitional authority has to be formed is when the real work would start. The US and the EU has to be careful not to influence that process either. Restraint is the better part of valor here, if only because it sets the proper signal to the real players in a future government, the bureaucracy, and military that the US and the EU doesn’t want to dictate terms.

  • http://twitter.com/MrJayhawk08 Marcy Fowler

    this argument amount to the classic, “this won’t fix everything, so instead we should do nothing”. not, a no-fly zone will not fix everything. but it will make it more difficult for the military to kill en masse.

  • http://twitter.com/MrJayhawk08 Marcy Fowler

    this argument amount to the classic, “this won’t fix everything, so instead we should do nothing”. not, a no-fly zone will not fix everything. but it will make it more difficult for the military to kill en masse.

  • http://twitter.com/MrJayhawk08 Marcy Fowler

    also, i don’t believe that this situation meets the international legal standards of a civil war, so the international community wouldn’t be intervening on the one side or another. instead they would be acting, as they are compelled to do by the U.N. Charter, to prevent crimes against humanity (which a completely direct and disproportional attack on civilians by the military surely is).

  • http://twitter.com/MrJayhawk08 Marcy Fowler

    also, i don’t believe that this situation meets the international legal standards of a civil war, so the international community wouldn’t be intervening on the one side or another. instead they would be acting, as they are compelled to do by the U.N. Charter, to prevent crimes against humanity (which a completely direct and disproportional attack on civilians by the military surely is).

  • Anonymous

    PLEASE, no US troops in Libya. We can’t rule the world, are already overextended and cannot afford the 2 wars, Iraq and Afghanistan we are already in.

  • Mbobaggie

    US should enforce no fly now. Test F22 against operational SAM defenses and 3rd Gen. fighters. No bombing though.

  • Mdewakanton

    At this point it is not a matter of discussing what and what not. When a country is run by dictatorship, opressive regime or other coercive manner one can rest assured that the vast majority of the people of that country is not happy at all. Freedom is a fundamental human right and a dictator can only deny freedom up to the point where the people are fed up and ready to give up their lives to obtain their basic human rights. Therefore, the departing point should not be whether killings or genocide is being done but the right to be free and the right to choose governments. If a country’s citizens are denied that right, the international community already should have an obligation to intervene and not wait for even one human being being killed or wounded.

    In my opinion that is one of the reasons why dictators remain stubborn (not to ignore the economic interests of other states that keep these demagogues in power – money before human life).

    In my opinion, contrary to what is said in the penultimate paragraph of the article, forceful intervention by the UN (not the US alone) will BOOST the prospects for democracy. Standing by might mean allowing massacres and loss of human life which, in turn will give the upper hand either to the same dictator to retain power or to some potential adversary which might result worse than the predecessor (example some fundamentalist group).

  • Jackkaten

    In the case of Libya a no fly zone is essential to stop Gadhafi from destroying whatever is left of ammunition and arms bases belonging to anti- government forces. The reason Gadhafi is not attacking his own people is because anti-government forces are just as strong if not stronger and will retaliate with equal force. Once Gadhafi weakens those forces through airstrikes he will then do as he pleases including a genocide of the likes the world has never seen . The recent sanction imposed by the UN is a Joke and will do nothing to improve the situation except to make the west be perceived as siding on the right side of history, when in fact behind closed doors they know the faster ghadafi falls the more likely this revolution will spread across the middles east and topple pro western regimes including the likes of Saudi Arabia and therefore disruption the grip the west has on middle eastern oil and send western economies into limbo.
    A no fly zone should come in effect asap and if it is not Libyans including all Arabs will hold the west responsible once it has been proven “a no fly zone” could have saved lives.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=14101833 Marcus Bizzle

    A no-fly zone means that we use our planes to shoot their planes out of the sky if they attempt to fly them.

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