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Regional Support Erodes for Air War on Libya

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 21 2011 (IPS) - When the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) imposing a no-fly zone in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya passed Thursday by a predicted 10-0, no one stopped to ask what ends the means of military force hoped to achieve.

Thousands restless to leave Libya swarm the Tunisian border. Credit: UN Photo/UNHCR/A. Duclos

Thousands restless to leave Libya swarm the Tunisian border. Credit: UN Photo/UNHCR/A. Duclos

As the United States and its allies, notably France and Britain, enter their third consecutive day of ferocious air strikes against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s ground controls Monday, this vital question remains unanswered, a vacuum that is swiftly filling up with fears that the UNSCR may have left too much wiggle room for powerful Western states with a notorious track record of invasion and occupation.

Addressing a press briefing at the U.N. headquarters Monday, spokesperson for the secretary-general Martin Nesirky confirmed that the UK, U.S., Italy, France, Canada, Denmark and Qatar had all submitted letters to Ban Ki-moon, stating their intent to attack Gaddafi’s compound as his forces advanced on the rebel stronghold in Benghazi.

These states have wasted no time in taking full advantage of the resolution’s endorsement of “any means necessary” to safeguard the rights of the Libyan people.

According to The Guardian UK, the velocity of these air attacks has pushed the Arab League, whose grudging support for the resolution finally tipped the scales in favor of intervention, to beat a hasty retreat.

Current Confusion, Future Chaos

Last week Gaddafi delivered a "fresh and defiant tirade" against the allied military forces, promising retaliation and a commitment to fighting a "long war to victory".

Still, his foreign minister Musa Kousa appealed to the U.N. Security Council Saturday to convene a meeting to "halt [the] aggression against Libyan civilians".

Though a plea for an emergency meeting by a U.N. member state is usually addressed within hours, the council continues to coolly drag its feet on the request.

Gaddafi's presence at the U.N. is further demeaned by the fact that the Libyan mission has thus far been controlled by what Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch calls a "renegade diplomatic delegation", headed by Abdelrahman Shalgam and Ibrahim Dabbashi, that has loudly proclaimed support for both the rebels and the allied military campaign. Efforts to replace the diplomats with Gaddafi supporter Ali Treki have been unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, regional experts are on tenterhooks as news reports change by the hour and the unpredictability of the future casts a dark cloud over the fleeting celebrations in Egypt and Tunisia.

"The most important question in coming days is whether there will be any effort to create diplomatic channels to communicate with the Gaddafi regime and attempt to initiate some mechanism for dialog or peaceful resolution of the current conflict," Bali told IPS.

"Absent such a move, the use of force will crowd out other alternatives and leave few options but escalation and the pursuit of broader strategic goals, like regime change," she added.

"Additional important questions are whether events in Libya will continue to eclipse international attention to Yemen and Bahrain and whether this creates the necessary window of opportunity for those regimes to escalate their own brutal repression with impunity."

"[Another] important consideration is the consequence for the "Arab democratic spring." If Libya becomes a case of international intervention for regime change it might have negative consequences for the rest of the region by creating a demonstration effect that disincentivises opposition forces… [A] possible negative outcome in Libya may also divert attention and retard transitions in those countries where change has already been initiated, such as Egypt and Tunisia."

Speaking at an emergency convention of the League of Arab States Sunday, outgoing Secretary General Amr Moussa said that he had “agreed to the protection of civilians, not the bombardment of more civilians”.

While the League is yet to announce a formal alternative to the onslaught by allied warplanes, experts believe its irresolution bodes badly for U.S. President Barak Obama, who has professed “broad regional support” in fielding comparisons between the current engagement in Libya and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Indistinct Language, Incalculable Outcomes

Though Resolution 1973 demands the immediate establishment of a ceasefire and a complete end to violence against civilians, it makes no mention of Gaddafi’s ousting as an inherent goal of the U.N.-sanctioned intervention.

In fact, according to the New York Times, allied air strikes will likely concentrate Gaddafi’s limited forces in defence of Tripoli, necessitating the strongman’s participation in any subsequent diplomatic solution including a ceasefire – an outcome that will not be welcomed by the sponsors of UNSCR 1973.

While France quickly stepped in as the chief of operations in implementing the resolution, cobbling together an emergency summit of world leaders at the Palace Élysée in Paris Friday, it is the vociferous officials of the U.S. defence forces that have expressed the most confusion regarding the final goals of the resolution.

Vice Admiral William E. Gortney told reporters at a Washington news conference that the United States is not interested in killing Gaddafi.

“At this particular point I can guarantee that he’s not on a targeting list,” Gortney said, reiterating that the United States military was more concerned with weakening the Libyan state’s military capacity.

However, he added “If [Gaddafi] happens to be inspecting a surface-to-air missile site, and we don’t have any idea if he’s there or not, then…”, leaving the sentence unfinished.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, stated that the objective of “removing Gaddafi” was likely outside the scope of the international offensive, adding that leaving him in power after the U.S. military completed its mission was “potentially one outcome”.

Mullen’s words run starkly contrary to Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s repeated insistence in the days leading up to the resolution and in the hours immediately following its adoption that “Gaddafi must go”, an undeniable allusion to the U.S.’s vested interested in a regime change, which is nowhere specified in the text of the resolution.

Asli Bali, a law professor at the University of California Los Angeles Law School, told IPS, “Ultimately, the tactical decision to resort to an aerial bombardment campaign against Libyan forces – including not just air defences but also targeting of ground forces – and the imposition of a no-fly zone is difficult to limit logistically to a strategy of ceasefire unless the international community is willing to accept a partition of Libya.”

She added, “If the international community does maintain a no-fly zone to police a ceasefire, as suggested by the resolution on its face, then the ceasefire line risks leaving the opposition forces in charge of the Cyrenaica region and the Gaddafi regime in control of the rest of the country, resulting in de facto partition.”

“Because none of these strategic goals [withdrawal from certain areas, partition or regime change] are rooted in the language of the Security Council resolution, but each seem connected to the rationale adopted by the sponsors of the resolution, there is reason to believe that no clear strategic consensus undergirds the resort to tactical use of force,” Bali said.

“Since it seems unlikely that any outcome that leaves Gaddafi in charge of Tripoli will be acceptable to the sponsors of the resolution but equally that the tactic of no-fly zone and all necessary measures to protect civilians will not suffice to remove Gaddafi, the tactic that was adopted in UNSCR 1973 seems disconnected from any clear objective on the part of those currently implementing it through force,” she concluded.

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