Saturday, March 12, 2011

The case against a no-fly zone over Libya

After some consideration I've come to the opinion that a no fly zone over Libya would be a serious mistake for a number of reasons.

First of all, the Libyan regime has, from the outset, painted this rebellion as a Western backed coup. It is their strongest card in keeping the military together and mounting an ideological defence of the regime. We have seen pilots take their jets to Malta rather than bomb their own people. Those pilots considering similar defections are likely to think again if their next mission is to defend Libya against foreign aggressors.

Secondly, it's a response to current, awful, events not a long term plan. The longer term impact of military intervention is not even part of the thinking behind this scheme. For example, who exactly are we backing? I'm for the rebels against the regime, obviously, but Western intervention inevitably means strengthening the hand of one faction over others. I'm unconvinced we know what we're doing, or that if we do, we have the best interests of Libyan people at heart.

There are some forces in Libya who are calling for a no fly zone and others who oppose it. By enforcing military action on the say so of one group of rebels over another we are having a far more wide ranging impact than just doing what has been asked of us 'by the rebels'.

Thirdly, will it do any good? My understanding is that the Libyan air force is a tiny part of its military strength, which lies mainly in ground forces. So we would be throwing an air invasion into the mix without significantly depleting the regime's capacity to murder its own citizens. Indeed we would be strengthening that ability.

The siren calls to stop the murder are understandable, but a no fly zone *wont* stop the murders, only intensify them and in the eyes of some waverers in Libya legitimise them.

Fourth, what would the wider impact of military intervention in the revolution mean? In Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia or Yemen the political implications of Western interference in what feels like a very home grown series of revolutions would be significant. The population of Saudi know that the West backs their dictators and to see their willingness to use military might, just as they did in Iraq, could hold back those struggles.

We are propping up corrupt regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan with the use of lethal force. To give the stamp of legitimacy on an extension of the right to use lethal force in any oil rich country we choose is dangerous. We are not the world's policemen, and even if we were it would not give us the right to stop black nations in the street and demand to know if this is really their country. *

However, the Arab League have backed a no fly zone, so does this mean it is legitimate? Well, the Arab League is a collective of 22 dictatorships who all buy weapons off the West and are scared shitless of their own populations taking the kind of action we have seen in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. So it cannot be regarded as the authentic voice of the Arab people, only of their dictators.

If you look at the list of member states of the Arab League you will see almost all have been rocked by protests in the last month. Of course they want their arms dealer friends flying war planes overhead, it gives them a sense of security. What better way of locking down those forces within their own countries who may be considering deposing them?

So am I in favour of doing nothing? No. I am in favour of our governments restraining their natural instincts to see killing someone as the way to solve an issue. I am in favour of the rebels continuing their brave fight to overthrow the Libyan government, just as others have done in recent times. I'm in favour of yet more Libyan servicemen and women laying down their arms or defecting with their equipment. Hardly a Utopian position.

What it does mean is having a little bit of steel in the belly. Bad things are happening, but that is no reason to make them worse or to do the first thing that comes to mind just because it is doing 'something'.

It also means having the tiniest bit of humility and understanding that the West can't just step in and sort out the problems in an African country by killing a few Africans. We may find that not everyone is as grateful for our help as we thought they might be.

In order to be true friends of these revolutions we have to accept that these are not our revolutions, but indeed revolts against regimes we have spent many years doing business with. The bullets and shells Qaddafi uses to rain down on his own citizens were manufactured here, and frankly many people in the Arab world know it to their cost.

* I heard this joke elsewhere, it's not mine sadly.


Jim Jepps said...

I should have added, the fact that the rebels captured our 'diplomatic team' arrested them and then escorted them out of the country should give people pause for thought when claiming the rebels are looking for our help.

Sean Thompson said...

You are quite right, Jim, that the launching of an air to ground attack on Gaddafi's airfields (and, I suspect, armour and artillery if left out in the open) by Western powers would be simply a response to 'current, awful, events not a long term plan'. The problem is that without a current response, Gaddafi will win and tens, probably hundreds, of thousands of Libyans will be dead for the long term.

I have been thinking hard about this over the last few hours. Like most of the Left, I was anti interventionist during the dismembering of Yugoslavia. I went to Bosnia just after the war and what I saw there haunts me still. We were wrong about Bosnia.

