The leadership shown by the Government in mobilising political action in response to the appalling events in Libya is impressive. Their determination that their actions should be channelled through the United Nations is laudable. However, the clamour for immediate military action against the regime of Muammar al-Qadhafi should be reflected upon at greater length and the tentative truce in Tripoli seized upon.
My reasons are as follows:
UN Unanimity? In all the haste to claim a united voice for the international community it should be remembered that Resolution 1973 failed to secure the support of five of the fifteen members of the Security Council. The five were not inconsequential members of the international community: Brazil, China, Germany, India and Russia. Speaking afterwards the leader of the Brazilian delegation at the UN said, “We are not convinced that the use of force as provided for in operative paragraph 4 of the present resolution will lead to the realization of our common objective — the immediate end of violence and the protection of civilians,” she said, adding that Brazil was also concerned that the measures approved today might have the unintended effect of exacerbating the current tensions on the ground and “causing more harm than good to the very same civilians we are committed to protecting”. The leader of the German delegation to the UN stated that ‘Germany saw great risks, and the likelihood of large-scale loss of life should not be underestimated. Those that participated in its implementation could be drawn into a protracted military conflict that could draw in the wider region. If the resolution failed, it would be wrong to assume that any military intervention would be quickly and efficiently carried out.’
Libya is different: the greatest strength of the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and now in Bahrain and Yemen was that the opposition espoused non violence. The images of crowds in Alexandria been beaten by police and yet shouting ‘Salmiya, salmiya’ which means ‘peaceful’ through clouds of tear gas and columns of tanks, was courageous, inspirational and against such power no regime or injustice could survive. With undoubted severe provocation the opposition in Libya have chosen a different path and that may yet prove to be the greatest weakness to their cause. The rebels are armed with sophisticated weaponry–sufficient to operate and bring down their own Mig-23 over Benghazi. What we are witnessing in Libya today is the beginnings of a civil war in Libya. That is why it is different. That is why the first task of the international community must be to stop all the violence so that a political process can begin.
Not just a no-fly zone: The first undertaking of UN Resolution 1973 is a call for a ceasefire, a pause in the violence from both sides engaged in the conflict. The second provision was to send a Special Envoy to Libya, who, along with a High-Level Committee of the African Union would facilitate a dialogue between the parties towards a ‘peaceful and sustainable solution’—as of now that Envoy and Committee have not commenced their work. This should be the priority, especially with the regime in Tripoli claiming that they are observing a complete ceasefire even if there is some evidence to the contrary from media reports. It may be shaky and incomplete but it is a pause in the seemingly relentless downward spiral into violence should be seized upon. If the Typhoons and the Tornados reach Tripoli before the Committee and the Envoy then their task and chances of success may be made more difficult. In Bosnia and in Iraq the imposition of the no-fly zone took months and years to establish even with a UN Resolution, whilst that was undoubtedly too long as the memory of Srebenica painfully reminds us, surely executing such an intervention within days and crucially before other non violent measures have had a chance to take effect or even been implemented, is too just fast to be safe. It is more indicative of a reaction than a considered plan.
Will it work? The attacks will be centred on airspace protection systems and they are then likely to be extended to air bases on the front line such as Sirte and Sebha, but will it stop there? Or will the temptation to move on to ‘take out’ tank columns such as those around Ajdabiya and Libyan broadcasting and communications posts prove irresistible? If so what estimate has been made of the likely civilian losses as a result of imposing the no-fly zone? Is the result of the imposition of a non fly-zone likely to lead to an escalation of the fighting on the ground? Will we have the time to gather sufficient intelligence in order for the strikes to be effective and casualties minimised? Will an attack on Libya by forces portrayed as being ‘Western’ and motives being attributed to ‘oil’ (Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa) galvanise support around the current despotic regime allowing them to cling onto power for longer. If so, where does that leave the over-arching demand of UN Resolution 1973 namely ‘the duty above all to protect the civilian population’?
If not this, then what? Am I suggesting that we stand idly by whilst civilians are killed in Libya? No. I am suggesting that we exhaust or at least try the non-violent options available first: We seize the window of the ceasefire to allow the African Union and the Envoy to begin their dialogue with both sides. Meanwhile, we go ahead with freezing the funds of Qadhafi and turning off the flow of oil revenues which are being used to fund his mercenary army; we stop the flow of arms into Libya by imposing a naval blockade and urge the Arab League to put pressure on Algeria and Syria in particular to stop arming the Tripoli regime; we keep the ban on all flights out of the country; we provide immediate humanitarian aid to rebel held areas; and use offensive cyber capabilities to disrupt his communications and military systems.
Conclusion: In the current febrile political atmosphere stirred by media reports and public outrage to urge a ‘pause for thought’ is a dangerous path for any politician to tread, especially one loyal to the Coalition government and especially loyal to our prime minister, foreign and defence secretaries who are men of colossal intellect and integrity who will be wrestling with the enormity of these decisions and I don’t envy them that. We always hesitant to question our political and military leaders because we don’t want to be disloyal, give comfort to our opponents, or appear to be wavering in our support for our armed forces ahead of a potentially dangerous mission. Moreover, we assume that the quality of their information, understanding of the situation on the ground and experience is so vastly superior to our own that we should simply fall in to line. Yet if the events of Iraq have taught us anything it is that it is not only right to question of leaders at times of international crisis such as these it is our duty so to do.