Watching their neighbours to the east and west overturn their rulers, Libyans must have thought momentum would be on their side when they took to the streets in their thousands. Large swathes of the country soon fell to the opposition with little resistance.
After more than four weeks of fighting, what looked like being a swift end to Qaddafi’s 41-year rule now runs the serious risk of becoming a drawn out and bloody impasse.
A military stalemate is not certain, as measures such as a no-fly zone will give the opposition forces a much-needed boost. The rebels currently have little ability to defend against attacks from jet fighters and helicopters, so this would limit the comparative strength of Qaddafi’s regime. But it is unlikely to quickly bring the conflict to a decisive end. The opposition movement may call for it, citing Iraq as an example, but few outside the country will welcome the prospect of another US-led intervention in the Middle East.
International organisations, such as the UN, are not set up to respond rapidly to end this kind of violence. So far, pressure from the UN has been designed to peel off Qaddafi’s inner circle. If the situation worsens or continues as it is, the measures will look inadequate.
Their concerns will be that the calls for no-fly zones are the start of more intervention. It is, after all, effectively a declaration of war, despite its presentation as purely humanitarian. Any international forces implementing it could also face the prospect of mission creep, particularly if Qaddafi is able to hold onto power in Tripoli. If he is able to continue to launch attacks on the opposition, the pressure to increase the scope of intervention will rise accordingly, meaning the commitment will become long term.