The Case Against a No-Fly Zone in Libya

It's an intervention tool with a short and inauspicious history


Western response to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's slaughter of Libyan protesters, though initially slow, culminated on Saturday with the United Nations Security Council imposing sanctions and referring Qaddafi to the International Criminal Court. Calls are echoing from around the world for the international community to go one step further and impose a no-fly zone over Libya or at least the capital city of Tripoli, where Qaddafi has deployed his air force against his own population. Proponents include French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a number of U.S. lawmakers, and Arab organizations from 18 countries. President Obama has put it "on the table" as a possible response. But enforcing a no-fly zone (NFZ) over Libya is unlikely to do as much good as its backers hope, and could in fact backfire.

NFZs are not a frequently used tool in the international community's array of potential response mechanisms to internal violence. This is because they only address a symptom of conflict rather than the cause, are complicated to implement, have historically had middling results, and can draw states further into conflict rather than resolving them.

NFZs have been implemented in only a few cases in the last twenty years. During the Bosnian war, Operation Deny Flight (March 1993 to December 1995) and Operation Deliberate Force (August to September 1995) were imposed over the war zone. Designed to deny the Serbian air force the ability to deploy airpower, these NFZs did little to stop the worst abuses of that conflict, including the infamous Srebrenica massacre among other atrocities. Intra-state conflicts, as in Libya today, are ultimately conducted on the ground. The Serbs only came to the negotiating table once the land power balance shifted against them. Certainly NFZs contributed to this, but were not the determining factor. Armies cannot be defeated by air forces alone.

In the first Gulf War, the U.S.-led coalition imposed Operation Provide Comfort (May 1991 to December 1996) and Operation Northern Watch (January 1997 to March 2003) over much of northern Iraq. Designed to provide air cover for the large humanitarian aid response in the Kurdish north, these NFZs were largely successful for two reasons. Firstly, the proximity of airbases in Turkey and Europe made it easy to deploy persistent and wide coverage. Secondly and most importantly, the Kurdish peshmerga militia already controlled much of the contested ground. The NFZ only had to complement that ground-based force. No such dominantground force exists today in Libya.

The post-war NFZ over southern Iraq tells a different story. Operation Southern Watch (August 1992 to March 2003) failed to stop Saddam Hussein's devastating use of ground forces against a weak and fractured Shiite opposition. Saddam's regime perpetrated countless atrocities in the south and regained total control, despite the ever-present coalition fighters aloft.

Libya is a large country and violence has been reported over a vast area, but the greater an area of enforcement, the more difficult an NFZ becomes and the less likely to be effective. The Bosnian NFZ was conducted over a small airspace just 51,000 square miles, and even the Iraq cases were larger at approximately 100,000 square miles. A proposed NFZ over Darfur was mooted in part because the region, at 550,000 square miles, is simply too big.

Unlike in Iraq and Bosnia, there are no obvious air bases near Libya from which to impose an NFZ, so the aircraft would likely have to be based on aircraft carrier. But it's not clear that the U.S., or even NATO, has that kind of capacity to spare. Using European bases would require many more aircraft as the greater distance severely limits the amount of time each plane could actually spend over Libya.

Any NFZ carries two serious risks: downing the wrong aircraft, such as an aid flight or transport; and getting drawn into the conflict on the ground. Even if Qaddafi doesn't provoke ground strikes by shooting at occupying planes, it's not hard to see how the NFZ could escalate into a bombing campaign. It could quickly devolve into a "no drive zone" operation, in which Libyan ground forces such as tanks, artillery, and convoys become targets. As the NFZ escalates, so does the risk of losing planes and pilots, as does the possibility of mistakenly bombing protesters, some of whom already occupy military bases and could try to use the hardware themselves.

The violence in Libya presents unique challenges for the international community, which may yet decide that a no-fly zone is the best way forward. But NFZ proponents may want to look past any knee-jerk desire to protect the protesters by the strongest means possible and consider the complicated history of this particular tool. The past has shown us that NFZs are not a cure-all. If the violence continues, the international community will have to make a hard choice between more substantive intervention or simply letting the Libyans determine the matter for themselves. Neither option is especially attractive, but that may just be the nature of Qaddafi's conflict.

Photo by John Moore/AFP/Getty