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Monday, April 18, 2011 

Betrayal seems to beckon.

One of the things you can't help but notice is that those who shouted loudest for intervention in Libya have gone strangely silent over the last couple of weeks. Even when UNSC Resolution 1973 was passed over a month ago it seemed likely that the introduction of a no-fly zone would merely instigate a stalemate; indeed, to read it by the letter that was exactly what it was supposed to do, calling as it did for an immediate ceasefire. It's now difficult to reach a conclusion other than our involvement is simply postponing the inevitable: first the fall of Misrata, and then a march by Gaddafi's forces on Benghazi, precisely what our politicians crowed about preventing.

There's also no getting away from the fact for those of us who have opposed the conflict from the beginning that what's happening in Misrata is appalling. Gaddafi's army loyalists and irregulars have imposed a very old-fashioned siege on the city, first shelling it indiscriminately to "soften" it up, and are now in the process of clearing it street by street. They've used as revealed by C.J. Chivers in the New York Times Spanish manufactured cluster munitions, a doubtless very uncomfortable shock to a nation which can't help but be reminded of its own terrible civil conflict. How many civilians have been killed is impossible to know for certain, although going by the records of the city's hospital it must number in at least the low hundreds. The only reason why the city has managed to hold out this long is due to the incredible bravery being displayed by the revolutionaries defending it, who in contrast to their brethren further east have organised themselves effectively, dug in and used the damage wreaked by the artillery bombardment to their advantage.

Clearly and sadly though they simply can't keep holding on without either being relieved or their ammunition restocked. The only hope of either happening is through the port, which is mainly being used to evacuate the civilians still remaining to Benghazi and which for now at least remains under rebel control. A conflict being fought in such a way only goes to show the stark limitations of a no-fly zone: while the rebels are complaining that there have been minimal airstrikes against Gaddafi's forces in and around the city, it must be all but impossible to know for certain just who is who from hour to hour, even if they're in contact with those on the ground, while additional bombardment from the air will do little more than deteriorate conditions further. Sending in ground forces now would also only exacerbate the situation, with it being incredibly difficult to be able to protect civilians in a battle reminiscent of the attacks by the US in Iraq on Fallujah, another rebellious city.

Quite where the suggested EU humanitarian force would fit in is even more difficult to fathom. The Libyan government has supposedly promised the UN access to the city, although whether this is only after the fighting has finished is less clear. Why after all would Gaddafi call an end to the siege now when it could only be a week or less away from being back in his control, especially when he and his regime have lied repeatedly about their intentions ever since UNSC 1973 was passed? It's also hard to imagine all the countries involved allowing their soldiers to enter what could still be a live fire zone, almost certainly coming into direct conflict with those still fighting on both sides. This isn't to suggest a post-conflict force wouldn't be welcome, as it would definitely provide a bulwark against Gaddafi's forces taking revenge, as they have been in the other towns and cities which rose and then fell. How though could one set of ground forces be justified or explained to the rebels without others being sent in to prevent Benghazi suffering the same eventual fate?

Which brings us back to those who argued for the imposition of the no-fly zone. One of their key arguments was that to allow Gaddafi to murder the people of Benghazi would have sent the message to those dictators still standing that the only way to react against peaceful protests wasn't through concessions, but with brutal, overwhelming and horrific force. The problem is that this is exactly what we have allowed to happen in Misrata regardless, and which was always a possibility due precisely to our reluctance to involve even the threat of ground troops. Others said that we would never be forgiven for letting another Srebrenica happen, especially when those about to massacred had risen up in favour of self-determination and human rights, the very values we espouse and occasionally demand of those regimes that don't buy our silence through selling us cheap oil. Those in Libya who initially welcomed the UN resolution are now damning us, quite understandably, as not doing enough. If Benghazi falls too and we don't intervene further, then no one will remember the no-fly zone; they'll recall that the West will do little other than "impose" itself from the air when it's just the lives of brown people at stake.

As stated previously, as soon we involved ourselves, we took complete ownership of the situation whatever the eventual outcome. This was precisely why there should have been a plan for all eventualities, and which there's now been a further month to put together. There is still no sign of one, unless you count a letter/comment piece signed by Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy which once again says Gaddafi must go while failing to explain what we'll do if he continues to refuse. The longer this goes on, the more land Gaddafi is likely to seize, and with it the body count will continue to climb: Cameron and friends, having fallen into the belief that a war from the air can succeed where it has previously failed, are faced with the horrendous prospect of having to broker a deal with the very man and regime they demand disappear. Betrayal seems to beckon either way.

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