x-posted to Perpetual Pieces

The below is an updated and extended version of a post I did for Liberal Conspiracy:

That rebel forces are asking for a no-fly-zone (NFZ) to be established does not further the case for NATO to actually establish one. They’re untrained, relatively disorganised, and are relying on the misguided belief, perpetuated by pundits and social media that an NFZ would significantly alter the balance of power.

It won’t.

Libya’s operational air force is small in comparison to the ground forces that Gaddafi can command. Ras Lanuf was lost, not because of airstrikes, but because of artillery and mortar shelling [Correction: Spencer Ackerman had a more detailed post on the aerial attack on Ras Lanuf.].

Proponents of an NFZ must answer the basic question of what exactly we’re trying to achieve. Presumably, we all want the rebels to win, and for Gaddafi to be unseated from power. Then, which actions would decisively give the rebels victory? An NFZ in this respect seems more like a way of placating our desire to “do something, anything! If an NFZ is established, and Gaddafi retains controls, would anyone be satisfied with maintaining a decade-long, open-ended engagement at a cost of at least £9.5m, and maybe up to £185m per week (see also Spencer Ackerman).

The US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and NATO’s Secretary General have said a NFZ should not go ahead without a legal mandate.  As in the case of Serbia and Iraq, a multilateral solution will not be forthcoming. This raises the issues of legitimacy question as mentioned by Jonathan Wright, and Secretary Gates. Anti-Americanism has not gone down during this Arab Spring; it’s just not politically salient right now. There seems to be a fair few participants in the revolutions who see in a possible US-led intervention a modern equivalent of the counter-revolutionary Concert of Europe. Support from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, or the Arab League is meaningless, and repeats the same policy mistake of trying to gain consent from rulers rather than the masses.

Then there’s the internal legitimacy problem. Historian Dirk Vandewalle warns that the Libyan National Council is representative only of Cyrenaica tribal leaders. Military backing of the LNC, he claims, will tear the country apart as those in Western Libya reform as an insurgency in ways reminiscent of Iraq after Bremer’s 2003 De-Ba’athification edict—and let’s not forget the role of oil in fomenting such conflicts.

An NFZ will be no invisible, in the skies only operation. Sec. Gates has stated that the presence of large stocks of Surface-to-Air-Missiles dictates the need to bomb Libya’s air defences, in contrast to Iraq, where most of the air defences had already been destroyed as a consequence of the Gulf War.

What’s the alternative? Tom Ricks suggests providing the rebels with decent comms equipment and a few thousand RPGs to take out both ground forces and helicopters. SWJ’s Robert Haddick takes a more interventionist approach by saying we should, as was done in the early months of the Afghan War, provide operational guidance to the rebels, and coordinate air support for their ground offensive. Both of these are much bigger, and more legally questionable, forms of intervention than an NFZ, but they do perhaps offer a chance of a decisive victory. And they might also totally fail.

Liberal interventionists must ask themselves carefully what their comfort level is in terms of committing blood and treasure to high-risk operations, which is what war is about, instead of trying to promote symbolic half measures.

Friend of the blog, Carl Packman, had a few responses which inadvertently reinforce the same points.

The financial implications of an NFZ matter because it’s not the only option available to Western forces, as was suggested in reference to Tom Ricks and Robert Haddick. BenSix asks what I would propose. I still defer to proper military analysts on what to do. But it seems to me, at least, that an NFZ is one of the poorer options on the table. If I’m to take a guess, arming the rebels with Russian (i.e. easy to use) anti-aircraft missiles, and technical assistance and comms are the way to go. Some believe that the French are already providing technical assistance, but I’ve also read that Egyptian commandos have been crossing the border in plain clothes. Libya’s army is pretty terribly trained, so outside assistance will be critical to success. Charles Duelfer reports how this was done in Chad.

But first, I think there’s a major political consideration: What’s the endgame in Libya? A failure to define one will lead to the same failures we’ve seen in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The record of opposition groups in autocratic regimes calling for outside help has not been very good. Ahmed Chalabi, together with the two Kurdish strongmen leaders of the KDP and PKK have not turned out to be great supporters of peace in Iraq. Calls for help on Twitter and press releases are by no means a good guide here. The US is taking the right steps, sending out an envoy to the rebels, no doubt to get a better feel of their intentions, leadership structure, cross-tribal support etc… In return for Western military support, the rebels should publicly agree to a set of preconditions on democratisation, revenue sharing of oil rents, and fair and adequate cross-tribal representation. This might seem harsh, but it’s only fair to set stricter requirements before committing Western forces. The tribal and revenue considerations are the most important. One Reuters report is not by any means enough, and the open source intel seems to suggest there’s too much Western governments don’t know.

And if I make an NFZ sound too much like a war, that’s because it is an explicit declaration of war. If you don’t like the sound of a war, don’t make calls for an NFZ. Hence why I’ve been asking why don’t we consider other options that look much more like conventional warfare, but may ultimately be more successful in ousting Gaddafi.

Finally, preparations have to be made for what happens if a further UNSC resolution cannot be obtained to establish either an NFZ or the provision of arms (explicitly forbidden in UNSC 1970).