Libya Queues in the No-fly Zone Quagmire

By Mehrunisa Qayyum

Who will be permitted to fly the friendly skies over Libya?  The clouds of various national interests and humanitarian rhetoric occupy the no-fly zone skies.  Hence, three arguments serve as the common denominator as purported by regional bodies, like the League of Arab States (LAS) and the African Union (AU), as well as powerful actors like the United States, EU and NATO.  Below summarize the three simultaneous conditions that must all emerge to warrant a no-fly zone.  However, the fourth alludes to the details that concern the remaining members of the UN Security Council (UNSC):

  1. 1. Support from the Middle East and North African region;
  2. 2. A clear, legal basis (UN Security Council Resolution);
  3. 3. There is demonstrable need (air attack on civilians); and
  4. 4. ????e.g. Who would be participating? Will certain areas be targeted?

The fourth condition, specifically, signifies the details of the proposed draft UN Security resolution for the no-fly zone.  In particular, the US, Russia, Germany and China continue to question Libya’s queue in the no-fly zone quagmire.  Issues will have to address humanitarian aid flights—such as identifying areas that would require safe passage.  Lebanon’s representative to the UN Security Council, and the proxy Arab Representative of the League, Ambassador Nawaf Salam, said his delegation worked with their counterparts at Libya’s U.N. to identify specific towns and regions that would need safe passage and protection.  The UN Security Council will review a possible “flight plan” to convince those like the US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice.

First things first: where does the international community, namely the US, stand on the first three conditions of the checklist?  The first condition, or the regionally born initiative, has been met by the recent LAS resolutions.  However, Libya’s quagmire underscores the tendency for contradictory statements to be issued within the same 24 hour period.  For example, the League passed two resolutions:

  • Request the UNSC to implement a no-fly zone.
  • Rejects any form of foreign intervention in Libya .

The League’s Secretary General, Amr Moussa declared that, “We are of the opinion that we should base our decision on the fact that we should prevent the bombardment of civilians, and provide freedom for the expression of Libyans to express their voice.”   Thus, the first of the three conditions have been met.

Ironically, the 21 Arab nations could only pass the first resolution if the foreign intervention safeguards resolution passed.  Simultaneous, but contradictory resolutions were passed to accommodate the six nations that opposed the no-fly zone.

(It is no surprise that all six Gulf Cooperation Council nations agreed early on that enacting a no-fly zone was necessary to challenge Gaddafi.)  Unfortunately a new problem presents itself as warned by US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates: to implement a no-fly zone means to DEGRADE Libyan air controls—which would require foreign intervention.  This problem reintroduces itself in discussion of the third condition.


Three events address the second condition on the list of the above requirements.

  • The UN General Assembly suspended Libya from the UN Human Rights Council;
  • The UNSC referred Gaddafi and his regime for investigation by the International Criminal Court; and
  • Human rights groups report over 1,000 men, women, and children have been killed by the combined use of mercenaries and jet power.

On March 2nd, spokesman Ali Zeidan of the local human rights group, Libyan Human Rights League, stated that, “The death toll from all parts of Libya reached 6,000 people.”
Zeidan broke the figures down reporting 3,000 victims killed in Tripoli; 2,000 victims killed in Benghazi; and 1,000 deaths from various other cities in Libya.  He added that the numbers could be more than the 6,000 deaths.

US Business Model: Pragmatism vs. Idealism


Regarding the third condition, two challenges continue to fog the US policy position.  The first challenge is predicting the potential gains for US interests when considering how to engage with Libya—especially since Gaddafi’s leadership has clearly divided the civil society from Libya’s present regime.  To get a pulse on Libya’s civil society, one can reflect upon the Gallup Update, Measuring the State of Muslim-West Relations: Assessing the New Beginning, released on November 28th, 2010.  For example, 30 percent of Libyans approve of US leadership’s job performance, which refers to the Obama administration. This mirrors Iraq’s response to the same question—another case study in no-fly zone challenges led by the United States.


