Too late for intervention as Gaddafi pushes east

March 15, 2011 - 0:0

As Col Gaddafi's forces crush the rebel strongholds of eastern Libya, time seems to be running out for the imposition of a no-fly zone. Even if a coalition of the willing, backed by the UN and the Arab League at a minimum, could cobble together a no-fly operation in a week or so, it would be too late.

All the more surprising, then, that the British prime minister and his supporters continue to be so keen for such a plan. David Cameron's enthusiasm seems undimmed as the scene now shifts to the UN where it is likely some sort of proposal for restraining Gaddafi's forces is about to be tabled.
The stance of the British government contrasts sharply with its patent reluctance over Afghanistan. Just when British forces appear to be making some headway in Helmand the word from Kabul is still that Cameron 'wants out' of Afghanistan - and a lot earlier than he has publicly declared to date. According to numerous British and allied sources, he would like to see British military and aid efforts being cut back sharply this time next year.
The Cameron belief in intervention in Libya had a ringing, if somewhat bizarre, endorsement this weekend in the Sunday Telegraph from former Spectator editor Matthew d'Ancona, who even went so far as to suggest that ""Britain could impose a no-fly zone without American support"".
D'Ancona declared Cameron and Sarkozy to ""be far ahead of the pack in Europe"" on the issue, while Barack Obama is ""tantalizingly unclear"". He accused the American president of presenting his indecision ""as positively virtuous, a sign of statesmanship"".
D'Ancona is a contemporary of the Cameron circle in almost every sense - class, upbringing and education - and he is evidently reflecting a significant strand of thinking in the prime minister's inner circle.
He says this is not a neo-con plot - the gospel according to Wolfowitz - nor the woolly principled liberal interventionism of Tony Blair. Rather, it is a matter of vital interests. ""Even if one sets aside its importance as an oil-producing nation, Libya remains central to Britain's strategic and commercial interests in the region,"" d'Ancona tells us.
Whatever Cameron's thinking, not only would it be hard to mount a no-fly operation, covering thousands of miles of coast and desert and front, it wouldn't work. Most of the fighting now is in the cities, where fast aircraft will be hardly used.
No-fly regimes cannot deter determined ground forces. The NATO no-fly regime did worse than nothing to prevent the Muslim males of the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica being massacred in their thousands by the Serb militias in July 1995 – the feebleness of the NATO operations positively encouraged the Serb leadership.
A no-fly zone patrolled by British, American and occasionally French aircraft in Iraq between 1991 and 2003 was also a failure. Saddam Hussein did not fly fixed-wing aircraft, but his helicopters flew with impunity, contributing to the deaths of some 30,000 Shias.
The same would apply in Libya, where Gaddafi has a potent force of Russian Hind attack helicopters, which are sure to be used against outbreaks of urban revolt. Any containment of Gaddafi would be bound to involve some form of ground operation, which means picking sides and arming – and training – the insurgents.
This would take a lot of time and money – at a time when the UK defense budget is already overspent for this current year, and even further cuts are likely.
The cuts announced last year means our forces are below 'critical mass' - incapable of the tasks for which they are designed. They can manage only one full-scale operation – Afghanistan – and a few bits of light peacekeeping and garrison duty – such as the Falklands – as things stand. So how does the UK have the means to lead the pack on a Libyan no-fly zone?
It now looks as if Libya will become ungoverned space – where clan Gaddafi can hold on with its militias until the money runs out. The country will become the springboard for illegal migrants into Europe, and they will probably be arriving by the million in the coming months.
The Libyan puzzle cannot be treated like a video war game, of which I understand the prime minister is fond. In the real world, strategy doesn't come with the push of a button. (Source: