Muammar Gaddafi's supporters are making a concerted push eastwards towards Benghazi in anticipation of the possible declaration of a no-fly zone over Libya. Already, several towns along the route have fallen, with rebels retreating, presumably to make a stand in Benghazi where they can consolidate their forces and mount a concerted defence. Yet it is a civilian rebel army without adequate military training that is battling against well-armed and well-trained soldiers that are loyal to Gaddafi - most of whom come from Gaddafi's own 'tribe' or clan. Rebel forces have the support of less well armed and trained army personnel and fast track military training is being provided to the rag-tag rebel units, in the hope of giving them some level of preparation against the advancing forces. The message from Benghazi is clear - they want a no-fly zone.
And while a no-fly zone would go some way towards ensuring that anti-Gaddafi forces stand a chance of keeping their territorial advantages in the East, it does not ensure that widespread massacre and civilian terror will be prevented. In Bosnia it took a long time for NATO's no-fly zone to force Serbian forces into capitulation, and it did not stop the genocide on the ground. In fact, it may make on-the-ground fighting more fierce and brutal, as without air support soldiers have to systematically take territory through bombardment and street to street urban warfare. This itself can render the urban population trapped in a vicious war zone where there is no escape. Moreover, the surreality of war leads people to take greater risks and it is not inconcievable that attitudes will harden and become fatalistic, and even if 'rebel' anti-Gaddafi forces are beaten in terms of conventional war, they will then turn to guerilla warfare and maintain a low frequency war against pro-Gaddafi forces, as is the case in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Rebel troops with inferior weapons and training will be forced into this mode of resistance, as there are simply no other alternatives. They will no doubt appeal for help to the international community again, requesting training, arms and ammunition in support of their fight against what has clearly become an illegitimate regime.
There are some dilemmas in respect of these requests. Declaring a no-fly zone is probably the best first choice. However, if a no-fly zone is declared, international helpers of the anti-Gaddafi forces will be reluctant to provide them with anti-air weapons, as the chances of untrained anti-Gaddafi forces shooting down the aircraft that are intended to help them is very high. International forces sent in to help Libyans under siege from Gaddafi’s forces may find themselves dodging friendly fire – a situation that may be unacceptable to them. If a no-fly zone isn’t going to be implemented then it might be that portable anti-air weapons may find their way into Libya (as they did in Afghanistan, when the now forgotten mujaheddin fought off Russian air support – especially helicopters). Libyans will then have to down aircraft themselves, and the prospect of fratricide still exists as if an aircraft is brought down over populated areas there will inevitably be casualties. Untrained or semi-trained operators may not have the wherewithal to make on-the-spot decisions that saves lives.
Lastly, Gaddafi’s resistance seems to be emboldening the governments in Yemen and Bahrain, where protesters have come under brutal attack and shows of force by the regimes in power are becoming more common and intense. Perhaps Gaddafi has unwittingly laid down a blueprint for survival for fading dictators in the middle east – when cornered, kill and intimidate as many as you can, even if the government around you has fallen to pieces and no legitimate support for your rule exists any longer. Prevaricating over a no-fly zone in Libya could have consequences in the rest of the region in that it may help prolong and sustain the regimes in the middle east in the face of widespread public revolts, leading to even further breakdown in the region. Already, legitimacy of these governments have been brought into question, and it is clear that at the very least free and fair elections would be required in order to move forward.
If the UN and the international community does not come to the assistance of the civilians in the street, it is likely that other forces in the region will. It should not be forgotten that there are already groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas whose relevance can be boosted by becoming involved in these conflicts. Should these situations in the middle east devolve into civil wars, where civilians take up arms against the ruling elites and their backers, it is not inconceivable that anti-regime forces will turn to existing armed groups in the region for support. It makes sense to in any event, as Hezbollah and Hamas are well trained and prepared for urban warfare of the kind that is emerging in Libya. They know how to mount resistance against disproportionate force and anti-government forces would benefit greatly from their knowledge and training.
The situation in Libya, left to its own devices, is already setting a default precedent, and a dangerous one at that, that could lead to long terms instability in the region to the detriment of the people in those countries and to the world. Finding an appropriate measure of intervention, that can be implemented timely is critical to maintaining stable transitions towards democratic governance in the middle east. Ignoring the human rights abuses that are unfolding are hardly likely to work - some action is necessary, and if the formal international bodies cannot rise to the challenge others will.