Returning from a longer trip to Geneva, I thought I start off by making some comments on a potential no-fly over Libya. With the stand-off between opposition forces and the ailing regime of Colonel Qadhafi continuing, a no-fly zone over Libya is still being debated as a potential way for addressing the increasingly brutal crackdown of Qadhafi's regime.
Looking at the means available, we should be able to pull it off. The U.S. sixth fleet is in the Med anyway and the USS Ponce and USS Kearsarge are already off the coast of Libya, the latter being able to field some combat aircraft and helicopter gunships. But to properly enforce a no-fly, it would need at least one aircraft carrier and US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already explained that the USS Enterprise will remain under CENTCOM command, meaning it won't be available for AFRICOM/EUCOM, which in all probability would be tasked with executing the no-fly. The Americans are understandably reluctant given that Libya is a European neighbourhood and one might well ask, why the is no French or British aircraft carrier in the vicinity and why so far European partners have failed to deploy fighter aircraft to Sicily.
But even though there is the material necessary and an increasing willingness in the international community to consider a no-fly, there are some problems that need to be addressed:
1. Even though a no-fly would give the opposition some breathing space, it would leave the military forces of the regime intact. And even though Qadhafi's forces have lost considerable power through defection and low morale, they still have a military edge in the fighting. A no-fly would have largely the same effect as a weapons embargo, for now it would only perpetuate a balance of power that favours the regime.
2. That feeds directly into problem No. 2. Even tough the no-fly is largely a military matter, public perception is as vital. The no-fly and the existing imbalance of forces could create the impression among opposition forces that the West has left them out to be slaughtered, even tough we control the skies. We would need a plan B, should a no-fly not contribute to the toppling of the regime in a timely manner.
3. On speaking of military matters: We could blow any Libyan fighter jet out of the sky, but Libya does have some surface to air defence systems that are close to being state of the art. We simply do not know, whether their current condition allows the regime to deploy actual countermeasures to a NATO enforced no-fly, but it remains safe to say that we need some sort of suppression capability, meaning we would have to be able and willing to bomb Libyan military units and installations.
4. Finally and most importantly, the stand-off between Qadhafi and the opposition could continue for some time, the question therefore is, what are we willing to do, should the regime be able to re-assert itself?
That brings me to the most important question of the day: Even though I would recommend a no-fly for the moment, are there not things we could be doing additionally? In short, there are. For instance, it seems apparent now that Qadhafi has filled his ranks with African mercenaries from Mali, Niger and some other countries. This highlights the need to freeze all his assets. But it also gives us a new angle to weaken his regime: since Mali, Niger are all allies in the war on terror and recipients of development and military assistance, we have means available to pressure these countries to stop allowing mercenaries to cross their borders. All of that could have been done a week ago, time to speed things up a bit.