It looks as if Gaddafi has the firepower to slowly crush the popular opposition. If he does there will be a bloodbath in each town as he takes it. We must not let this happen, and if that means French jets dstroying his airfields and tanks then so be it. There is no possibility of a 'good' outcome - the only options are between the unpalatable and the unthinkable. I now think that we probably no alternative but to support armed intervention in the form of targeted air attacks in order to defend the uprising in LIbya.

If Lenin had fallen under a bus when he alighted from the sealed train at the Finland station, he would have been remembered as a Russian Casement, pushed into an ill judged opportunist collaboration with German imperialism by a blind hatred of his national ruling class.

DocRichard said...

Jim, I have written a detailed analysis of your position here

However, rather than starting an interminable debate, I would prefer to find a point of agreement.

The most important thing right now (aside from the question of the NFZ) is to block Gaddafi's broadcasts by TV and radio - a simple, feasible, non-violent intervention. I hope that you and other non-interventionists will at least join me in calling for this to take place?

Jim Jepps said...

Thanks both for your thoughtful disagreements.

I'm not opposed to blocking broadcasts, although I'd like to read the case for this. I'm opposed specifically to military intervention, not for disinterest in these events.

Sean: I think the NFZ proposal will be specifically about G's airpower and would not include attacks on artillery or other ground forces - which would be full scale war.

You appear to be advocating a course of action that is not currently being proposed (which is fine, of course). Part of my argument above is that a NFZ will not seriously detract from G's ability to kill his own people.

Your proposal, war from the air against G's forces would, of course lead to a serious problem for G as well as a large number of deaths (probably from both sides and none) that we will be directly responsible for.

The political implications of this across the Arab world could be significant. How many televised children's funerals on Al Jazeera would it take before the Arab street decides the West cares more for the oil than the people of Libya.

I'm willing to be convinced, and I wanted to think about this properly before jumping in (I'm not much of a 'shock jock' blogger I'm afraid) but the longer I think about it the less helpful this course of action seems.

claude said...

Hi Jim. Good article, but I join those in disagreement.

Here is why the West should intervene in Libya.

Raphael said...

What is missing in your analysis is any reference to what the rebels are saying.

Jim Jepps said...

Hi R, I thought I had, but it must be somewhere else. Some rebels are calling for it and others are opposed.

I know the Guardian et al only appear to be reporting those calling for it but wider reports show that opinion is divided.

I have no way of knowing where the balance of opinion is (and those arguing for a no fly zone have argued for exactly that, and argue against full scale military along the lines that Sean is advocating here).

It may be the overwhelming opinion, I just don't happen to believe anyone here is in a position to say what the balance of opinion is either and I tend to look askance when people seem to psychicly 'know' what the 'Libyan people' want.

Sorry not to include that in the piece it is important as you say - but am discussing this in several places so this got left off here.

Raphael said...

Thanks Jim; here are some views:

From the Guardian:

*Misrata is the only town in the west of the country still under the control
of the insurgents after their defeat in a vicious battle for Zawiya. The
rebels said that Misrata was now surrounded by Gaddafi's forces, which
included tanks.*

*"We are bracing for a massacre," Mohamad Ahmed, a rebel fighter in the
city, said. "We know it will happen and Misrata will be like Zawiya, but we
believe in God. We do not have the capabilities to fight Gaddafi and his
forces. They have tanks and heavy weapons and we have our belief and trust
in God. The fighters here and the people of Misrata hold the international
community responsible for the fall of Zawiya and for all the deaths that
happened. Gaddafi is responsible, but they are partners in crime."*

Full article here:

Note that here the absence of intervention is called complicity with Gaddafi.

Terry Glavin has quotes from some significant voices from Libya:

"*Is it too much to ask that we might actually listen to what the Arab revolutionaries themselves are saying? What do the Libyan rebels want from us? What do they want for themselves?*

*Libyan protest leader Murad Warfally of the University of Benghazi: "We want a no fly zone or more blood will be spilled on Libyan soil.
The Libyan people want freedom of speech - we want to live like people in
America or in Europe, to be normal and have a normal life. We want to be
able to sleep in our beds without fear of being arrested by Gaddafi's secret
police." Nouri al-Mismari, former head of the Libyan protocol department:
"We're looking forward to neutralising Gaddafi's air force."

