Libya Conflict: Do No-Fly Zones Work?

An international coalition led by French fighter jets, which are patrolling the airspace, has destroyed its first target. Rob Verger asks foreign policy experts if no-fly zones work. 

Calling the mission Operation Odyssey Dawn, the U.S. launched its first missiles against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on Saturday, according to a Defense Department official. The beginning of the U.S. intervention comes just after France jumped in, launching its own strikes against a Libyan tank just hours after an international coalition made up of European and Arab countries pledged to take military action against Gaddafi. French President Nicolas Sarkozy credited the French strikes for preventing pro-Gaddafi forces from attacking the opposition stronghold of Benghazi. Speaking on Libya, Hillary Clinton said “we will stand with the people of Libya and we will not waver [in our effort] to protect them.”

But will the intervention help squelch an escalating conflict? Rob Verger polls six foreign policy experts. Plus, Michael O’Hanlon on the logistics of intervening in Libya.

After weeks of international debate, the United Nations Security Council voted Thursday to approve a no-fly zone over Libya. Designed to squelch Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal air strikes against a ragtag opposition, the resolution cleared the council with a 10-0 vote (Russia, China, Germany, Brazil, and India abstained) and was part of broader language that approved “all necessary measures” to protect Libya’s citizens.

But will it work?

Former President Bill Clinton made noise on the subject last week in an interview at Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Women in the World summit. Departing from the position of the Obama administration at the time—and that of his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—the former president endorsed a no-fly zone with the caveat that “it’s a lot easier for me to say this publicly, I’m sure, than if I were in a decision-making position.” He added: “There are also some military people who don't think it will do any good, and say, ‘Oh, these no-fly zones in the past have not done any good.’ That’s just not true. The no-fly zone over Iraq enabled the Kurds to survive and establish a political identity and the closest thing to a semblance of democracy that existed in Iraq in their regions before the fall of Saddam... They don’t always work. You have to know what the facts are. In this case, my gut is, it would work pretty well.”

Micah Zenko, a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations: 

They do work, when they’re enforced, and the big question is going to be whether this one is enforced. The remarkable thing is that if you read the language of the Security Council resolution, the point of the no-fly zone is to “protect civilians,” and later they say “use all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas.” No-fly zones have never worked at this objective. Gaddafi will respond accordingly—he might try to challenge it once or twice as Saddam Hussein [did] between the no-fly zone there in ‘91 to 2003—but 99 percent of [Gaddafi’s] oppression has been done on the ground, and in fact if you look at what’s been bombed by Libyan air forces, it’s been massed rebel troops, it’s been ammunition depots, it’s been military barracks—and a lot of bombs that seem to fall in the middle of the desert, which suggests some level of disloyalty by the Libyan air force. You can disarm this one tactic from Gaddafi, but it will have almost no impact on what he's doing on the ground if he really wants to kill civilians in large numbers.

The other major no-fly zone was the ‘92-’95 one in Bosnia, and there the no-fly zone didn’t work, because other than maybe one to two occasions it really wasn’t enforced. 

Dr. Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: 

The problem is that no-fly zones can serve so many different purposes. Did they work in protecting the [Iraqi] Kurds? The answer is yes, they did, but they were always backed by the fact that the no-fly zone would be also supported by action against any Iraqi forces that moved north. They didn’t work in the south, but then in all fairness the uprisings in the south were already over, so it was academic. 

They led to major escalation against ground targets in the case of Bosnia and Kosovo, so they began as one thing and succeeded because they became another. So, I think that this is like, unfortunately, many efforts at comparing concepts in terms of actual historical application—the case counts a lot more than the concept. 

[In Libya], the problem is we have no way of knowing. There aren’t any predictable options in Libya for the no-fly zone. If it destroys Gaddafi’s air defenses, [will it] be enough of a signal to force the support of the ground forces, and the power structure around Gaddafi to disown him? It’s possible. But if it doesn’t, then the question becomes: Do we escalate in spite of the limits of the U.N. resolution to attacking ground targets and overthrowing the regime, which essentially is what happened over time in Kosovo? And the answer is, that given the politics of this, the administration is not going to declare that as an option, until it is clear that a much more limited application—the no-fly zone—would not have the desired political and psychological effect. On the other hand, it isn’t clear that the administration has made the decision that dealing with the consequences of decisive use of U.S. air power to destroy Gaddafi’s power base is worth it... There is a whole list of obvious risks.

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Shirin Tahir-Kheli served at the White House as special assistant to the president and senior director for democracy, human rights, and international operations during 2003-05 and as senior adviser to the secretary of state for U.N. reform from April 2005 to August 2006, when U.N. reform was under discussion. She was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for special political affairs during 1990-93.

Past attempts for no fly zones have had a mixed record. They did what they set out to do in Iraq, i.e. protect the Kurds. Bosnia was less effective. The difference was enforcement and the rigor of American led efforts in Iraq and European reticence in Bosnia. I traveled to Kurd areas by helicopter with former Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2003. It was amazing to see the progress in institution building the Kurds had achieved because of a sense of security they derived from knowing that another despot, Saddam Hussein, could not operate over their land with impunity. Kurdish leaders stressed that protection supplied by the no fly zones enabled Kurds to lead a much better life. The results were obvious, even in those days of war in Iraq.

