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If Libya Goes South: Weighing the International Options

By Michael Moran


The escalating conflict in Libya, already pushing global oil prices higher and prompting talk of a possible “no-fly zone,” may develop into a stalemate that major international actors learn to live with for the time being. Inaction, at least in the military sense, appears to be the international community’s default position at the moment, and as long as rebels appear capable of carrying the day without outside help, this may remain true. Foreign powers also may be hoping Col. Muammar Qadhafi’s own officers will move against him in an echo of events in Tunisia and Egypt. But if bloodshed escalates quickly or a second large oil producer suddenly experiences serious unrest, the international view could change quickly. A range of options, from continued diplomatic pressure to multinational military action, could be on the table. Here’s a look at some of the conditions that might spark one of these scenarios and an examination of the pros and cons of each potential policy action.

International Options

The conflict between Qadhafi’s loyalists and rebel forces intent on ending his four-decade-old dictatorship rages on, with reports of as many as 2,000 dead, a two-thirds decrease in Libya’s oil output and a consequent rise in global oil prices. Qadhafi’s tactics—including air strikes and the machine gunning of large civilian crowds in Benghazi, Sirte and Az Zawiyah—have drawn condemnation from sources ranging from the U.S. and the EU to the Arab League, whose leaders fear precisely the same passions at work in Libya could rise to challenge their own rule.

However, a serious escalation in the violence could change this picture and cause the key veto-wielding UN Security Council members, Russia and China, to abstain in a vote on establishing a no-fly zone. A number of factors are at work, including the following:

  • the pressure a full-blown civil war would bring on global oil markets if the loss of Libya’s high-quality crude persists or if another oil-producing MENA country also experiences disruption;
  • concerns in the EU about a new surge adding to the quarter million North African refugees who have already sought asylum along its southern periphery;
  • concern among Libya’s neighbors—particularly Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt—that civil war or even a stubborn, low-level conflict will ignite new troubles at home (though publicly they have kept quiet);
  • and pressure from some governments and a host of human rights activists for the UN to invoke the doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” or R2P, developed in the wake of the 1994 Rwanda massacres and the Serb mass murders at Srebrenica that followed a year later.

Any intervention will be designed to exploit Qadhafi’s degraded authority and divided military. The following is a look at some of the pros and cons of the more likely scenarios.

1. Continued Diplomatic and Economic Pressure

So far, amid the diplomatic statements of concern and condemnations, action aimed at halting Libya’s slide toward civil war has been confined to economic and diplomatic sanctions (Reuters provides this updated sanctions list). These include a ban by NATO countries on arms sales to Libya (though Russia and China have been notably silent on this count); freezes of Libyan state assets and Qadhafi’s personal accounts in dozens of countries (again, absent Russian and Chinese action); a referral of Libya’s actions to the International Criminal Court; suspension of its (incongruous) post on the UN Human Rights Commission; a ban by selected countries on senior regime officials’ travel; and the lifting of Qadhafi’s diplomatic immunity.

  • Pros: Extending support for the more serious sanctions—particularly the arms sale ban and asset freezes—to Russia, China and other major UN players would make them more credible and would demoralize Qadhafi loyalists. Empowering naval units to enforce a shipping quarantine would further sharpen theses measures.
  • Cons: None of these actions provides immediate relief to civilians. (Indeed, civilians may suffer along with the regime.)

2. UN-Sanctioned ’No-Fly‘ Zone

France and Britain already are circulating drafts of a proposed plan to establish fighter patrols over Libyan airspace to remove Qadhafi’s advantage in air power. Libya’s air force, while small by Western standards and short of spare parts, has already been used to harass rebel units, soften up defensive positions and—most importantly—destroy ammunition dumps to deny arms to the rebellion. The GCC on Monday urged precisely this action, though others oppose, including Turkey and, so far, the Arab League.

