By encouraging and assisting rebel resistance, as George Bush Snr did with the Shias of southern Iraq in 1991, Britain and France risk worsening the plight of the Libyan civilians they are primarily pledged to defend. The UN and concerned aid agencies all agree the humanitarian situation is growing steadily worse, the longer the conflict continues. These considerations have led former British foreign secretary David Owen, among others, to urge the creation of Bosnian or Kurdish-style “safe havens”, starting with an exclusion zone around Misrata defended by British and French troops.
But how long before allied troops so deployed were themselves drawn into direct engagements with pro-Gaddafi forces, be they regular army, mercenary or civilian? Pernicious mission creep tends to blind affected decision-makers to such obvious concerns. “Just as Benghazi was saved within hours, so must Misrata be. We have probably only a few days …” Owen wrote in the Times. In other words, don’t think about it. Just do it.
Owen’s proposal has no official standing, not yet at least. But escalation is in the air – and on the ground. The EU is discussing what it says is an approved “concept of operations” for sending European troops to Libya to protect refugees and humanitarian relief efforts. Nato strike aircraft, unsuited to killing alleyway snipers, are instead widening their target range to include Gaddafi’s communication lines and his home town of Sirte. And off the record, nobody bothers to deny that British and other special forces are already operating in theatre. Today’s announcement about military advisers is a public acknowledgement of hitherto covert ground-level involvement.