PARIS: Faced with the threat of massacres or a wave of refugees on their Mediterranean flank, Western allies are weighing military options in the Libyan crisis, but will not act without UN approval.
Senior officials, including France’s Prime Minister Francois Fillon, have not ruled out using Nato air power to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to stop strongman Muammar Gaddafi from using air strikes against his own people.
But experts and politicians agree that, while the western alliance would be well-placed to organise such an embargo, any action would need the approval of the United Nations Security Council for it to have legitimacy.
On Saturday, the Security Council imposed sanctions on Gaddafi ‘s regime and demanded that he halt a bloody crackdown on the uprising against his rule, but did not immediately authorise international military action.
“We’re studying all options to ensure that Colonel Gaddafi understands that he has to go. I know that people have mentioned military solutions, and these solutions are being examined by the French government,” Fillon said.
“I have heard several observers, for example, evoke the idea of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory. It’s an option that is being considered,” he confirmed, in an interview with RTL radio.
But Fillon warned France could not go it alone without the rest of its Nato allies, and will not act without UN sanction. Other experts endorsed this assessment, and Nato headquarters was cautious.
“We take note of the UN Security Council resolution this weekend. We support it like the rest of the international community,” Nato spokeswoman Oana Lungescu told AFP in Brussels.
“We also take note that there is no mention of a no-fly zone. We of course continue to monitor the debate within the United Nations.”
Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), said that if large-scale massacres were confirmed in Libya the world would be obliged to act.
Nato would be the best body to provide the command structure for an air embargo, but the West would need the authority of the United Nations before launching yet another military adventure in the Arab world, he warned.
A tough embargo which targeted Gaddafi’s helicopters as well as his now limited number of jet fighters would be useful, but for political cover it would be best to involve non-Nato powers in the operation, he said.
“It can’t be Nato’s decision alone,” he told AFP. “We’d really have to see major massacres and for the United Nations to give its OK. In such a situation, we couldn’t really do otherwise.”
China and Russia put aside their usual concern about interference in the internal affairs of other nations to back the weekend’s sanctions resolution, and might at least be prepared to abstain on a vote for military action.
And other world powers have already made up their minds.
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd told the UN Human Rights Council that a no-fly zone would “help protect the Libyan people from the violence they have already experienced from units of the Libyan air force.”
One of Rudd’s predecessors as Australia’s foreign minister, Gareth Evans, went further. In his capacity as head of the International Crisis Group, he accused Gaddafi of causing a “bloodbath” and called for “decisive action”.
“It will be desperately difficult to get foreign boots on the ground, quickly or at all. But a strongly enforced no-fly zone is a realistic option,” he wrote, in a Financial Times commentary.
The United States, meanwhile, has said it is prepared to offer “any kind of assistance” to Libyans seeking to overthrow Gaddafi, and the New York Times has reported that US officials are discussing a no-fly zone plan.