Libyan no-fly zone under fire

Libyan no-fly zone appears to lack direction as operations enter third day. Thousands of young Gbagbo supporters rush to enlist in national army. Yemeni general backs rebels after army fires on protestors. Bahrain’s monarch thanks GCC states for help in foiling foreign plot to destabilise the kingdom.
Josephine Whitaker
22 March 2011

Libyan no-fly zone under fire

Just four days after the United Nations Security Council passed UNSC resolution 1973, the operation to impose a no-fly zone over Libya led jointly by France, Britain and the United States is already mired in controversy.

Several key states including Germany and Turkey have voiced their opposition to the operation. The African Union has called for an end to air strikes designed to take out Libya’s air force. Arab League secretary Amr Moussa this weekend veered from condemning reported civilian casualties resulting from the strikes, to reiterating his support for the operation.

Unfortunately, civilian casualties resulting from the establishment of a no-fly zone were an inevitable risk that all parties signed up to when they voted on the resolution. Using air power to destroy military facilities is by nature an imprecise and difficult task, which may lead to (and may have already led to) civilian deaths in Libya. This does not mean that the alliance of countries contributing militarily to establish this zone should not exercise the utmost caution. What it does mean is that these problems should not be used to delegitimize the entire operation.

Ultimately, the decision to impose a no-fly zone was, while belated, the right one. The international community had a clear responsibility to protect Libyan civilians at immediate risk of attack. Gaddafi’s threats to “cleanse Libya house by house” of the “cockroaches” that had challenged his authority left no doubt about his intentions, thus making a clear case for humanitarian intervention in Libya. His regime’s behaviour since Thursday, initially declaring a ceasefire and then almost immediately violating it, served to confirm suspicions that Gaddafi never intended to comply with resolution 1973.

Resolution 1973 may well go down as a seminal moment in UN history. This intervention is different from the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan that have marred the first decade of the twenty-first century, made the world suspicious of ‘western- led’ intervention, and made the ‘west’ itself reluctant to get involved in situations such as the one unfolding in Libya. Arab League backing was crucial to the passage of the resolution, and while Amr Moussa may have wobbled over the weekend, Arab League support now looks solid.

US reluctance to get involved, which many saw as dithering, was more likely a cunning political ploy to avoid the operation becoming seen as a US-led intervention. Obama’s announcement on Monday that the US would cede its leading role in the operation “within days,” and act as “one of the partners among many,” clearly indicates a desire to make sure that this is not a US-led intervention. While sceptics may argue that his statement is merely a political get-out clause to absolve the US of responsibility for whatever happens next, it is also crucial to its success that the campaign is not US-led.

Despite the positives of resolution 1973 – that the international community finally pulled itself together and ‘did something’ about the impending humanitarian crisis in Libya, there remain genuine problems with the intervention as it currently stands.

Firstly, in the rush to take action after much shilly-shallying on all sides, debate about overall strategy – not just tactics – seems to have been squeezed out. The only agreement is that no-one wants to get saddled with ‘owning’ whatever comes after the no-fly zone has been established.

Both US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have suggested that the mission should soon come under Nato control. However, clear divisions remain within the organisation about the wisdom of this. Germany and France are reluctant for the operation to come under Nato command, fearing criticism from the Middle East if things do not progress well. Turkey, meanwhile, has threatened to veto Nato taking responsibility for the mission if it exceeds the mandate of resolution 1973.

A related problem is that there does not appear to be agreement on the ultimate objective of the operation. Resolution 1973 is couched in the language of humanitarian intervention, calling for members to use “all necessary means” to protect civilians. While this is all well and good, serious questions remain about whether a no-fly zone on its own is enough to do this, especially given that it is Gaddafi’s ground troops that are making in-roads into rebel-held areas at present.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the question of whether Gaddafi will remain. Controversy grew on Monday after reports of a Sunday-night strike against Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli. Despite earlier statements from American, British and French leaders that Gaddafi “needs to go,” the official verdict seems to be that the option of regime change is off the table because it is clearly prohibited by resolution 1973.

This lack of debate about ultimate objectives and over-arching strategy has prompted fears amongst many analysts that, while the world is keen to ‘do something’ about Libya, it lacks the will to bring about a decisive resolution to the crisis. Partial intervention, involving only minimum engagement, may do more harm than good in destabilising Libya, jeopardising civilian lives and undermining the political credibility of those who have challenged Gaddafi’s regime.

The most likely outcome is therefore a stalemate, in which Gaddafi continues to predate on the territory he controls, whilst posing a continual threat to that held by the rebels. Gaddafi is not going to agree to the implementation of a national unity government, nor is he going to preside benignly over a democratic transition.

A final issue for consideration is the continued inconsistent application of the responsibility to protect doctrine. As long as the international community, led by the UN, continues to resist applying this doctrine to all conflicts with high civilian costs, such as Somalia and Ivory Coast, it leaves itself open to the charge of ulterior motives. Indeed, already many are suspicious of the ‘western’ interest in Libya’s oil, as this eighteen-page statement issued by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, in which he accuses intervention of wanting Libyan oil, demonstrates. While this inconsistency does not constitute an argument against intervention in Libya, it has real potential to undermine the credibility of such intervention and so is something the leaders of the operation should at least consider.

So while the world is applauding itself for taking action to protect Libya’s citizens, it should not rest on its laurels. There is much more work to be done if this intervention is not to make the situation in Libya worse, rather than better.