Moreover, 50 percent of Libyans reported to Gallup that “greater interaction between Muslim and Western worlds is a benefit.”  Similarly, its western neighbor, Algeria, shared this view, but represented more pessimism since 47 percent of Algerians perceived the same type of interaction as a ‘threat’.  In contrast, neighboring Egypt’s civil society responses to Gallup revealed that 72 percent believed that “greater interaction between Muslim and Western worlds is a benefit.”  Again, Libyan civil society’s responses are more on par with Iraq’s civil society responses. (56 percent of Iraq’s civil society respondents reported that greater interaction between both worlds is a benefit.)  Thus, the Libyan civil society response does not emerge as an outlier in the MENA community, thereby supporting a regionally born initiative.

The US Also Sees Clouds

Contradictory statements seem to be a universal phenomenon—or at the very least unclear, “cloudy” rhetoric.  Across the Atlantic, the US military community differs from the legislative branch in the Libya assessment: provide humanitarian assistance whereas senior Senator McCain has called for arming Libya’s opposition forces.  (The irony of civilians arguing for more aggressive action, while the US military leadership argues for taking a back seat, simply reemphasizes the bipolar character of American foreign policy.)  Senator Kerry, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has proposed more US action by framing Libya as a human rights crisis.  As a result, the Senate approved a non-binding resolution calling for a no-fly zone over Libya and endorsing U.S. outreach to forces opposing Gaddafi’s regime on March 1st.

The Navy Times outlined that US navel support would most likely be humanitarian in scope where North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, like France and England, would have to take the lead in enforcing the no-fly zone.  A few days ago, March 8th, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that there currently is no plan to move the carrier Enterprise,” which is part of the US Navy’s 5th fleet off the coast of Manama in Bahrain.

Additionally, Secretary Gates stated that the NATO would need to utilize significant airpower to target both defense systems/jetfighters as well as the helicopters targeting rebels and civilian protesters.  (US Navy’s 5th Fleet operates from Manama, Bahrain for the Persian Gulf area.)  The US needs to focus on the strategic vision rather than the tactical mission of enforcing a no-fly zone.  Specifically, Gates calls for a return to a pragmatic approach regarding US interests.  That sounds like great advice to the board meeting of a multi-national company that has over-invested in certain sectors.  However, multi-national companies are not in the business of dealing with a looming humanitarian crisis.  Governments and international bodies are in that business, which is the first condition outlined earlier.

Most recently on the US-Libyan no-fly zone debate, US policymakers and the Obama Administration grappled with whether or not the Director of US National Intelligence, James Clapper, should resign based on his recent assessment of Libya.  Last week Clapper stated that President Gaddafi’s Libyan forces will prevail over rebels and dissidents.  However, the Obama administration disagreed by reiterating Obama’s remarks that Gaddafi has lost legitimacy and should leave power.  Obama’s assertion meets both the first and second conditions. President Obama’s National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon stated that, “things in Libya in particular right now, need to be looked at not through a static but through a dynamic … lens,”  according to The Navy Times.  This debate epitomizes the classic dichotomy of US foreign military policy: diplomatic language and evolving positions versus paradigm of US national security interests couched within military resources.

According to a Stratfor Intelligence Group report by George Friedman, who heads the prominent intelligence analysis group, states that US intervention may be coopted by Gaddafi.  Specifically, Gaddafi, who has ruled for 42 years, is prepared to accept the collateral damage and use it towards his political advantage by proving a self-fulfilling prophecy of foreign powers angling to upset the Libyan dynamic.


In addition, one worries when more conservative think tanks that tend to support more hawkish measures, like the American Enterprise Institute, emphasize the need to implement a no-fly zone to remove Gaddafi.  Then the goal morphs into a political opportunity to assert American influence, thereby subsuming the previous humanitarian argument for the no-fly zone: to protect Libyan civilians and intercede on their behalf.

Meanwhile, the League has opened dialogue with the Libyan opposition.  However, neither the EU nor the UN has initiated dialogue with Libya’s opposition.  US legislators believe this might present an opportunity to arm the opposition.

