In favour of the no-fly zone to support Libyan rebels

14 April 2011

Can progressives and anti-imperialists still support the UN-mandated intervention in Libya? They can, and indeed, they must.

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The question of Western intervention in Libya is not immune from considerations of geopolitical power. The attack on Gaddafi’s forces has only been possible due to his lack of relative power in the global arena, and because Libya and its regime do not hold a privileged position in the American imperium. The very structure of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) means that, as displayed in Iraq, it does not intervene to protect civilians from imperial aggression. Thus can progressives and anti-imperialists still support the UN-mandated intervention in Libya? They can, and indeed, they must.

Arguments Against the NFZ

Though some well-meaning arguments have been put forward against an NFZ, there are few visible alternatives to one. Some have raised that an Arab intervention would have been more acceptable. This borders on an Orientalist view of Arabs as an undifferentiated mass that would somehow view troops from another Arab country as less foreign, and devoid of imperial manipulation or motives, or of particular national identities and interests. It also ignores ground realities in the Arab world, such as Egypt’s history of intervention in Libya. Moreover, Arab armies would likely cause just as many, if not more, civilian casualties. In any case, the discussion is purely academic. Arab air forces do not have the capacity or command-and-control capability to enforce an NFZ, and there is no stomach, least of all within Libya, for foreign expeditionary forces on the ground. 

Restraining Imperial Power

Yet this view in support of the Libyan opposition is not an argument for giving intervening countries carte blanche in conducting their operations. There remains a burning need to monitor civilian casualties, compliance with Resolution 1973 in line with humanitarian and opposition needs, and “mission creep,” particularly the involvement of foreign ground troops. Smaller search and rescue parties are – and have historically been – an inevitable part of enforcing an NFZ. But the deployment of a large ground force also remains a clear and present danger. Resolution 1973, on the insistence of the rebels, does explicitly rule out “an occupation force.” However, under international law, there is a distinction between fighting a war on foreign soil and an occupation. Under the Hague Conventions, and specifically under Article 42 of the Laws and Conventions of War on Land (Hague II) of 1899, “Territory is only considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army. The occupation applies only to the territory where such authority is established, and in a position to assert itself.” Between a ground invasion and an occupation, there is a vast and murky grey area. Thus, any major troop deployment should be a bright red line, and crossing it must be strongly resisted. 

Supporting the Rebels

Gaddafi’s response to protesters made armed struggle a necessity and gave rise to the Libyan People’s Army under the aegis of the rebel National Transitional Council. But the fighting prowess of rebel militias has thus far proved inadequate. This is partly the result of inadequate weaponry. As noted, the rebels should be provided with weapons to defend themselves, and ideally with weapons systems that the professional soldiers in their midst are already proficient at using. But this is only one half of the problem. 

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Shibil Siddiqi is a journalist and a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University (Canada). You may access a fuller bio at