No-fly measure over Libya fails to take off

The Obama administration recently played down a proposal to establish a no-fly zone over Libya, describing it as militarily challenging and diplomatically difficult.

The lack of enthusiasm in Washington contrasted with the situation in London, where British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke explicitly about the use of military force.

The US is deploying four naval vessels close to Libya to be available to help with humanitarian aid and any military objectives. The initial focus is on aid efforts and limited action such as disrupting the communication of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Gaddafi’s son, Saif, in a TV interview, denied that Libyan jets were being deployed against the civilian population, one of the main reasons for talk of establishing the no-fly zone.

Attacks by Gaddafi’s forces on three towns held by the rebels were reportedly repulsed overnight on Monday. General James Mattis, the head of United States Central Command, giving evidence to a Senate hearing, stressed that, in spite of the air superiority of the US, policing a no-fly zone would be a tricky operation and would first require an attack on Libyan air defences, including ground-to-air missiles.

“My military opinion is that it would be challenging. You would have to remove air defence capability in order to establish a no-fly zone. So, no illusions here. It would be a military operation. It wouldn’t be just telling people not to fly airplanes,” Mattis said.

With the US still in the process of pulling out of a war in Iraq and still heavily engaged in another in Afghanistan, there is little appetite in Washington for being drawn into yet another war. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, giving evidence to the house foreign affairs committee, suggested military intervention by the US and other countries might be counterproductive.

She said the administration was keenly aware that the Libyan opposition was anxious to be seen “as doing this by themselves on behalf of the Libyan people, that there should not be outside intervention by any external force. We respect that.” She reiterated that a no-fly zone remained an option, though “there are arguments that would favour it, questions that would be raised about it”.

One of the biggest arguments against it is that the US has found no evidence that Gaddafi has used Libyan jets against civilians or that he is using planes to fly in African mercenaries. Other problems include the scale of Libya in comparison with previous no-fly operations in Iraq and Kosovo.

PJ Crowley, the spokesperson for the US state department, briefing journalists on Monday, sketched various problems, such as the need for rules of engagement to be worked out. “I’m just saying that you can’t snap your fingers and declare a no-fly zone. There’s a lot of preparatory work that has to be done,” he said.

British officials point to the fluidity of events inside Libya and argue that a major atrocity would make it hard for the United Nations — which has agreed in principle that the international community has a “responsibility to protect” vulnerable populations — to sit on the sidelines.

“Obviously if that moment came it would be better to have the resources in place,” a British official said. In spite of the rhetoric of French President Nicolas Sarkozy in backing a no-fly zone, French North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) officials are averse to the alliance’s intervention in North Africa, arguing it would discredit the pro-democracy movement and provide an opening for Islamist extremists to exploit the turmoil and declare an anti-Western jihad.

France’s Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, said that a UN decision on military force was “far from being obtained today” and, in an apparent pointed reference to Cameron’s rhetoric, remarked: “No one today in Europe has the means to carry out this operation alone.” European diplomats have expressed surprise at Cameron’s explicit language on the use of military force.

Some put it down to domestic political pressure and the need for the government to appear in command of the situation after embarrassing slip-ups last week in the evacuation of British nationals from Libya. Inside Nato the possible role of the alliance in enforcing a no-fly zone was discussed at a meeting of ambassadors, but with little enthusiasm.

US and European diplomats have said that the establishment of a no-fly zone would require a UN security council resolution. But the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has ruled it out, describing a no-fly zone as super­fluous.

Russia’s Nato ambassador, Dmitry Rogozin, warned the US, Britain and others against any such plan without UN approval and only as a Nato force. “If someone in Washington is seeking a blitzkrieg in Libya it is a serious mistake because any use of military force outside the Nato responsibility zone will be considered a violation of international law,” Rogozin told ­Russia’s Interfax news agency.

There has been no progress at the UN on reaching a resolution seeking a no-fly zone. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato secretary general, has repeatedly said that Nato will not act without the authority of a UN security council resolution, and both Russia and China have signalled they will veto any military intervention under present circumstances. – Guardian News & Media 2011

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Ewen Macaskill
Guest Author
Julian Borger
Julian Borger
Julian Borger is a British journalist and non-fiction writer. He is the world affairs editor at The Guardian. He was a correspondent in the US, eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Balkans and covered the Bosnian War for the BBC. Borger is a contributor to Center of International Cooperation.

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