Civil war in Libya – West debates action

As rebels clash with Gaddafi's loyalists in Libya, UK and US forces are on standby off the countries borders. But should we really be getting involved?

1st March, 2011 – Libya is a country divided. To the east, around the city of Benghazi, anti-government rebels control the streets. Army units were sent to crush them, but many defected, joining the rebel side.

Meanwhile, to the west, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya since 1969, is digging in for a fight. He still has thousands of soldiers under his command defending the capital, Tripoli. He controls most of the military hardware – hundreds of tanks, helicopters and warplanes. Gaddafi may also be able to produce chemical weapons, including deadly mustard gas.

Rebels worry that if it came to all out fighting, they might not win. The youths who are fighting the dictator are brave but they cannot stand against tanks and aircraft. While Gaddafi's soldiers stay loyal, a rebel attack on Tripoli might turn into a suicide mission.

In a televised speech, Gaddafi called the rebels 'cockroaches' and threatened to 'cleanse Libya house by house.' And western diplomats are frightened that he might try to make good his word. He has long been known to be eccentric – as pressure mounts, the volatile leader might finally snap.

As Gaddafi rants, the question rises – what should the West do if a massacre threatens? The US has the world's strongest army. Could it stand idle while rebels are slaughtered?

So far, nothing has been ruled out. British jets are on standby in bases on Cyprus. A US aircraft carrier is being deployed to the Libyan coast.

But there are limits to what the West can achieve. One possible plan is to enforce a 'no-fly zone' over Libya – then if Gaddafi tried to use planes or helicopters against rebels they could be shot down. Another might be to send weapons and supplies to rebel forces.

Western warplanes could even mount bombing raids on Gaddafi's loyalists. However, after the bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, no one wants to send in infantry forces on the ground.

Dangerous choices
Some rebels are desperate for Western help. Rebel spokesman Mustapha Gheriani said: 'If there are just a few air strikes, [Gaddafi's] loyalists will leave him and his time will be numbered in hours. Otherwise he could survive for a long time and there could be terrible bloodshed.'

But many Libyans say they can topple their dictator on their own, and reject outside interference. Western involvement might turn undecided army units against the rebels by making the domestic uprising look like a foreign threat.

You Decide

  1. Should British troops or planes help the Libyan rebels? If so how?
  2. Why do you think some of the rebels might be opposed to Western involvement?


  1. Divide into groups representing different viewpoints on intervention (e.g. Libyan rebel, Arab politician, Russian president, US general, Rwandan genocide survivor). Work out the priorities and concerns for each – then debate the question in character.
  2. Do some research into the history of western intervention in foreign countries. Then give a short talk to your class arguing either for or against interventions in general. What sort of rules do you think should govern whether or not the West should intervene?

Some People Say...

“What happens in other countries is none of our business.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why would we get involved in Libya?
Because we can. Western forces are close enough and strong enough to make a decisive difference.
In that case, why wouldn't we?
Intervening in the Middle East hasn't always ended well. The Iraq war cost hundreds of British lives and billions of pounds. We've been fighting in Afghanistan for nearly a decade.
Isn't the UN meant to help at times like these?
The UN has a 'responsibility to protect,' introduced after international forces failed to prevent the genocide in Rwanda, in which nearly a million people were killed.
So why isn't the UN doing more 'protection'?
It's still controversial whether the responsibility to protect applies in Libya's case. Anyway – the Chinese and Russian representatives on the UN Security Council would probably veto any move.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.