By Wayne E. White
It now appears that the US finally has gotten serious about doing something meaningful to assist opposition forces in Libya. Exaggerated fears and an insufficient grasp of the adverse consequences of not taking such action previously paralyzed US (and most European) policymakers with respect to even an eastern no-fly zone, let alone more robust measures. Meanwhile, what is left of the organized Libyan opposition is increasingly hard-pressed.
When I called for an eastern no-fly zone so strongly on March 6 through several outlets, the opposition was well-positioned to capitalize on concrete international support by virtue of its hold on perhaps more than 50% of the country (the vast majority in the east, but two large cities—and more–in the west). Since then, regime forces have brutally reclaimed all opposition holdings in western Libya aside from the besieged city of Misrata, as well as a sizeable sweep of opposition-held territory in the east. A number of cities and towns previously in opposition hands have been badly damaged, casualties have been high, arrests and executions presumably widespread. Opposition fighters in the east are exhausted, somewhat dispirited, and running short of munitions.
At least until now, the Pentagon and senior military officers assessing matters seemingly ignored calls for an eastern no-fly zone to protect the majority of opposition-held territory at less risk, focusing on – and criticizing – a more comprehensive one. With all of Qaddhafi’s long-range surface to air missile assets in the west and no aircraft under his control on the ground in the east, the need for massive pre-emptive strikes to establish an eastern no-fly zone would have been vastly reduced. Moreover, to the extent Libyan aircraft challenged an eastern no-fly zone, one of the region’s most inept militaries would not have posed much of a threat. And, contrary to prevailing commentaries, helicopters should be detectable with today’s technology if they violated a no-fly zone.
There also has been the argument that since much of Qaddhafi’s striking power against opposition fighters is ground-based, a no-fly zone would be of little value. Perhaps conveniently forgotten has been the well-known demoralization and panic even relatively few air attacks can generate among ill-trained and inexperienced troops, like those fielded by the Libyan opposition. Surely, the opposition needs more than a no-fly zone (especially now that Qaddhafi has been allowed to use everything he has against them, reducing greatly the territory they hold), but it has been a far larger factor in opposition reverses than has been admitted.
Even though now there is less to work with on the ground, the consequences of allowing by far the most vigorous challenge to Qaddhafi’s inept, corrupt and bloody four decades of rule to founder are great. Potentially hundreds of thousands of Libyans would fall victim to retaliation (tens of thousands of them killed), destruction to eastern cities as they fall would be severe, and as many as a million Libyans could seek shelter in Egypt to escape reprisals (creating a huge refugee problem for Egypt and the international community). And, despite worries about how little is known about the opposition, one thing is certain: Qaddhafi would likely return to his notoriously vindictive and anti-West posture prevailing prior to his 2003 rapprochement with the U.S.
Also of great importance, a Qaddhafi triumph would send a message to the region’s other exceedingly brutal tyrants that any major challenge to their rule could be crushed just as ruthlessly with little risk of outside interference. Even less abusive authoritarian governments could be emboldened to pay less heed to U.S. and Western entreaties not to employ force to suppress those seeking reform. And populations that otherwise might have challenged their oppressive rulers would be understandably far more hesitant to do so should Qaddhafi be allowed to deal ruthlessly with his.
Moreover, the reputation of the U.S. would plummet to a new low on the regional “street.” Considerable activism on the part of the UK—and especially France—would make relative U.S. neglect look that much more deplorable and inexplicable. The Obama Administration’s early popularity in the region, already in decline, would plummet.
Now is the time for Washington and the West to put in place quickly at least an eastern Libyan no-fly zone. Other more intrusive options then could be discussed as desired. Even a delay measured in days in taking this one step, given the time Qaddhafi already has been given to marshal his rather rag-tag, albeit superior, forces to batter opposition forces and strongholds, could greatly reduce what there is to work with on the ground even if outside forces at last came to their assistance. A prolonged delay—or refusal to act without UN approval—could prove fatal.
Wayne White, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, is the former deputy director of the State Department’s intelligence office for the Near East and South Asia. Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.