FP Explainer

Do No-Fly Zones Work?

Yes, but they might not stop Qaddafi.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged on Monday that the United States and its allies are actively considering imposing a no-fly zone over Libya as a means to prevent Muammar al-Qaddafi's government from cracking down on rebel forces as the country seemingly spirals into civil war. There have been widespread reports of Libyan Air Force jets bombing and firing on protesters; rebels reportedly shot down a plane while it was firing on an anti-Qaddafi radio station on Feb. 28. Some 200 Arab groups from throughout the Middle East signed a letter over the weekend in support of a U.N. sponsored no-fly zone. How exactly do these zones work?

It depends on the circumstances. There are two primary types of no-fly zones imposed by air forces. The first is imposed by one military over another, while the two sides are at war. In practice, this type of no-fly zone amounts to a warning from one side that it will engage the other's aircraft if they are spotted in a given territory.

The second type, more applicable to the situation in Libya, is when an outside power possessing overwhelming air superiority restricts flights over a given country in order to discourage an internal conflict or humanitarian crisis. This is a relatively recent tactic, which was used most famously in Bosnia and Iraq during the 1990s. No-fly zones are often a compromise  in situations where the international community is demanding a response to ongoing violence, but full military intervention would be politically untenable.

The establishment of no-fly zones is authorized under Chapter 42 of the U.N. Charter, which states that if non-military methods are insufficient for responding to a threat to international peace, "demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations" may be employed.

That's pretty vague, so the actual terms and rules of engagement are set up in the resolution that authorizes any specific no-fly zone. In the case of Bosnia, "Operation Deny Flight" as it was called, was imposed by U.N. Security Council Resolution 816 in 1993, and applied to all "fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft in the airspace of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina." The already established U.N. Protection Force was charged with monitoring the airspace as well as authorizing exceptions to the ban, such as humanitarian aid flights. Deny Flight followed an earlier, less-stringent operation -- Sky Monitor -- under which only military flights were banned and U.N. Forces only could only document violations, rather than engaging the aircraft.

The ban made sense for the Yugoslav war, as virtually all the fixed-wing military aircraft in the region were under the control of one side -- the Bosnian Serbs. The zone was tested on Feb. 28, 1994, when six Serbian fighter planes were shot down by U.S. Air Force F-16s, in what became known as the Banja Luka incident.

The effectiveness of Deny Flight, however, is debatable. NATO credits it with removing air power as a weapon for the Bosnian Serb forces and pushing the conflict toward an earlier conclusion. Critics contend that it did little to prevent the worst abuses of the conflict, including the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. The mission was later expanded into an active NATO bombing campaign.

The other most notable examples of no-fly zones were those imposed by the United States and its allies over northern and southern Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War. Operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch (later, Southern Focus) aimed to prevent Saddam Hussein's air force from attacking Iraq's Kurdish and Shiite minorities. (Iraqi Mig and Mirage fighter planes were used in the 1988 gas attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja, which killed up to 5,000 people.)

Unlike Deny Flight, the Iraqi operations were never specifically authorized by the U.N. Security Council. The United States, Britain, and France claimed authority under Security Council Resolution 678, which stated that member states could use "all necessary means" to ensure that Iraq complied with its post-war disarmament obligations. However, many observers felt there was no basis in international law for the zones and the debate over their legality continues to this day.

The mechanism for enforcing a no-fly zone depends on the situation and the country doing the enforcement. In the case of Iraq, the zones were monitored by AWACS surveillance planes that would contact allied fighter jets, which flew regular missions, if a violation was detected. The operation was relatively effective -- very few violations of the zones were recorded between the end of the Gulf War and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 when it was finally lifted -- though human rights abuses against the southern Shiites by Iraqi ground forces continued. For those who argue that a no-fly zone would hasten Qaddafi's departure from power, it's also worth considering that Saddam Hussein ruled under one for over a decade. But the Iraqi experience also demonstrated the dangers of no-fly zones: In a 1994 incident, two U.S. Blackhawk helicopters were shot down by American F-15 fighters after being mistaken for Iraqi aircraft.

In the case of Libya, nearby Italy has suggested that it might allow its military bases to be used to stage the enforcement of a no-fly zone. The U.S. has its own airbase in the country as well. The United States is also positioning an aircraft carrier off the coast of Libya, which a Pentagon spokesman said  will "provide flexibility" for future military options. The main obstacle to imposing a no-fly zone on Libya may be political, rather than military: U.N. diplomats say that 15-member Security Council is unlikely to agree to a zone unless there's a dramatic escalation of violence by the Libyan Air Force, and this time, it's unlikely the United States or its allies have the appetite to go it alone.

In any case, while a no-fly zone could presumably prevent Qaddafi's planes from firing on protesters or rebel forces, it would do nothing to stop his ground forces and mercenaries from continuing their assault. Given the limited utility then, the U.S. and its allies must now decide if all the trouble involved in setting up a zone -- including inevitable questions of legality -- are worth the risk.

Thanks to Michael N. Schmitt, professor of public international law at Durham University Law School and former legal advisor to Operation Northern Watch.  

