Libya No-Fly-Zone Is Anything But

NATO appears to be enforcing the UN-approved measure selectively

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The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) assumed command and control over the western-led intervention in the Libyan civil war four months ago with three stated military missions: enforce an arms embargo, enforce a no-fly-zone, and protect civilians and civilian populated areas.

As I have noted often on this blog, NATO has selectively enforced the arms embargo by looking the other way when the rebels were caught red handed violating it. Furthermore, after NATO ally France was exposed by Le Figaro for violating the arms embargo by air-dropping rocket launchers, machine guns, and anti-tank grendaes to Libyan rebels, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen responded: "I don't consider the so-called arms drop a problem." Alliance spokesperson Oana Lungescu added, despite all public evidence to the contrary, that "the arms embargo is effective."

Now, there is growing evidence that NATO is also selectively enforcing the no-fly-zone over Libya. The international mandate for NATO's intervention is UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973, the latter of which establishes "a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians."

Last Wednesday, an unnamed Financial Times reporter wrote: "Supplies to the Nafusa region have to be brought in on long road journeys from neighbouring Tunisia, although there is also an aircraft that comes from Benghazi." Indeed, Ali Tarhouni, the Oil and Finance Minister of the rebels' National Transitional Council, was on-hand to celebrate what was the third no-fly-zone violation from this airport (For a photograph of an Air Libya plane taking off from the Rhebat Airfield in Benghazi, see here).

On Thursday, without pointing out that the alliance was actually not enforcing a no-fly-zone, William Booth of the Washington Post added: "Although NATO enforces a no-fly-zone over Libya, it appears to allow rebel flights that shuttle personnel, food, medicine -- and allegedly some weapons and communications equipment."

UN Security Council Resolution 1973 contains an important caveat: it does not apply to humanitarian flights, "such as delivering or facilitating the delivery of assistance, including medical supplies, food, humanitarian workers and related assistance."

However, Libyan rebels acknowledge that these flights are being used for military purposes, in clear violation of the resolution. "The importance of this airport is bringing humanitarian aid and military supplies for our rebel brothers... in the Nafusa Mountains," said Mohammed al-Bujdidi, a rebel commander near the airport. This is consistent with countless reports of a rebel tactic for smuggling weapons into Libya--namely within supposed humanitarian aid shipments.

Furthermore, the Libyan rebels have a small number of MIG-21 fighter aircraft that have flown within the supposed no-fly-zones. Three armed MIG-21s were photographed in late June flying in formation over the Benina Airport, and a video of a rebel's armed fighter jet being serviced before takeoff is available here.

The truth of NATO's intended strategic objective in Libya was articulated with rare candor last week by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta: "The objective is to do what we can to bring down the regime of [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi." Increasingly, and more overtly, the three military missions that NATO claims to be conducting in Libya are being utilized in a coordinated effort to remove Qaddafi from power.  As a local rebel commander in Libya's western mountains told CBS Evening News on Friday: "When we get permission from NATO we will advance forward."

This article originally appeared at

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Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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