  • Pros: Establishing no-fly zones would remove a harrowing advantage and help level the battlefield. NATO forces in the region—from bases in Europe but also from large U.S. and French carriers and smaller Spanish and Italian vessels—could easily establish air superiority, though only after significant action to take out Libyan surface-to-air missile batteries.
  • Cons: Obtaining UN Security Council permission will require trade-offs with both Russia and China to obtain their support or, more likely, abstentions. Militarily, as U.S. Defense Secretary William Gates has pointed out, Libya’s Revolutionary Guard and other security forces, not warplanes, pose the greatest threat to the rebels and civilians. Plus, Libya’s air defenses are modern and pose a risk of hostage situations or casualties—among both Libyan civilians and no-fly enforcers seeking to neutralize these weapons with airstrikes.

3. Special Forces and Covert Assistance

Almost certainly, plans for arming the rebel forces are in the works. A report in the Guardian claims that “unarmed British military advisors” already have been dispatched and that some American units have been sent to the region as backup (in addition to the publicly announced dispatch of the U.S. Sixth Fleet and European warships).

  • Pros: The insertion of covert support and special forces provides the most useful kind of help without publicly committing Western forces to battle. NATO’s elite units severely outclass anything Libya can throw at them and can be inserted and plucked out from the battlefield covertly. Intelligence agencies and contractors can provide untested rebels with crucial military guidance and training, as well as communications and other equipment that provides an advantage in tactical fights.
  • Cons: The capture of Western ground forces in Libya would be a devastating public relations blow to the rebels and a welcomed boon to Qadhafi given the sensitivities of Arab public opinion. This course by definition sidesteps international law—such units operate outside legal restraints.

4. ‘No Fly Plus,’ Adding No-Drive, No-Sail Zones

A more aggressive option under discussion within NATO militaries would seek to extend the “no fly” concept to land and sea warfare. In effect, this would establish the participating militaries as the air and naval support arms of the rebellion—a daunting political prospect given the uncertain nature of its leadership. In theory, in addition to the no-fly provisions described above, this “No Fly Plus” plan would create a cordon sanitaire around major rebel-held areas, given that movement of any troops, armor or weaponry into those zones would invite air or missile strikes. A complementary naval blockade would prevent the use of Libya’s small navy—already deployed to shell some rebel-held coastal towns.

  • Pros: This more aggressive stance would freeze Libya’s heavy equipment in place and ultimately starve it of fuel, ammunition and the levers of patronage that keep Qadhafi’s praetorian units loyal. Libya’s desert terrain renders daylight movement of major forces highly vulnerable to air power.
  • Cons: The more complicated the military engagement becomes, the more U.S.-centric it will be, with all the risks of regional and cultural backlash that entails. Complex multinational military operations of this kind will involve not only civilian casualties but also friendly fire incidents. Politically, this crosses the Rubicon from the protection of civilians against air attack (no-fly zone) to full-blown support for the armed rebellion, a fact that will make garnering Russian and especially Chinese support—and thus UN approval—daunting.

5. Unilateral or Multilateral International Intervention

Should violence escalate and UN approval for international action prove impossible to obtain, the U.S., NATO or a coalition of nations (perhaps France, the UK, Australia and Italy) might launch an unsanctioned intervention including limited ground forces. Ideally, this would be a quick move toward a coup d’main, or what Donald Rumsfeld liked to describe as “cutting off the regime’s head,” with a quick handover to Libyan authorities (possibly, as in Haiti, with less provocative UN forces relieving U.S.-led troops in a transition role).

It’s worth noting here that NATO has acted without UN sanction before: Its intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was based solely on vague references to the UN charter and humanitarian arguments.

  • Pros: As the world’s most powerful military alliance—even in its current overstretched condition given the forces it has deployed to Afghanistan and the Balkans—NATO can still muster significant clout. This option also provides maximum flexibility in military terms.
  • Cons: Invariably, Arab governments—even those that may privately favor such a move, as Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt are reported to—publicly will denounce it as an invasion. This provides Qadhafi with the ability to don the mantle of national savior and organize an insurgency. Mission creep also is a major risk (see Somalia, 1991). Finally, Turkey’s strong opposition to intervention could complicate efforts to act as an alliance, making a less formal coalition more likely and putting the alliance itself and the West’s increasingly strained ties with Ankara at risk.

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