The UN Security Council has passed a resolution authorising military action in Libya, excluding occuption by foreign troops, opening a window for not just a no-fly zone but air assault on President Muammar Gaddafi’s tank columns.
Gaddafi’s forces last week pushed the disorganised and increasingly demoralised rebels back to their stronghold of Benghazi, raising international concerns that a retaliatory massacre was imminent. The rebels had held several key oil towns and even neared the outskirts of the Libyan capital of Tripoli on the back of army defections and a regime caught off-guard, but was steadily pushed back by foreign mercenaries, tanks and Gaddafi’s airforce.
The UN resolution expresses “grave concern at the deteriorating situation, the escalation of violence, and the heavy civilian casualties” and notes that Gaddafi’s response to the uprising “may amount to crimes against humanity” and pose a “threat to international peace and security”.
The resolution explicitly calls for a ceasefire and the immediate implementation of a no-fly zone to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s airforce, and furthermore calls on UN member states “to take all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”.
After weeks of prevaricating, US President Barack Obama yesterday demanded that Gaddafi cease his advance on Benghazi and withdraw troops from towns formerly held by the rebels, while US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton confirmed that the outcome of international action would be the removal of Gaddafi from power.
Already engaged in two wars in the Middle East, the US had resisted calls from countries including France, the UK and the Maldives for intervention in Libya. US generals had observed that maintaining a no-fly zone would mean bombing Gaddafi’s anti-aircraft defences and would effectively be an act of war.
The US change of heart appears to have come after the 22-member Arab League this week called for a no-fly zone across Libya, arguing that President Muammar Gaddafi had compromised the country’s sovereignty by using the air force to bomb his own population.
Gaddafi responded by calling a ceasefire, reportedly hours before bombers were due take off, and invited international observers into the country.
The move bought the 42-year autocracy some time, but attracted little patience from world leaders.
“Once more, Muammar Gaddafi has a choice,” said US President Obama. “Let me be clear: these terms are not negotiable … if Gaddafi does not comply with the resolution, the international community will impose consequences and the resolution will be enforced.”
UK Prime Minister David Cameron said that Gaddafi was “a dictator no longer wanted by his people, but determined to play out in real time a bloody slaughter. It is a slaughter that we now have the power, the demand and the legal basis to stop. That is why what we are doing is right.”
News of the resolution was met with jubilation in Benghazi, although there was widespread skepticism over whether Gaddafi would adhere to his ceasefire – suspicion that was warranted when bombing and shelling continued that evening, and a fighter plane crashed into the city itself after it was shot down by rebels.
Spokesperson for the Libyan Transitional National Council Essam Gheriani, the body given legitimacy last week in Paris as the face of the popular uprising, told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that the resolution had “avoided a great deal of bloodshed.
“The revenge Gaddafi would have taken in Benghazi would have been worse than anything we’ve seen before even in a city where he had mass hangings in public. It has been a great morale booster,” said Gheriani.
“This was an international community that for once gave priority to human lives over economic interests.”
Fighting continues across the Middle East as entrenched dictatorships struggle to quell a surge of democratic uprisings. Snipers in Yemen yesterday shot dead 30 protesters in the country’s capital, while opposition leaders in Bahrain have been arrested after the government invited 1000 Saudi troops into the country to crush the Shia uprising in the minority Sunni-ruled country.
Yesterday’s sudden international support of forcible regime change in Libya is likely to increase the confidence of demonstrators in other repressive countries in the region.