Libya: How a No-Fly Zone Can Become a Red Hot Mess

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Lionel Bonaventure / Reuters

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech in Paris after international talks on Libya.

Libya's monthlong revolt became an international conflict on Saturday as U.S. and British warships fired 110 Tomahawk missiles at 20 military targets in the country, in the first foreign military action ostensibly designed to stop Muammar Gaddafi's army from inflicting more damage on rebel strongholds and Libyan civilians. But the likely consequence of such an action was also emerging, that it would be the beginning of a campaign to drive Gaddafi out of rebel-held eastern Libya — and ultimately to force him from office after nearly 42 years in power. It also has the capacity to become a messy, prolonged war, further complicating the atmosphere around the revolutions in the Middle East.

As U.S., European and Arab officials met in Paris to coordinate military strategy, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters that Gaddafi had "totally ignored the warning" to halt his war against the rebels. "In Libya a peaceful civilian population demanding nothing more than the right to choose its own destiny is in mortal danger," said Sarkozy mid-afternoon, just as French jets took to the skies, destroying four of Gaddafi's military vehicles in the opening salvo by the new coalition. "It is our duty to respond to their anguished appeal." Barely an hour after Sarkozy spoke, French planes reportedly opened fire on four Libyan tanks.

At the end of a grueling day, Gaddafi went on state-run television at midnight, vowing to "open the arms depots" to ordinary Libyan citizens in order to defend the country. He also warned that "Western interests will be targeted from now on." He did not specify which interests. Some of the West's biggest oil companies operate in Libya.

After huddling with Arab and European officials in Paris, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Paris late Saturday afternoon that no U.S. troops would deploy to Libya, but would contribute unspecified military assets to the coalition. "The aggressive actions by Gaddafi's forces continue in many places in the country," she said. "We have seen no real effort on the part of the Gaddafi forces to abide by a ceasefire, despite the rhetoric." CNN reported that U.S. AWACS surveillance planes would be made available.

Barely a month since Libya's security forces opened fire on a small demonstration in the country's second city Benghazi, Libya is now the center of what could be a protracted international war — something which seemed highly implausible when the revolt began. Pinned down in Libya's north-east in the country's second-biggest city Benghazi, the poorly trained and lightly equipped rebel force has suffered a string of defeats over the past two weeks. And until Thursday, it looked certain to suffer a rapid, crushing defeat. Then came the U.N. Security Council decision to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, and to authorize "all necessary measures" to stop Gaddafi's military from attacking rebel positions — meaning that Western military forces could conduct air strikes against Libyan tanks and troops if Gaddafi ordered his military to close in on the rebel headquarters of Benghazi. His forces are now at the city's southern districts.

Led by Britain and France, and backed by the U.S., the U.N. vote came five days after a vote to support no-fly zone by the Arab League, an apparent attempt to characterize the anti-Gaddafi initiative as a global effort, rather than one crafted by Gaddafi's long-time foes in the West. The Arab League vote "changed the diplomatic landscape," Clinton told reporters on Saturday. "We look to them for continued leadership as well as active participation going forward." Officials from Iraq, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates joined the Paris meeting, although there is no sign yet that their militaries will be involved in air strikes or reconnaissance missions.

Arab support for the Libya campaign has been dismissed by Gaddafi, however. He has over the past week repeatedly accused the West of trying to take over Libya, in order to control its huge oil reserves. "Who gave you the right to intervene in our internal affairs?" he wrote in an enraged letter to Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and U.N. Secretary General Ban ki-Moon on Saturday. "You will regret it." Indeed, while public opinion in the broader Arab world may now support a no-fly zone, it may shift dramatically when the first Libyan civilians are killed by Western air forces taking out Gaddafi assets on the ground in order to police that zone.

Clearly stunned by the vote, Gaddafi on Friday declared an immediate ceasefire. Yet that appeared to be an attempt to ward off imminent international military action. On Saturday, a fighter jet — which rebels claimed belonged to them — exploded in the sky near Benghazi, brought down by a missile, which rebels believed had come from the regime's forces. In Misratah, the rebel-held city closest to the capital, a resident told Reuters that a sniper killed two people on Saturday. Many in Benghazi had opted to flee the city on Saturday after being jolted awake by explosions and automatic gunfire. President Barack Obama told reporters in the Brazilian capital of Brasilia that "the use of force is not our first choice," but that he could "not stand idly by" while Gaddafi launched attacks against the rebels. And shortly before, Cameron said on the BBC that Gaddafi "continues to slaughter his own civilians," adding, "we have to make him stop."

Still, the road to quagmire is often paved with good intentions. As the sun set over Libya on Saturday, it was not yet clear how this new coalition might halt the country's civil war, nor how long it would take, or at what cost. At 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, cable news networks reported a loud boom was heard in Tripoli and anti-aircraft fire lit up the sky, emanating from Gaddafi's fortified headquarters. Retired U.S. general Wesley Clark, who oversaw the Bosnia campaign in the 1990s as NATO's top military commander, told CNN on Saturday that the new coalition on Libya was now on "the slippery slope of intervention," saying, "Once you start this you have to finish." Saturday afternoon was the start.