Colonel Gaddafi’s regime is on the brink and nearing collapse. At the same time, however, the people of Libya are also edging closer towards slaughter at the hands of a regime that has proven and explicitly stated that it will be brutal and unwavering in its efforts to suppress the uprising in the country.
The time has come for the international community to stop looking at events in Libya through the prisms of Tunisia and Egypt and come to terms with the reality that the Gaddafi regime is a different animal altogether.
The people of Libya can only do so much. They have the power of the masses and may become too difficult a challenge to contain by the Libyan security forces and their hired foreign henchmen. Members of the security forces, along with senior diplomats and major tribes, have already defected. In other words, through the power of numbers, the Libyan population may be able to overcome Gaddafi and his inner circle who have a superiority in arms.
But what the regime still has and what the people of Libya are unable to match is the all-significant and decisive impact weapon that is airpower. The ability that is to effortlessly and unrelentlessly put down a population and the passion and resolve it has so admirably exercised.
This is where the international community, and particularly the west, can come in to feasibly support the Libyan people. With or without a Security Council resolution, the west must not simply condemn the repression of the Libyan civilian population and push for allowing access for international humanitarian organisations, but also impose a no-fly zone in the country.
No-fly zones are an important tool of conflict management that provide an effective way to support the besieged Libyan population in what is a dangerous conflict area, and with relatively little risk. The policy works. Go ask the Kurds in Iraq. Following the end of the first Gulf War, a no-fly zone in the north of Iraq was declared in March 1991 to protect Iraqi Kurds after Saddam Hussein's regime had put down their uprising. That policy ensured Saddam was never again able to inflict upon the Kurds the massacres he had continuously subjected them to in previous years, the most macabre being the 1988 chemical bombardment of Halabja that killed 5,000 Kurds almost instantly.
This constitutes a middle-ground intervention on the part of the international community that avoids direct-armed conflict with Libya and instead falls between full-scale military intervention and a temporary bombing campaign. Direct military action may have unintended consequences and compound the situation by forcing the regime to adopt a scorched-earth policy, whilst simultaneously supporting the regime’s claims to its people that “foreign agents” are at play in the unrest. A move of this type will only help the regime's propaganda and may lead to the failure of the revolution.
Few people will support the claim that Gaddafi is a lesser evil than Saddam. A no-fly zone will ensure Libyan helicopter gunships are not used to dreadful effect against indiscriminate targets like they were during the 1991 uprising in Iraq. It will deprive the regime of the ability to enforce extraordinarily brutal countermeasures from the air, like the bombardment of heavily populated residential areas and the destroying of homes.
As the regime becomes more and more desperate, so too will its response become more brutal. Can the international community depend and pin their hopes on further defections and pilots refusing to carry out such orders, like the two that yesterday sought asylum in Malta? Maybe. But the prudent person would argue that is a risk too grave to take and one that effectively gambles with the lives of thousands. The city of Benghazi, reportedly under the control of the regime’s opponents, has a population of 600,000. It will be the first to be hit and the international community will be unable to do anything but disgracefully watch.
Failure to prevent genocides and massacres around the world has put the international community on the wrong side of history. Yet, this is a chance to prevent another mass atrocity from taking place, a chance for us to take a responsible measure rather than a reactionary one that comes too late. The international community has the capacity to limit Gaddafi's capacity for mass murder by keeping his bombers grounded.
The measure itself will be difficult to contest. Protestors have been fired on from planes and helicopters already. Al-Jazeera has reported of military aircraft firing live ammunition yesterday at crowds of anti-government protesters in the capital Tripoli. Yesterday’s defection by two Libyan pilots proves that the order to slaughter the people has already been given. One can only hope that an internal dispute within the Libyan government prevented a further two from being deployed for the same purpose. The Libyans may not be so lucky again.