x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

More than just a bombing run to end a civil war

In March the United Nations Security Council authorised a "no-fly zone" plus "all necessary measures … to protect civilians" in Libya.

Ten weeks later, British and French attack helicopters are poised to provide surgically precise support to rebel combatants. Allied aircraft pound targets in Tripoli nightly. Col Muammar Qaddafi's warships at anchor in harbour have been blasted. Western special forces are reportedly advising the rebels and target-spotting.

It's a classic case of mission creep - military goals expanding beyond those originally declared. This has alarmed many in the war-weary US.

However, the arrest last week of the Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic reminds us that there are lessons to be found in Nato's mid-1990s Balkans action. That too began with a no-fly zone, Operation Deny Flight of 1993. But after Serbian forces' genocidal war crimes, including the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, Nato began a heavy bombing campaign known as Operation Deliberate Force.

The success of that campaign is difficult to measure. But Bosnian Serbs were stopped within weeks after the bombing began, and many of their leaders are now in jail or on trial. After a too-limited initial mission was expanded, the bloodshed soon ended. "Bombing has its uses," as the military historian John Keegan says.

As Nato's aerial campaign intensifies, reportedly with air strikes inside Col Qaddafi's compound yesterday, there is always the possibility that the colonel will be killed. A more remote likelihood is that he will be driven towards a compromise, with both Russia and South Africa making diplomatic overtures.

But even in the best-case scenario, what then? Nato bombing and strongarm US diplomacy might have hastened the Dayton Agreement that declared peace in Bosnia, but it was only after five years of regional wars and major gains against Bosnian Serbpositions on the ground.

The last thing we want to see is the Balkanisation of Libya. The conflict may not involve the same number of different sides that saw Yugoslavia break up into six, arguably seven, countries, but the divisions between Libya's east and west are greater than Col Qaddafi as an individual. Regime loyalists, including among the country's largest tribe the Warfalla, will not easily agree to a peace with Benghazi.

Some 15 years after a Balkan ceasefire finally held, that region is peaceful and some parts are even prospering. How long will it be before we can say the same about Libya?