On international intervention and the dire situation in Libya

Asli Bali and Ziad Abu-Rish write:

The first test of any would-be interventionist is this: do no harm. And there is very little evidence that direct intervention in the Libyan case could meet this test. For instance, calls for a no-fly zone by Libya’s Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. (drawing on the Iraqi precedent of the 1990s) and an air campaign by others (drawing on the Kosovo precedent from 1999) would surely fail this test. Neither option would shield the Libyan civilian population from the regime’s coercive apparatus (which is not principally aerial) and both options may entail serious costs to civilians by freezing or exacerbating the situation on the ground. Beyond raising questions of enforcement (would international forces fire on Libyan aircraft?), a no-fly zone might well block one method of escape for Libyan civilians or close an avenue for defections by members of the air force, such as the four pilots that are known to have flown out and defected in disobedience of direct orders to bomb civilians. Alternatively, air strikes run the risk of serious damage to both the civilian population and infrastructure. In short, any intervention must be crafted to offer real support to the civilian population of Libya, which direct forms of coercive intervention like no-fly zones or air strikes would not. But are there other forms of intervention that would be better suited to the task? Given limited knowledge of Libya’s internal dynamics at present and the heavy-handed interventionist toolkit developed to date by the international community any such option must be approached with caution.

Coercive options should be taken off the table. Absent the political will to commit ground forces to serve as a meaningful buffer between the regime and the population, any coercive intervention will do more damage (particularly to civilians) than good. Further, even if the political will existed for forceful intervention to offer direct protection to Libyan civilians, history suggests that the ultimate outcome of such intervention would still be harmful. Aside from the obvious potential threats to the civilian populations from the presence of foreign troops on their soil, including risks from a ground conflict and risks associated with the possibility of a prolonged presence, there are additional considerations that weigh against such intervention. At a time when the regime appears to be crumbling from within, as a result of the courageous mobilization of its own people, to engage in an eleventh hour intervention runs the very serious risk of depriving the Libyan people of their control over the hard-won transition they have initiated. To rebrand the Libyan uprising with the last minute trappings of international liberation (read: “Made in the West”) would do a serious disservice to the achievements of the protesters. Of course, none of this is to absolve the international community of its obligation to support Libyan civilians. Rather, we seek to identify a principled course of action that speaks to the dire situation, our responsibilities towards it, and the power relations that frame it.

In the immediate context, the most appropriate role for the international community is in providing humanitarian assistance and desisting from any further support to the regime. In addition to condemning the regime’s resort to violence, there are at least five modalities for the provision of such assistance, all of which should be employed immediately, with the support of the Security Council. First, all borders should be opened and appropriate facilities created to allow Libyan civilians to flee regime violence. If various governments are going to create exit routes through charter flights and land crossings for their own citizens, they also need to create a mechanism for Libyans to get out. Second, all available means for providing direct humanitarian assistance on the ground to the Libyan population should be utilized, including aid convoys to eastern Libya through Egypt and to western Libya through Tunisia. Third, al-Qaddafi’s assets and those of remaining elements of the regime should be frozen and kept in safe keeping to be given to whatever post-Qaddafi system emerges. Fourth, governments with ties to Libya should immediately sever all military ties, withholding delivery of materiel and cancelling all outstanding contracts. Finally, an arms embargo should be imposed preventing the sale or delivery of military equipment or personnel (including foreign mercenaries) to the Libyan state security forces. Sanctions that target military materiel, services and the movement of reinforcements from among foreign mercenaries are essential. Sanctions that go beyond these aims would run the risk of causing more harm to civilians than to the regime.

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