18 March 2011
Richard Dalton
Sir Richard Dalton
Former Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


On 17-18 March a new chapter opened in the dramatic struggle in Libya between the old and the new.

Preparations for a no-fly zone and other military measures to protect civilians got under way, and the Libyan government declared a ceasefire. What might happen next?

Primacy of the terms of UN Resolution 1973

The mandate is to take all necessary measures to protect civilian populated areas from attack, while excluding occupation. Political legitimacy for these measures was assured by the involvement of the Arab League and the ten positive votes by UN Security Council members from all geographical regions. This is a precious degree of support, and the coalition of states using force under the authority of the resolution will strictly adhere to the mandate. They will be careful to ensure that decisions about the future of Libya are made by Libyans.

Will the Libyan regime's ceasefire hold?

The regime declared the ceasefire unilaterally to enable government forces to consolidate and supply their positions. They also hope to enhance the atmosphere for discussions during the imminent visit by the UN envoy and the Heads of State from six countries of the African Union to assess the crisis. Nevertheless, there is a high risk of military incidents, as each side tries to make the best of the period of respite from major fighting.

Preparations for implementing the no-fly-zone should continue

Given the fragile situation facing the opposition - whether in the East or in its remaining pockets of resistance in the West - preparations for the no-fly zone should continue unabated by the ceasefire.

The de facto national 'alliance' between the coalition supporting the UN resolution and the opposition may evolve as follows: the Transitional Council's forces must defend the ground they hold including Benghazi. The UN-backed coalition can deny the air to Colonel Gaddafi's forces and will use air or sea-launched ground attack if the Transitional Council's forces are threatened. One can expect military supply to the Council as well, and maybe some offers of training.

The coalition will continue to make a distinction between their UN-mandated activities and the eventual fate of Gaddafi: they will not hide their view that he should go - but they will not attack him directly.

The military balance is unclear

We don't know what the actual balance of forces is. Is the government now very stretched or is it comfortable as to numbers of men, equipment and morale? The Libyan state is functioning and, so long as its core supporters continue to believe they can win, and the West is quiet, Gaddafi will feel he is doing well.

The same gaps in knowledge about military resources hang over international understanding of the opposition. Have the military units that went to them in the East with General Abdul Fattah Yunis been in battle? Where are they deployed? Is there any kind of organized defence of Benghazi, or is it just a self-generated, self-deployed force?

The extent of support for Gaddafi

Some say that the Gaddafi party will now crumble. This is unlikely, at least until they have a way out that is not straight to the International Criminal Court. The Libyans have a narrative of resisting foreign pressure for years and Gaddafi will call on this narrative to keep his core supporters together.

The resolve of the opposition will now be even stronger

The opposition will take heart from the UN resolution. Even in the West, the reverses they have suffered will not be the end of the story. The initial impulse for a political revolution is not only undimmed, but has the added edge of revenge for the deaths at Gaddafi's hands.

Diplomacy will continue

Resolution 1973 stresses finding a sustainable solution. This will be seen by most in Libya and outside as pointing to the departure of Colonel Gaddafi and his family. They will of course reject any such interpretation. So, whereas we cannot know how events will develop, we can be sure that they will be both complicated and in many ways unexpected.

Difficult decisions for Libyans lie ahead: between peace and resistance, accountability for the regime and its negotiated departure. They will need all the support they can get through collective political action by the UN family and regional organizations.