Thousands of young Gbagbo supporters rush to enlist in national army

Thousands of young men loyal to disputed Ivorian president, Laurent Gbagbo, this morning gathered at a military base in to enlist in the country’s national army, as the UN faces increasing pressure to take action in Ivory Coast.

Gbagbo, who has refused to concede power since November’s presidential poll, is seeking to stir up popular support and bolster his forces against Alassane Ouattara, internationally-recognised president of Ivory Coast. Despite international backing, Ouattara has remained holed up in a luxury hotel in Ivory Coast’s commercial capital, Abidjan, protected by UN peacekeepers since November. Gbagbo retains practical control of the country’s armed forces, and enjoys popular support throughout the south of the country.

The young activists who this morning rushed to enlist in the pro-Gbagbo military were responding to the call of ‘General’ Charles Ble Goude, Gbagbo’s youth minister, known as ‘the general of the streets’ for his ability to stir up a crowd. Goude, who heads the Young Patriots militia and faces UN sanctions for inciting previous violence, on Saturday urged young men to join the fight against Ouattara.

Goude called on “all the youth of Ivory Coast… who can no longer accept the humiliation suffered by the Ivory Coast” to sign up, saying they would become part of the state’s formal army. Analysts have questioned what training and arms the new recruits will be given, pointing to the deleterious impact this political crisis has had on IC’s economy since November.

The unfolding crisis in Ivory Coast, formerly the world’s top cocoa producer, has led to an estimated 440 deaths since violence began in November. Gbagbo’s forces stand accused of committing crimes against humanity by several international human rights organisations. The UN High Commission for Refugrees estimates that around 500 000 have been displaced by the violence, with up to 90 000 refugees in Liberia alone. Local reports of a growing movement of people out of Abidjan on Sunday indicate that civilians still feel at risk in Ivory Coast, as the situation escalates out of control.

The UN faces mounting pressure to take stronger action to protect civilians in the country. The 10 000-strong peace keeping mission is facing calls to take tougher action. However, it also stands accused by Gbagbo of partiality, after it validated the results of the election that declared Ouattara the winner. Ouattara’s spokeswoman has called on the UN to “move fast, the people are in danger. It must take its responsibilities.”

Events in Ivory Coast have been overshadowed in recent months by developments in the Middle East. The recent UN resolution authorising humanitarian intervention in Libya has angered Ouattara’s supporters. Ouattara’s spokeswoman said “we can’t understand that the IC has mobilised for Libya and can’t take firm decisions on the IC.” French foreign minister Alain Juppe called on the UN to “play its role more effectively.”

There are also growing fears that conflict could destabilise West Africa. UNHCR head Antonio Guterres said “the risks of the destabilising the region are enormous.”


Yemeni general backs rebels after army fires on protestors.

A top Yemeni general, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, has announced his support for the youth-led anti-government movement that has gained momentum in recent weeks in this impoverished gulf state. General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, in tendering his resignation, said that “according to what I’m feeling, and according to the feelings of my partner commanders and soldiers… I announce our support and our peaceful backing to the youth revolution. We are going to fulfil our duties in persevering security and stability.”

Two other senior commanders from Saleh’s Hashid tribe have also resigned in recent days. The deputy speaker of parliament, the governor of Aden, and Yemen’s ambassadors to Syria and Saudi Arabia are also believed to have resigned. Sadiq al-Ahmar, head of the Hashid tribal federation said it was time for Saleh to make a “quiet exit”.

These high-profile resignations come after troops opened fire on peaceful protestors in the capital Sana’a on Friday, killing 45. Plain clothes gunmen fired on a large rally in the capital’s central square, in what has widely been described as a massacre.

On Sunday, Saleh sacked the entire cabinet in response to the protests. The president remains defiant, claiming that “the great majority of the Yemeni people are with security, stability and constitutional law.” The National Defence Council, which includes the country’s top military commanders, said it will oppose efforts to topple Saleh, and “will not allow under any circumstances an attempt at a coup against democracy and constitutional legitimacy.”

Since protests began in Yemen several weeks ago, Saleh has positioned himself as a bulwark against chaos and terrorism. Yemen, which is battling an al Qaeda presence plus a secession movement in the south and an insurgency in the north, has become a key ally of the US and UK in anti-terrorism operations. Saleh has also sought to position himself as voice of constitutional government and order.

With the complex power balance in Yemen, which involves tribal patronage networks as well as formal political institutions, it is not clear what the general’s resignation will mean for Saleh.


Bahrain’s monarch thanks GCC states for help in foiling foreign plot to destabilise the kingdom

Bahrain’s monarch on Monday thanked Bahrain’s neighbours on the Gulf Cooperation Council for their assistance in foiling an alleged foreign plot to destabilise the kingdom. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa said that “an external plot has been fomented for twenty to thirty years until the ground was ripe for subversive designs.” Bahrain’s leader also warned of the destabilisation of the entire region as a result of unrest in Bahrain.

Thanks to last week’s intervention of more than 1000 troops from neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the plot was foiled. The Bahraini army plus Saudi and Emirati troops earlier this week smashed the main protest site in Manama. The force of this crackdown has alarmed international observers, and led the UN human rights chief to condemn the “shocking” use of force by state security forces.

The crackdown has also inflamed tensions with Iran, which sees itself as the protector of Shias in the region. The majority of protestors against the Sunni-dominated monarchy are Shias. While protestors have emphasised that their aims are not sectarian, Iran’s intervention may undermine their position. Tensions between Bahrain and Iran have also led to a series of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions over the last few days.


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