x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

As Qaddafi forces surge east, it may be too late for no-fly zone

Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi regains some bravado as his troops near Benghazi while diplomats continue to express reservations about military intervention to help the rebels against his regime.

A rebel fighter fires his anti-aircraft gun as he flees together with other rebels from outside Ajdabiyah on the road to Benghazi.
A rebel fighter fires his anti-aircraft gun as he flees together with other rebels from outside Ajdabiyah on the road to Benghazi.

WASHINGTON // With the international community still unable to agree on whether to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, events on the battlefield indicate it may not matter any more.

Forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, continue to make gains against the opposition, but while Obama administration officials admit to "urgency", there is yet no clear position in Washington on whether to support a no-fly zone or any other form of military intervention.

Analysts say the US is reluctant to commit the military to fight yet another potentially open-ended conflict, even with international and Arab support, and that Washington is wary of the precedent such intervention could set if there are similar uprisings in the region.

But pressure is growing for a more forceful international response. In New York yesterday Britain, France and Lebanon were preparing to circulate a draft resolution to authorise a no-fly zone and tighten sanctions against the Qaddafi leadership.

Lebanon is leading the drafting of rules for the no-fly zone, which is expected to focus on creating a political and legal basis for policing the skies over Libya, rather than describing the operational guidelines or rules for engaging Libyan aircraft, a western diplomat said.

European diplomats say they hope to persuade two permanent veto-wielding council members, Russia and China, which have signalled opposition to a no-fly zone, as well as the United States and other wavering countries, to back their plan before the opposition is defeated.

On the ground, however, time might be running out. Col Qaddafi's forces yesterday recaptured Zawiyah in the west, while Libyan warplanes were pummelling Ajdabiya in the east, not far from Benghazi and the last remaining opposition stronghold.

Should Col Qaddafi's forces break through there, they would be able to capture the eastern border and cut off supply routes to Benghazi.

Col Qaddafi certainly appears confident of victory. In an interview published yesterday in Il Giornale, an Italian newspaper, the Libyan leader, no longer as embattled as he seemed only a week ago, said those who had joined the opposition against his regime now faced one choice: flee or surrender.

That ultimatum, and direct pleas for help by figures from the Libyan opposition, have yet to sway the international community.

Foreign ministers of the G8 group of nations meeting in Paris on Monday failed to agree on a no-fly zone in the face of opposition from Russia and Germany. Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, admonished his counterparts yesterday for their inaction, making the argument that if military force had been used last week, "perhaps the reversals suffered by the opposition would not have happened."

France is the only country so far to have recognised the Libyan opposition as the representatives of the Libyan people.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, held a 45-minute meeting with a representative of the Libyan opposition in Paris, though an administration official, speaking on background, said no decision had been made on whether the US would similarly recognise the Libyan opposition.

The official also said that G8 ministers had discussed a number of options, including establishing "safety zones" on the ground in Libya with an international commitment to protect residents in those areas. But, as with talks on a no-fly zone, that idea would still require further discussion, the official added.

Establishing safety zones, analysts said, would have the advantage over a no-fly zone, which in effect is a declaration of war, that the decision to spark conflict would be left to Col Qaddafi's forces should they breach any designated lines on the ground.

The flip side, said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is that if Col Qaddafi's troops continue their advance, the international community would have to engage Libyan forces on the ground.

Indeed, US caution is largely due to a reluctance to get engaged in yet another military conflict, and a no-fly zone is widely seen in Washington as almost inevitably leading to a much larger military operation.

"Everybody is caught in a bind," Ms Ottaway said. Should the international community hesitate too long, she said, the "war will be over" and Col Qaddafi will take back control. Conversely, a decision to go to war will not be taken lightly, since "it's much easier to see how you get into this conflict than how you get out," she said.

Moreover, there are potential political consequences of military intervention.

On Monday, Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said the US was "mindful of the fact that the decisions we're talking about here are significant ones and need to be made with everyone's eyes open."

One potential consequence, Ms Ottaway said, was precedent. "What will the US do in Bahrain if troops begin to fire on protesters? Does it apply the same logic?"

But inaction carries with it equally huge risks, not least on the humanitarian level, and Libyan expatriates in the US are lobbying hard for a stronger international response.

"The opposition on the ground will fight to the last drop of blood," said Asma Ramadi, of the Libya Outreach Group.

She rejected the idea that a no-fly zone would necessarily lead to greater military involvement. A no-fly zone, she said, would send the "signal that the international community is serious", bolster the opposition and encourage more defections from the Libyan army.

 

okarmi@thenational.ae

 

* With additional reporting by James Reinl in New York