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FP Explainer

How Do You Hire Mercenaries?

It helps to have connections in post-conflict countries.

As Libya cracks down on the ongoing protests against Muammar al-Qaddafi's government, reports have surfaced of African mercenaries attacking protesters and massing to defend the capital city of Tripoli. "They are from Africa, and speak French and other languages," said Ali al-Essawi, the Libyan ambassador to India who resigned this week. Libyan police in the town of Benghazi who have turned against the Qaddafi regime have reportedly captured foreign soldiers who are "black, spoke French and were identified by wearing yellow hats" stated an ABC News report. According to varying reports, the foreign mercenaries employed by Qaddafi may be from Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Mali, Sudan and, even Eastern Europe. So how does one go about hiring mercenaries on such short notice these days?

It helps to have friends in the right places. Al Jazeera has reported that advertisements have been appearing in Guinea and Nigeria offering would-be mercenaries up to $2,000 to come to Qaddafi's aid. The reports are vague so far, but if the Libyan strongman has indeed been shopping for mercenaries, West Africa would be a good place to start. Recent conflicts in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Ivory Coast have generated a steady supply of unemployed ex-fighters willing to move from conflict to conflict for the right price. Foreign mercenaries, often paid in diamonds, kept Sierra Leone's brutal civil war going for years. U.N. peacekeepers have reported that the electorally ousted but defiant Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo has brought in mercenaries from Liberia to aid him in his conflict against internationally recognized President Alassane Ouattara.

Libyan money has helped prop up a number of unstable African regimes in recent years -- for example, Qaddafi was a longtime, enthusiastic backer of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, now on trial in The Hague for war crimes -- so it makes sense that Libyan officials would have connections in the region. As of yet, there's no reliable reporting of how or when the mercenaries there, but some Libyan activists believe that they may have been housed at training camps in southern Libya for months, anticipating an uprising.

Mercenaries have a long and proud history in both warfare and conflict suppression. England's King Henry II hired foreign mercenaries to put down a domestic rebellion in the 12th century. The Italian condottieri famously served various papal states in wars throughout the late Middle Ages. King George III hired German "Hessian" mercenaries to fight against the rebels in the American Revolution. Standing national armies didn't even become the norm until the 19th century.

The advantages to hiring mercenaries are obvious. Even at increased salaries, hiring foreign contractors for a single, specific mission is a lot cheaper than housing and feeding a standing army. And when it comes to domestic disputes, they are also likely to be far more willing to fire on civilians with whom they share no country, tribal, or social affiliation. But their limited liability has a downside as well, as the current situation in Libya proves: There have been reports of Libyan military officers defecting to the opposition out of anger at foreigners firing on their countrymen.

You don't have to be a down-on-your-luck autocrat like Qaddafi or Gbagbo to hire private armies in the modern era, however. The largest customer for the services of private warriors is, without a doubt, the United States, which now employs more military contractors than troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite their bad reputation, military contractors can also be quite effective. DynCorp's training of the Croatian military during the Yugoslav civil war -- on a U.S. contract -- is thought to be a major factor in bringing Serbia to the negotiating table. The firm was later tapped by the Pentagon to help build Liberia's post-war professional army.

But let's be clear: Private military contractors like Blackwater (now known as Xe after the bad press following the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians), DynCorp, and Triple Canopy are not the same thing as Qaddafi's mercenaries. They are bound to follow the laws of the countries where they are based and operate and, in theory, are only hired for noncombat operations like guard duty (though that line is often a thin one in war zones). Mercenary forces in West Africa, by contrast, tend to be informal networks of ex-civil war combatants rather than formal corporations like Western private military contractors.

A number of companies and individuals also straddle the line between security contracting and outright mercenary work. Executive Outcomes (EO), a firm created by veterans of South African special forces units disbanded at the end of apartheid, worked on behalf of governments in Angola and Sierra Leone to help suppress insurgencies.

Executive Outcomes was dissolved in 1998 as South Africa cracked down on mercenary activity, but members of its alumni network have been involved in a number of conflicts around the globe. A number of EO vets were also instrumental in the founding of Sandline International, a company involved in a number of scandals including accepting a contract worth $36 million from the government of Papua New Guinea to put down a rebellion and violating a U.N. arms embargo in Sierra Leone.

Simon Mann, a former British commando and co-founder of Sandline, received a 34-year sentence in Equatorial Guinea for his part in a plot to bring down the country's government on behalf of a group of investors including, allegedly, Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. (Mann was pardoned on humanitarian grounds in November 2009 after serving one year of his sentence.)*

Sandline stopped operating in 2004, but another of its co-founders, Tim Spicer, is now CEO of Aegis Defence Services, a private military contractor working for the U.S. government in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thanks to Sean McFate, assistant professor of international security studies at the National Defense University; Sarah Percy, tutorial fellow in international relations at Oxford University, and Allison Stanger; chair of the political science department at Middlebury College.

*This paragraph corrects previous language that stated Simon Mann is currently in prison. He was pardoned from his 34-year sentence in November 2009.The original version of this article also mistranlated the Italian word condottieri.

Flickr via Al Jazeera