No-Fly Doesn’t Fly

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Image by claude.attard.bezzina via Flickr

There’s a very strong moral argument for sending the military into Libya. In fact, it’s fairly common knowledge that the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service are already operating within the country. Ostensibly, they’re there to rescue any remaining UK citizens, but they’re probably also engaged in reconnaissance work for any future military activity in Libya and  setting up stores of weaponry and equipment.

Libya is now a few weeks into what is essentially a civil war. Libyan men, women and children are suffering and the Gaddafi regime is killing those who oppose it. Former Labour special adviser Paul Richards makes a convincing case here for David Cameron to act now by mounting a no-fly zone over key parts of Libya.

A no-fly zone is a very simple and visible gesture of support from the west to the people of Libya. It would mean Cameron would be seen  doing something positive after the weeks of indecision and errors as the middle-eastern crises unfolded. But how effective would it be, and is it really the right thing to do?

Making the moral case is very simple. People are being hurt and killed and we should try to stop that. But the strategic argument for operations to deny flight are less clear. The ruling regime’s airpower has not been decisive in the battles taking place. The  Libyan airforce has flown very few sorties. That could be because the rebels have deployed a lot of anti-aircraft gunnery and it’s keeping the airforce grounded or it could be a sign that there is a shortage of aviation fuel in the country.

Whatever the reason for the lack of flights, that sparsity has meant that a majority of the raids have been confined to bombing their own ammunitions dumps to prevent them falling into rebel hands, and to tactical bombing in support of the offensive along the main road from Tripoli to Benghazi.

A no-fly zone will undoubtedly cause some degradation of Gaddafi’s airpower and therefore curtail a certain amount of civilian suffering on the ground as well as  indirectly aiding the rebels. On the other hand, the west needs to remember the maxim that it’s easy to go in to a conflict, difficult to get out. In 1993, NATO instigated a no-fly zone over Bosnian airspace and then very quickly found themselves getting mired in a war they didn’t want.

It’s true that NATO (not, you should note, the UK on it’s own) could find enough fast jets to enforce a no-fly zone as they did in Bosnia. But Bosnia is the size of Wales and Libya is 35 times larger than that.  The mediterranean bases which would be the nearest NATO could use are much further away from Libya than they were from the Balkans.

That would necessitate a much higher demand for ‘enabling’ aircraft. That would include intelligence-gathering planes, search and rescue, and air-to-air refuelling craft. All the aircraft that you will remember Cameron’s government cutting not too long ago. However, it’s quite clear that even multiple countries like a NATO alliance would find it very difficult indeed to provide adequate enabling craft without taking them from other theatres of operation such as Afghanistan.

From a diplomatic point of view, if the UN pass a no-fly zone resolution and NATO enforce it, Gaddafi is likely to contest any such no-fly zone by using the narrative that the west is attacking Libya and that strengthens him politically. The only way to really make this intervention work is to gain active participation from the airforces of Islamic and Arabic nations and William Hague must work to this end.

A difficulty there is that, inevitably, the debate over use of our military is framed, to some extent, by the ‘liberal intervention’ into Iraq by Tony Blair and may well make people more reluctant than they might have been in the past, particularly in the arab and muslim world of which Libya is a major player. At the same time, is fighting the last war the best way to deal with the Libyan crisis? History shows we intervened too late in Bosnia and could have made a huge difference if we had intervened in Rwanda at all.

Another consideration for any intervening nations is to just what degree should international action be impartial? Gaddafi’s regime should clearly be removed but the UN would want to remain as impartial as possible. If such a war were to continue for any length of time in Libya, then the fluidity of the situation would inevitably bring humanitarian crises in Gaddafi controlled areas as well as other parts of the country. There’s also an increasing likelihood of war crimes on either side of the conflict as time passes.

In an organisation like NATO or even the UN, impartiality would not be easy to maintain in a civil war. Individual member states, such as the United States, have a habit of arming and training one side or another as they did in the three-way civil war in former-Yugoslavia,  where the UN was apparently impartial.

All of these considerations should be weighed up before engaging in more liberal intervention despite the deaths and suffering of the Libyan people. Personally, having thought these things over, I’m convinced we need to help the Libyans but I’m not convinced yet another no-fly zone is the best way to do it.

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