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No-fly zone: where will it lead?

Stopping a charnel house of slaughter if Gaddafi had re-taken Benghazi is a legitimate objective for imposing a no-fly zone provided it has been sanctioned by the UN Security Council, and especially in this case if it is supported by the Arab League. Now that that has been achieved however, the risks multiply. With Libya now declaring adherence to the UN resolution, a long stalemate could well result with Arab sentiment slowly ebbing away as gratitude for humanitarian intervention is gradually replaced by resentment at colonialist involvement.

Another dangerous scenario arises if ‘by all means necessary’ is perceived to be pushed to unnecessarily aggressive outcomes or to significant loss of civilian life. Of course the preferred outcome for the West is the collapse of resistance by the Libyan military in the face of overwhelming odds stacked against them, and thence Gaddafi being deposed or even assassinated. But who knows?   This is a very high-risk venture.

The worst fears that another Iraq or Afghanistan is under way are unlikely to be realised.   Most importantly of all, the no-fly zone has the authority of the UN; Iraq did not. Libya involves an air exclusion zone; Iraq led to a full-scale ground invasion. The Libyan intervention is supported by the Arab League; Iraq was not. The biggest danger however is that sanction for a no-fly zone to protect civilian life morphs into a campaign for regime-change, for which there is no explicit authority. That would require another UN resolution which is unlikely to be obtained unless Gaddafi, or his bloodthirsty sons, go on a rampage of destruction.

A great deal hinges on this Libyan venture. If it succeeds, it could greatly embolden democratic protests in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria and ultimately Saudi Arabia. Much will depend on whether the rebels in Benghazi can raise a democratic standard which inspires the rest of the country to join the rebellion now that carnage at the hands of a vengeful Gaddafi clan has been blocked. At best, after Egypt and Tunis, this could finally swing the Arab nation behind the revolution and the transformation of the Middle East. But history rarely offers such a clean denouement. More likely this is just one step along a hazardous, unpredictable, perhaps intractable, struggle.

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