The Second Challenge: the Kosovar Parallel; Not Version 2 of Iraq

Once the US engages, the second challenge is reviewing what the lessons learned were from Kosovar’s no-fly zone case, another country that drew attention from the UNSC and NATO because of military forces massacring its civilians.

As The Guardian reflected, “An emergency EU summit in Brussels summoned the ghosts from the 1990s of division, appeasement, and impotence when Europe failed to halt the fighting in former Yugoslavia.”  Perhaps flashing back to the US action and position regarding Kosovar’s ethnic cleansing will help frame the US interests and potential gains in exploring options.  The UN Security Council did not act quickly.  Consequently, the US spearheaded the NATO No-fly zone.  The lesson learned from Kosovar: act quickly, but with consensus.  Or, an unsubstantiated precedent may be coopted by another country to suit its interests—circa 2007 when Russia used the Kosovar precedent to use airpower in neighboring Georgia.

Avaaz, meaning ‘voice’ in some Indo-European languages, recognizes the urgency of this lesson learned.  Avaaz, operates as a “global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere” and is currently engaging the global citizen across 193 countries to call upon the UN Security Council to enact a no-fly Zone over Libya.  (  On the flip side of political actors, civilian led virtual global movements might pave the way to enact a controversial military action that can meet both humanitarian and global security interests—rather than limiting debate to military might and neighboring countries’ interests.

All three conditions have been met, but without complete agreement on the fourth condition.  For example, “Germany’s Ambassador, Peter Wittig, said he raised questions he felt were not fully answered, including whether Arabs would participate in such a mission,” according to Voice of America’s late Tuesday night edition.

If efforts by civil society efforts, like Avaaz’s and supra-governmental bodies, like the League—via Lebanon and France—manage to sway the Security Council’s most hesitant members (US, Russia and China) to implement a no-fly zone, then how does the League ensure that foreign military intervention will not follow to satisfy its second resolution?

On Monday, Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 of its troops to help Bahrain “quell the unrest” immediately after LAS passed a resolution on Saturday to forbid “foreign military intervention.”  With respect to Libya’s civil unrest (including the civilians who are being pummeled by Gaddafi’s forces), why is it okay for Bahrain to have Saudi Arabia send 1,000 troops to quell the civil unrest—especially if Bahrainis are still getting hurt?  Does the recent resolution not apply in principle—or only when the countries are not part of the GCC?  Does “foreign” in this case translate as “anyone but members of LAS”?

To reframe Stratfor’s analysis for Libya: can the League, rather than Gaddafi, co-opt a no-fly zone to deal with Libya militarily?  At least the Security Council will take another shot at setting a no-fly zone precedent.  Let the co-optation maneuvering begin—again.



6 thoughts on “Libya Queues in the No-fly Zone Quagmire

  1. First legality you donot needed than no fly zone to shoot down the warcrimal airplanes sent your fighter into his airspace an claim your pilots press the wrong button which acciental fire the air to air mislies happen all the time.

    • Yes, there are many options. One of the options revisits a measure the US took in the early 80s in Afghanistan to fend off Soviet invasion. It’s been 2 decades, and the price of following through w/this measure is still being paid. I’d love to hear what other options the US can explore from your POV.

  2. Any US action will have to be determined by which “lens” it chooses to look through:the lens of US self interest as opposed to one of humanitarian crisis.The need for “foreign intervention” likewise is clouded by who is interpreting for whom:just as freedom fighter versus a terrorist is a label that depends on whom you ask in a given situation.On another note,regarding Saudi Arabia I must share my amusement:Their Highnesses,the Prince’s of Saudi Arabia,whose workforce (even army?) is all “imported” are quite impotent to do anything politically,much less “foreign intervention”,unless it is truly FOREIGN.

    • Thanks so much for reading it–I know this is a controversial subject for Americans. I’m still exploring the pros and cons in my mind b/c even w/good intentions, there are unintended consequences.

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