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 Libya: Shifting sands

The Guardian
21 March 2011

The tension between the responsibility to protect civilians and helping rebels to oust a tyrant will only grow in the coming days

Air Vice-Marshal Osborn said yesterday his commanders were "entirely comfortable" with the missile strikes on Libya. Amr Moussa, the outgoing secretary general of the Arab League, for one, was not. Calling an emergency meeting one day after attending the first gathering of the coalition in Paris, Mr Moussa said that he agreed to the protection of civilians, not the bombardment of more civilians. The support of the Arab League is central to the claim by David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama that the operation has regional support. This supposedly makes it different from Iraq in 2003. Dr Liam Fox, the defence secretary, went further. He said active Arab participation in the no-fly zone made it clear to the Arab street that the attack on Libya was an attack on a tyrant, not the Arab world. Mr Moussa's statement throws that ambition into doubt. A strong Arab League statement pushed the UN security council to act with speed, so the criticism could be levelled: what did it expect?

Not a full-scale assault on Gaddafi's army, which is what it got. Mr Moussa's reaction is a reminder of the political limits of a resolution designed to save civilian lives. This is an inherently defensive concept. The tension between the responsibility to protect civilians and helping rebels to oust a tyrant will only grow in the coming days. The first blows in the campaign were a purely western affair. French Mirage jets shot up an armoured column south of Benghazi and the assault on the city was routed. Cruise missiles fired from US and British ships, submarines and aircraft destroyed radar, communications and air defence sites. Weeks of bloody urban fighting in Benghazi may have been prevented by the French action, although it could equally be argued that a speedy UN resolution may have precipitated a push into built-up areas, which provided Gaddafi's columns cover from the air.

As the military pendulum swings back into the favour of the rebels, calculations will change. Gaddafi's forces will be thrown back into defending Tripoli. Civilians could rise up against the tyrant and all would then be over. It would be good if that happened. But if they stand and fight, what then? Will French Mirages and British Typhoons be used like Nato air cover in Afghanistan, to knock out loyalist positions attempting to hold off a rebel advance? How does a responsibility to protect civilian life work in the circumstances where Gaddafi loyalists are defending their patch and the rebels are standing outside at the gates? The rationale of the resolution would then be to enforce a ceasefire, but that would mean keeping Gaddafi in power. (…)

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