At the outset of the Libyan crisis, I was not sure that the no-fly zone would work. This was based on my sense that there was little international stomach for enforcement and the no-fly zone simply as a declarative policy would not do much. However, events have shifted. There is now a UNSC resolution which under Chapter VII authorizes international action, including the use of force because Gaddafi's actions constitute a threat to international peace and security. Member countries are prepared to enforce the no-fly zone and take action against Libyan planes attacking their people. Action against Gaddafi is warranted because of the brutality of his actions and words and it is clear that were the regime to reassert its control over all parts of Libya, a bloodbath would ensue. Gaddafi is clearly an erratic leader even in better times. Now he seems to have come unhinged without any regards to consequences for his people. Under the assumption that all leaders indeed do have a responsibility to protect their citizens, the no fly zone would force the rulers in Tripoli to calculate the costs of ground action in the blatant disregard for human rights as the regime tries to regain control. The no fly zone would need to be supplemented by sorties over Libya to assess the regime's military movements prior to their launching attacks over Libyan cities and areas which are rebel strongholds. UNSCR 1973 asks the UN Secretary General to "take all necessary measures" to protect civilian populated areas under threat of attack. Clearly the Secretary General has to rely for this effort on member states, with France, the U.K. taking the lead and with close coordination with the Arab League, which issued an unprecedented call for the no-fly zone on March 12, 2011. Time is of essence. If the debate on mechanics goes on beyond today, enforcement will be more difficult. Control over Libyan air space could provide an opportunity to target the regime more precisely and de-fang its military action.

Joel Rubin, deputy director and chief operating officer of the National Security Network:

On Iraq and Bosnia: very different circumstances, clearly. Iraq came after an armed conflict, after a war, and it was done to enforce protection of civilians after that war—and to keep Saddam, frankly, in a box. Bosnia was done to stop atrocities from occurring, and put pressure ultimately on Milosevic and on others to decease and to get out of power. So, very distinct. The one now scheduled for Libya is a little bit closer to the Bosnian model than the Saddam model, but certainly there’s been a lot of analogies made about of what’s happening in eastern Libya as a potential bloodbath, akin to what happened in southern Iraq, after the Gulf War, before there was a no-fly zone. So humanitarian arguments have been: Put a no-fly zone in to avoid that type of outcome. 

In my opinion, I think this is the right step in Libya, it’s the appropriate step, it’s a prudent one, it’s been done in the right way through a multilateral framework, with support from the region, [which is] crucial, and it is being done as the second request to Libya to stop violence. The first request was ignored. So, now, the prospects for it are unclear, obviously, but certainly it’s going to make Gaddafi's pilots think twice, it’s going to put pressure on decision makers and different actors within the Libyan leadership and regime about what their options are. They won’t quite know now, they can’t calculate in the same ways that they have been. So, it challenges the balance of calculations, and that’s essential. 

Michael O’Hanlon, director of research and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution: 

[In Iraq], clearly, the no-fly zone did not lead to Saddam's overthrow, or any tendency in that direction, whatsoever, frankly, but it may have actually at least somewhat limited his ability to attack the Kurds in ’96. That would have been a militarily demanding mission for Saddam. He had a half million man army, and it was his own territory, but it was mountainous terrain. We had implied that by our willingness to do a no-fly zone, we would also do more than that to support the Kurds if he started brutally attacking a minority in his own country. The precise military or political effect of that on Saddam can be debated but it still seems to have helped the Kurds survive. 

In Bosnia, the Serbs initially had a big enough advantage, and the territory and terrain was difficult enough, that denying them airplanes or limiting their airplane use was not a big deal compared to their ability to use artillery, and other kinds of mechanized formations. The military topography of Libya is a little bit simpler and easier, and I do think we have a little better chance of helping the rebels hold off Gaddafi, especially if we're willing to escalate to attacks on the roads, and also if we are willing to arm the rebels. Again, I think the resolution was very well-crafted because it’s not entirely dependent on the direct military impact of a no-fly zone. It also creates these doubts and uncertainties and possibilities of going beyond that in ways that are sort of on the same level of commitment, and don’t require a ground intervention, but nonetheless coupled with a no-fly zone, could really be rather significant. So I think it’s pretty promising, on balance. 

Michael Knights, a Lafer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy:

When it comes to how well they've worked in the past, there was how they started in Iraq and then there was how they ended. And a 12-year no-fly zone—it’s naturally going to evolve a lot over that period of time.

Over the next 12 years, the no-fly zones—with very, very little Western ground forces—were able to prevent to some extent the Saddam government from coming back into Kurdistan and overrunning the place. But you might ask—one question is, did they even want to do that? I’m not sure they did. Did the no-fly zones actually stop them from doing that? Well, not all of Kurdistan was above the 36th Parallel, and the Iraqis did not invade the parts below the 36th Parallel, so they didn’t go back into the places that were not covered by a no-fly zone. 

Likewise, when the Iraqis did actually briefly re-invade Kurdistan in 1996, the no-fly zones didn’t stop them at all. We just let them roll right in, overrun the Kurdish capital, cart off a few hundred people and all the Kurdish intelligence documents and those people were never seen again. And the CIA cell had to run for the hills... 

In that kind of instance, the no-fly zone was really there to demonstrate commitment. When Saddam actually did strike, it didn’t stop him from doing what he wanted to do. But all that’s very unique. [Libya] is a different kind of no-fly zone.

Rob Verger is a reporter at Newsweek.