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What Are The World's Options On Libya?

One option being considered is arming rebel fighters
World leaders keep firing warning shots across Muammar Qaddafi's bow.

But so far the Libyan leader seems to feel safe to ignore them -- even as at least 1,000 civilians have died in clashes with his security forces.

Since the unrest broke out in Libya in mid-February, the UN Security Council has referred Qaddafi's crackdown to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for possible prosecution as a crime against humanity.

And the UN, the United States, and the EU have all slapped sanctions upon Libya -- ranging from an embargo on arms sales to Tripoli, to an international travel ban on Libyan leaders, to freezing the international assets of Qaddafi and members of his family.

But at the same time, Qaddafi has only seemed to get his second wind in the looming civil war in his country.

After a week in retreat, loyalist forces have launched counterattacks on several rebel-held towns -- including an air strike on March 8 against the oil port of Ras Lanuf -- after pushing back a rebel offensive along the north coast.

The rebound raises the prospect of Libya becoming mired in weeks, months, or even years of see-saw battles of attrition between Qaddafi's forces and the rebels.
The rebels control the country's second-largest city Benghazi in the east. But they are badly outgunned by Qaddafi's security forces

So, little surprise that on March 7 U.S. President Barack Obama once again issued a strong warning to those around Qaddafi to stop the violence.

"I want to send a very clear message to those who are around Colonel Qaddafi. It is their choice to make how they operate moving forward, and they will be held accountable for whatever violence continues to take place there," Obama said.

Yet even as Obama issued this latest warning, it also has become increasingly uncertain just what more world leaders can do to prevent Qaddafi from escalating his fight to stay in power.

No-Fly Zone?

One option much mooted in recent weeks is to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. The option got renewed support on March 8 from Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and also is backed by France, Britain, and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

But the option is fraught with problems which -- so far -- have kept it purely in the talking stage.

As U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daadler put it in a conference call from Brussels with reporters on March 7: "The options that they are looking at is a variety of different ways in which you could put a no-fly zone in place. But none of the details are yet available. That's why we really haven't had an in depth discussion within NATO as such on what it would take, what capabilities are required and, indeed, what the purpose of such a no-fly zone would be."

He also said NATO would almost certainly not act without the UN Security Council passing a resolution calling for a no-fly zone -- a step many experts say Russia and China would almost certainly oppose. Both countries have indicated they are against any military interventions against Libya until an unspecified level of violence against civilians warrants it.

The trans-Atlantic alliance is to due to discuss the issue of no-fly zones further at a meeting of its defense ministers on March 10.

Perhaps the biggest problem complicating the imposition of a no-fly zone is that it would effectively require whoever approves it to first declare war on Libya. That is because, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed out last week, imposing a no-fly zone first entails destroying the subject country's air defenses.

But there are other problems as well.

One is that NATO -- the most likely agent for operating a no-fly zone -- is already fighting a war in Afghanistan and its biggest power, the United States, also remains deeply committed in Iraq.

And yet another problem is that unless a no-fly zone has UN Security Council approval, a NATO action could fuel perceptions that the United States and its allies were unilaterally intervening in another Muslim country. Key alliance member Turkey -- a majority-Muslim NATO member state -- has already registered its strong opposition to the idea.

Arming The Rebels

Similar worries bedevil the other main military option on Libya, which is to send weapons to the rebels. The rebels control the country's second-largest city Benghazi in the east. But they are badly outgunned by Qaddafi's security forces -- which have heavy weapons -- and so far appear able to win skirmishes only because their fighting spirit is high while that of Qaddafi's troops - many of them foreign mercenaries - is tenuous.

Yet arming the rebels is additionally complicated by uncertainties about whom, in fact, the West would be arming. As many Western officials have privately told the media in recent days, almost nothing is known about who the rebel leaders are or how much command any one of them exerts.

The U.S. web-based "Huffington Post" quotes a Pentagon official on March 7 as saying privately that "if you look at the rebel side, you want to make sure whatever is going to come up is even just marginally better than what they've overthrown." He adds: "I don't know if we know that yet."

As Western powers wrestle with such issues, the only clear thing they have agreed upon appears to be the need to send humanitarian aid.

Obama, saying Washington wants to send a "clear message" to the Libyan people that "we will stand with them in the face of unwarranted violence," stressed the humanitarian aid initiative on Monday [March 7]."

"We have taken the lead on a host of humanitarian efforts, and I just authorized an additional $15 million that will be provided to aid organizations that are already on the ground and we have been coordinating with the United Nations, which now has a number of personnel on the ground as well to make sure that people are getting the help that they need," Obama said.

The U.S. ambassador to NATO, too, appeared to suggest that -- for now -- humanitarian aid is what is most prominently in the offing.

As he phrased it on March 7, "the real focus now is on what can NATO do uniquely, what kind of capabilities does NATO have that are uniquely useful to support the international effort on humanitarian relief."

Or to put it more succinctly, all options remain on the table in the Libya crisis but the only ones Washington appears to back for now are the nonmilitary ones.