In the city of Benghazi, rebel spokesman Abdel Hafiz
"We call on the international community to carry out pinpointed
airstrikes on the mercenaries." For now, the Libyan resistance fighters want
only airstrikes and a "no-fly zone" to protect them from Gaddafi's forces,
says Abdul Hafiz Gogha, of Libya's governing
and lucky we are for that. In Misurata, a city besieged by Gaddafi and his
militias, the rebels there also want our help: "A no-fly zone would limit
his movements, his ability to move mercenaries from south to north and to
recruit mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa," said a Libyan rebel spokesman
who goes by the nom-de-guerre Saadoun. "Providing military equipment and
arms to our free army in the east will help the free army march to Tripoli.
And we want surgical military strikes to target his militia and make this
end swiftly and quickly and not to shed any more innocent Libyan blood."

Is that not clear enough? No massive invasion is necessary, so everyone can
just calm down now. It is true that if the agony-pokery and astrological
consultations in the NATO capitals carry on much longer, a huge humanitarian
intervention may be the only option left."*

Read the full post here:

Jim Jepps said...

I'd read both of these and they are useful.

On the first one: a no fly zone would do nothing to prevent the fall of Misrata.

On the second one: the point is made more strongly by this news piece on a large women's demonstration in the town calling for a no fly zone.

I'm concerned about the anecdotal (and I suspect partial) way reports drop in someone saying something that fits with this proposal - but this demo I think at least shows that in some parts of the country many people do want a NFZ.

I still hold to two contentions though - one - we have a very incomplete picture of what the rebels want and the view of ordinary Libyans on this issue (but accept this is dificult to get) - and two - a NFZ wont do the job.

I'm very concerned that some people advocating an NFZ acknowledge it wont help but want to do it anyway. These are people's lives, it's not about us trying to make ourselves feel better by doing 'something'.

Pete Shield said...

Just a note on the last NFZ of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The NFZ in Kurdistan was an effective block on military capacities of the Saddam regime, the two things the Peshmerga, a much more organised and disciplined military force than anything I've seen on the Libyan opposition side, feared and were powerless against were helicopter gunships and air to grown bombing. Once these were removed the Peshmergas were able to halt the armoured assault into the mountains but not on the plains. When I went into Iraqi Kudistan just after the second war the road from Arbil to Shaqiawan vividly illustrated this, in the mountainous section the roadside was littered with destroyed Iraqi tanks, and on the flat run down to Arbil the roadside was covered with destroyed cars and craters from gunship rockets.

Under the cover of the NFZ we were able to hold internationally monitored free elections, with the Electoral Reform Society playing the lead role.

More importantly the Peshmergas were able to create a safe haven under the NFZ which meant that the horrendous flight of civilians over the mountains was halted and the humanitarian disaster was averted.

Regardless of what we all may think about the war, and for that matter the Kurdish leadership the NFZ saved tens of thousands of lives.

Mike Shaughnessy said...

I'm wracked with indecision on this, any military intervention by the west, including NFZ, is likely to escalate, and where will our involvement end?

From what I read in the press, a NFZ will need to start with bombing radar and air defence units, and the Libyan airforce may try to shoot down western planes. Then there will calls for western troops on the ground.

Apart from anything else, we can't really afford this financially.

On the other hand, it does look as though Gaddafi will win eventually, and there will no doubt be a terrible slaughter of his opponents during and after the military offensive.

It could be that western involvement will tip the balance back to the rebels, and Gaddafi can be deposed.

The very least we need to do is supply the rebels with medicine, petrol and food, which are all running out fast. We might also supply them with better military equipment, but that might be used by G to say that it is a western backed coup.

Oh dear, I hate it when I can see both sides of the argument.

DocRichard said...

Jim, you say you have not seen the case for blocking Libya State TV.

I have summarised here:

Gaddafi's TV supports and expresses his delusional mind set. They reported March26 as a massive demo against intervention, thus raising morale of G supporters. They report that Erma al-Obeidy is drunk, a prostitute, a thief. I will try to collect other specific lies from Twitter.

If you have any criticisms, Jim, it would be extremely helpful for you to set them out, in order that I can strengthen the case. @changeinlibya and others have been calling for this for weeks.

Mike Shaughnessy, both sides of the intervention debate, and the undecideds can at least agree to this non-violent intervention, to block his lies.

The longer this drags on, the worse it gets. Blocking his TV may not hand the rebels victory tomorrow, but there is a strong case that it will bring their victory forward. It costs nothing, needs no bombs (just pressure on Nilesat), is a campaign that is winnable (Govt knows about it, and agrees it is legal under UNSC 1973. There is every reason for the Green Party to pick it up and run with it.