Weary of the Iraqi experience, the US and its allies finally intervene in Libya amidst a growing humanitarian crisis. However with a violent crackdown on the protests in Syria and Yemen, where does this leave the boundaries for foreign intervention?
The second Gulf War in 2003, may have seen the overthrow of Saddam, but it threw US foreign policy under the international spotlight. Since then, Washington has worked hard to repair its foreign policy image and rebuild its ties with the Muslim world.
So, when the next event to rock the region became the 42 year-old rule of Libya by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the hesitant nature of Western intervention, particularly that of the US, became evident.
Libya has echoes of Iraq. Both countries had brutal dictators that violently suppressed opposition for decades. Both possessed immense amounts of oil. Both leaders had a love-hate relationship with the West. Both became subjects of no-fly zones and international sanctions.
However, while the US and its allies sat idly-by in 1991 as the Kurdish and Shiite uprisings were brutally crushed in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, they now felt that they could not simply watch as Gaddafi's forces fired on protestors and attacked rebel held towns.
Mindful of the escalating humanitarian situation - but unsure about how to sell intervention to the wider international community, UN resolution 1973 was finally passed weeks after the initial revolt began in Libya. But, the Western powers distanced themselves as much as possible from the idea of direct intervention in the conflict.
In Syria, as Bashar al-Assad's regime tries to contain rising protests by force, the question for the US and the West after resolution 1973 is; how do you define the boundaries for intervention? What if the protests in Syria snowballed into a large resistance movement (with the largely disenfranchised Kurdish minority joining in) and the civilian population were attacked by the government?
The wording of the resolution on Libya offered a wide range of options - short of a ground invasion to protect the civilians. Support from Arab powers and the Arab League was of fundamental importance. The West would not take action against a Muslim state without greater regional backing this time.
Much like the response to the Egyptian uprising, the Washington administration is slow to respond to escalating situations in the Middle East while it is unclear as to what it wants to achieve. Now in Libya, the US is keen to take a back seat in the operations and has handed over command to NATO.
There is no doubt that the covert aim of the current mission is to see the overthrow of Gaddafi - even if the West has persistently dismissed suggestions that the objective was a "regime change". However, it is clear from the heavy air strikes and missile attacks on Gaddafi defence sites and armour that it is hoped that Gaddafi's forces would be paralysed enough to allow the ill-prepared and ill-trained rebels a chance to regroup, strike back and oust the regime.
In truth much of the actions of the Western powers can be masked under the pretext of protecting civilians, and it may well reach a stage where the rebels are directly armed.
Now, what could go wrong? The rebels could fail to capitalise on Western air-strikes leaving Gaddafi in power. There could be a civil war that rages for months or years. There could be a partition of Libya due to a stalemate. (And, maybe others we have not thought of.)
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