On the likely imposition of a no-fly zone

As you can read a few posts zone, I was pretty skeptical about the advisability of a no-fly zone two weeks ago. No longer. Partially, this is the result of a very brief trip to Benghazi — it’s extremely hard not to be moved by the spirit of unity and defiance in the east. But the political and military situation has changed pretty dramatically, and the risks of intervention now seem to be much reduced compared to the risks of non-intervention.

Virtually everyone to whom I spoke was desperate for deliverance from Qaddafi’s firepower. At first, as I understand, rebels wanted to show that Libyans could defeat Qaddafi by themselves. That clearly hasn’t happened. Rebel forces have fought doggedly to defend their home towns, but seem incapable of organizing the mobile military units you’d need to counter Qaddafi troop movements — partially because they are terrified of move their few armored vehicles on open roads where they would be vulnerable to enemy airpower.

Consequently, although Qaddafi probably does not have that many troops on hand, he has been able to move them around and concentrate them with impunity. Pro-regime forces have crushed the rebellions in most of the smaller and medium-sized towns of the west, isolated the city of Misrata, and are fighting for control of the gateway to the east at Ajdabiya. If Ajdabiya falls, Qaddafi’s forces could probably roam with impunity throughout much of eastern Libya, disrupting food convoys to Benghazi and possibly also cutting off of its power. Eventually, Qaddafi could roll up his rocket artillery and tanks, and start chewing up Benghazi’s southern suburbs.

While I’m not sure that the rebels would be finished without external intervention, the civilian cost of Qaddafi assaults on eastern and western cities would be enormous, as would the hardships of a prolonged siege. And if Qaddafi did manage to reconquer the east, that would be an absolutely dismal result. First there would be the reprisals against rebel supporters, followed by a decade or two of hopelessness under international sanction and internal repression. Libyans would feel bitterly betrayed by the outside world, like the Shia of Iraq did after 1991. The germination of an outward-looking, pluralist political culture that seems to have been have been triggered by the February 17 revolution would be aborted. The rebels claim that if the West abandons Libya, then Libyans will turn to al-Qaeda. It’s obviously a bit of a line — invoke al-Qaeda, and you perk up American interest — but I think it’s a reasonable prediction.

A no-fly zone, even a no-fly zone plus airstrikes, is obviously no guarantee of a rebel victory, nor is a rebel victory a guarantee of a free and stable Libya. More on what might follow in a bit.

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