World help for rebels in Libya: Is a no-fly zone the only answer?

Obama wants Qaddafi to leave, but a no-fly zone may not be doable or adequate. Also a humanitarian crisis may demand a stronger response.

President Obama appeared to make a rather strong commitment last week. He declared that, “The aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom, democracy, and dignity must be met.”

And he demanded that Muammar Qaddafi give up power and leave – the same way that dictators in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt left after popular uprisings.

This week, the president and many leaders in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe are trying to make good on such objectives. Their success would not only save civilian lives but also influence pro-democracy rebellions in other Arab lands.

Time is short to decide if outside intervention is needed. Preferably not. But the well-armed military of Mr. Qaddafi has a strong advantage with the use of fighter aircraft and appears to be holding the ground forces of ragtag rebel groups to a stalemate for control of key cities along the Mediterranean coast.

The UN says more than a million people are fleeing the fighting – and in urgent need of aid. Human rights groups say at least 3,000 people have been killed.

So far, Qaddafi remains defiant to the UN’s moves to freeze his assets, prosecute him for any war crimes, and impose an arms embargo on Libya. He has a history of mass slaughter of his political opponents, not to mention his role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 107.

Mr. Obama was smart to position naval warships with US Marines off the coast of Tripoli, just in case Qaddafi resorts to mass killing of civilians. NATO planes also now conduct 24-hour aerial surveillance of Libya.

But more is being sought, and not just by Congress.

The 22-nation Arab League as well as many prominent Libyans are asking the United Nations to authorize a no-fly zone in hopes of helping the rebels. The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates wants the Security Council to “shoulder its historical responsibility for protecting the Libyan people.”

The British and French are preparing a UN resolution in support of a no-fly zone, and leaders from both NATO and the European Union are meeting over the next few days to form a consensus on possible steps to take.

Allowing Qaddafi to win, or even to create a stalemate in the conflict, would have disastrous repercussions, not only for Libyans who rebelled but throughout the region. Obama’s commitment to Qaddafi’s ouster would mean nothing, damaging US credibility to influence events in the Middle East.

At the same time, a no-fly zone may be difficult to implement without risk of a larger war. Unless many Arab and African leaders fully back such an action, Libyans as well as others in the Middle East would see such intervention as Western meddling. And diverting military resources to Libya might jeopardize the West’s ability to deal with another Arab revolt it if becomes violent.

An easier course might be to arm the Libyan rebels and give them technical support – although the UN arms embargo would need to be changed.

Obama as well as other Western leaders who seek an end to the Qaddafi regime must make sure they have political support at home before taking military action.

Protecting Libya’s civilians is just one task. The other is regime change, as Obama spelled out. The former could be a necessity. The latter would help accelerate the “Arab awakening,” but it is far more complex and dangerous, especially because of Libya’s many tribal differences.

Action by the international community, at least for now, seems assured with Obama’s commitment for change in Libya. Having raised the hopes of Libyans and young Arabs elsewhere, however, world leaders can’t let them down.

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