Belfast Telegraph

Fine line between keeping peace and warmongering

Losing the Arab League would be a public relations disaster for the allies, warns Alf McCreary

The weekend news has been dominated by dramatic pictures of British and other aircraft involved in air strikes on Libya, but the warning from Colonel Gaddafi about a "long war" was ominous.

The situation seems to have changed with Gaddafi's second ceasefire, but whether this alters anything remains to be seen, judging by his first and abortive cease-fire

Those who hoped that a military build-up and a quick strike against Libya would convince Gaddafi of the error of his ways still might need to be patient. Significantly the head of the Arab League which backed the creation of a UN "no-fly zone" seems himself to have had second thoughts.

The League's Secretary General Amr Moussa said: "What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians."

If this comment reflects the broad opinion in the Arab world, then the coalition spearheaded by Britain, France and the US could still be in trouble.

Without doubt the coalition worked hard to ensure the widest diplomatic support for the UN Security Council's resolution on taking action against Libya.

However, this was much more significant than the creation of a no-fly zone, and it allowed the coalition to take any measures necessary to protect Libya civilians, short of invasion of the country.

The considerable diplomatic coup in ensuring such a broad mandate took time, and some critics believed that the UN was dithering while Gaddafi continued his murderous policy of winning back rebel territory.

However the UN's slow but patient diplomacy paid off, with major powers like Russia and China abstaining on the UN resolution. These abstentions surprised some observers, who believed that Russia and China would use their veto, but the fact they did not do so cleared the way for military action.

It is now pay-off time on the ground in Libya. The initial air strikes inevitably created casualties and if the action continues there will almost certainly be more people killed and injured.

The more this goes on, the more likely it is that critics of the military action will accuse the US and her allies of warmongering, and this will be a crucial test of nerve not only in the West but also among the Arab nations which gave support to the creation of the "no-fly" zone.

Meanwhile Prime Minister David Cameron, and other political leaders in the trans-Atlantic alliance will need to work hard to keep their respective constituencies on side.

Cameron so far has been extremely careful to point out that the Libyan intervention, unlike that in Iraq, has the full backing of the United Nations, but the people of the UK have long memories of the debacle of Iraq and deep unease remains about this latest multi-national initiative.

Clearly Gaddafi has been in a fighting mood and some Arab commentators have suggested that this odious dictator was prepared to take everyone and everything else with him in a last stand.

The coalition may yet prevail and the air strikes may prove successful in containing Gaddafi, but this containment may itself create a physically-divided Libya, and the beginning of a tortuous and very long period of further diplomacy in trying to create stability out of chaos.

The UN still wants containment but regime change seems to be favoured by Cameron and other political leaders.

Meantime, the British public, which was misled and disillusioned over Iraq, is right to remain wary of a clinical or swift solution to the Libyan conflict, despite the latest ceasefire.

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