10 Mar 2011

What a no-fly zone over Libya would mean

As Libya’s Transitional National Council calls for a no-fly zone over the country Channel 4 News looks at what that would mean.

The British defence secretary, Liam Fox has stressed that a no-fly zone would not necessarily mean military action, in contrast with his US counterpart Robert Gates who said such a plan would have to begin with a military attack to destroy Libya‘s air defences.

Libya’s part in the middle-east uprisings has been more bloody than its predecessors, with Nato and states such as the US keen to bring the fighting to a conclusion.

A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defences US Defence Secretary Robert Gates

Despite Robert Gates’ comments, the US has stressed that a no-fly zone would only be possible with a UN resolution and that it would not act unilaterally. However it would be likely that US-dominated Nato, in one of the few actions it has carried out outside European sphere, would carry out any air-strikes.

As Liam Fox has outlined, no-fly zones can take different forms. Dr Fox said: “Rather than taking out air defences, you can say that ‘if your air defence radar locks on to any of our aircraft, we regard that as a hostile act and we would take subsequent action’.

In this way, yet another line would need to be crossed before the US and its allies could militarily attack Libya.

Iraq and Bosnia

The shape and composition of a no-fly zone as well as which nations would take part is still under discussion. Head of air power and technology at the Royal United Services Institute Elizabeth Quintana told Channel 4 News she thinks avoiding an unprovoked attack on Libyan air defences is a preferable option. She said: “The no-fly zones in Iraq and Bosnia were not dependent on taking out air defences and they were successful.

“Allied forces did not attack unless their aircraft were explicitly targeted, for example, if enemy radar ‘locked onto’ the planes.”

She believes the US defence secretary’s stance reflects that of a military which is unwilling to get involved in another lengthy campaign such as Iraq.

As for where the no-fly zone (NFZ) could be, Ms Quintana says it might not be neccessary to cover more than rebel areas: “The most appropriate area for a NFZ would be the east where rebel forces are based where it would operate as an umbrella for them.”

Robert Gates: ‘Let’s call a spade a spade’

The US defence secretary had earlier set out his definition of ‘no-fly zone’ at a Congressional hearing: “Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defences … and then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down,” he said.

Mr Gates added that a no-fly zone over Libya “also requires more airplanes than you can find on a single aircraft carrier, so it is a big operation in a big country.”


Earlier this afternoon, the Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said any military action in Libya by the organisation would have to be based on there being a demonstrable need and a clear mandate and with support in the region.

“Any operation we undertake needs to respect three key principles: firstly there has to be demonstrable need for NATO action, secondly there has to be a clear legal basis, and thirdly there has to be firm regional support,” he said, as NATO defence ministers met to discuss options to respond to the turmoil in Libya, including a possible no-fly zone.

Transitional National Council pleas for no-fly zone

Prior to leaving Brussels, the British foreign secretary William Hague spoke by telephone to Mahmoud Jabril, Special Envoy of the Libyan Transitional National Council.

The foreign secretary told Mr Jabril that European foreign ministers had today discussed how the EU should respond to the continuing appalling and unacceptable actions of the Gadaffi regime, in preparation for Friday’s European Council. Earlier, the EU extended its restrictive measures against the Libyan regime to include key financial entities.

Jabril stressed the need for humanitarian aid, particularly in the form of medical supplies and reiterated his request for the West to act to hinder Gaddafi’s ability to inflict further violence on the Libyan people, including through a no-fly zone.

And on the ground, Libyan rebel fighters say they are frustrated that one has not been imposed already.

Salem Abdel Wahad, a 30-year-old rebel soldier said: “We find one thing strange: the position of the United states. It’s impossible that the U.S. would not have imposed a no-fly zone, impossible, unless they have some agreement with Gaddafi against the Libyan people”.


Meanwhile, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has warned world powers against interfering in Libyan and African affairs. He said military intervention would be “unacceptable”.

Mr Lavrov said discussion of proposals for a no-fly zone over Libya were premature and had not yet been put before the UN Security Council, where Russia holds a veto power.

Diplomatic links

Speaking in Brussels the French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said both the French and German governments were calling on their European Union partners to engage in dialogue with the leaders of Libya’s opposition. His words followed the announcement that the French Government had become the first to recognise Libya’s opposition national council and would be sending an ambassador to the rebel-held city of Benghazi in eastern Libya.

Meanwhile, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi says his country will adopt the same stance as the European Union on whether to recognise the rebel Libyan National Council as the legitimate representative of Libya.

Follow the story on Twitter via Channel 4 News’ correspondents in Libya: @jrug and @lindseyhilsum

As violence rages in Libya, protesters in London have taken to the £11m Gaddafi residence in London, calling for the property to be sold and the revenue raised returned to the Libyan people.

The protesters claim the residence in Hampstead was bought with Libyan money and not the personal assets of Saif Gaddafi, which have of course apparently been frozen. It is unclear how many people are in the house but at least 10-15 people were seen leaving and entering the building. The protesters have been in the house for 24-hours and intend to stay until regime change is seen in their home country and the residence becomes under the control of a new, elected Government. A number of those within the building were British political activists whilst some, who have family in Libya told how they had lost friends and family and were continuing to find it difficult to make contact with relatives to check their safety.