British Prime Minister David Cameron has done it. He was among the first of Western leaders and British politicians to call for the much-needed no-fly zone over Libya. Despite strong opposition from the international community, he stood firm and loyal to his convictions and, together with the equally tenacious President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, has restored faith in the once-impotent and futile United Nations. Libyans, the Arab world, and the broader international community should forever be grateful.
Yesterday’s Security Council endorsement of a resolution that imposes a no-fly zone over Libya is a righting of the wrongs of history. In 1991, the international community and the ineffective Arab League found itself in a similar position when Iraqis rose up against the tyrannical dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. They left the Iraqis hanging, who, as a result, were slaughtered.
Now, with Qaddafi’s forces moving closer toward Benghazi, Libyans will not be as unlucky. A no-fly zone was always going to be the all-important factor in this bloody conflict. Yet, the conflict had, by the time of yesterday’s resolution, reached a point where a no-fly zone would have been too little too late, with Qaddafi checking the rebels’ westward progress and recapturing lost towns and cities in the rebel-controlled territories of the east.
Against all odds
Against all the odds, however, the Security Council went even further than a no-fly zone by implementing what Daniel Korski of the European Council on Foreign Relations had, three weeks ago, called the no-fly zone plus-one option: the use of air strikes to complement a no-fly zone that, on its own, would have merely sacrificed the exhausted and resource-diminished rebels to Qaddafi’s tanks and heavy artillery.
Although it may take a short while for the no-fly zone to be enforced, airstrikes can take place straightaway. They must start now, immediately and not later. Time is still of the essence: Qaddafi may now think twice about going into Benghazi will full force, since he risks having his planes and tanks destroyed, but not if there is even the slightest indication that it could be a number of days or weeks before the Security Council measures are implemented. How and when Qaddafi responds to yesterday’s measures will determine their effectiveness and the success of the uprising; It is, therefore, important that he is not given much choice.
Those who refused to back the UN resolution and oppose Western intervention in general are already being proven wrong: At the time of writing, Qaddafi’s regime had announced an immediate cease-fire, a markedly different stance to his previously defiant promise a week ago to take up arms against Western forces in the event of intervention. Nevertheless, the cease-fire announcement changes nothing. Reports suggest that Qaddafi’s forces continue to bombard rebel sites today and continue to inflict further casualties. As Western officials have rightly said, they’ll judge Qaddafi by his actions, not his words.
Devil in the details
The devil will, as always, be in the details. When the West does enforce the measures, the onus will turn on the Benghazi council and the rebels to organize themselves, operate around and take full advantage of the no-fly zone and Western airstrikes.
If Qaddafi decides to put his military march toward Benghazi on hold and instead tries to drain the rebels of their resources through a siege, then the West may have to consider providing them arms. Additionally, like many nascent opposition movements, the Benghazi council lacks depth, experience, and may suffer from internal disputes. At some point, they may require military advisers, who can impart lessons from the operational mistakes and successes of other rebel opposition groups elsewhere.
Nevertheless, the momentum has returned in their favor. Yesterday may be the day that won the conflict for the opposition; yesterday was also an example of diplomacy at its best and the international community uniting together to put humanity at the centre of attention. Prime Minister Cameron has ensured Britain and the West will, this time round, be on the right side of morality.
Ranj Alaaldin is a senior analyst at the Next Century Foundation. He is completing a doctorate on the Shiites of Iraq at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is also co-editor of a forthcoming book about the Iran-Iraq war.