How the West got involved in Libya’s war

British warplanes are firing missiles at Colonel Gaddafi's forces in Libya as part of a United Nations operation to stop a massacre. What does this mean? And where will it end?

On Friday, French warplanes swooped out of the afternoon sky to launch attacks on forces loyal to the Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi. Guided missiles smashed Libyan tanks. Huge explosions shook the capital, Tripoli, as tracer bullets arced into the sky. Operation Odyssey Dawn had begun.

The operation involves military forces from a wide coalition of countries, is backed by the United Nations, and is the largest western attack on an Arab country since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

British and American warships have launched hundreds of missiles against Gaddafi's air defences and military bases. British and French jets are patrolling Libyan airspace. Other countries including Denmark and Canada are sending warplanes to join the effort.

Some Arab countries will also help. Western forces will take the lead, and an American admiral is in overall command, but this is a truly international coalition, backed up by a UN vote and the force of international law.

Why send planes and ships to attack another country? To prevent a massacre. Colonel Gaddafi has been using tanks and planes to crush a democratic rebellion against his authoritarian regime. Over the last few weeks, he has captured rebel strongholds, killing civilians and devastating towns.

Last week, his tanks approached the rebel capital, Benghazi. His artillery began their bombardment. The rebels, brave but badly armed, faced annihilation. Gaddafi had promised that there would be no mercy for the 'traitors' who had opposed him.

But on 17th March, the UN Security Council voted to try to stop him. That means coalition countries can enforce a 'no-fly zone' to stop Gaddafi using his air force against the rebels. They can use bombs and missiles to destroy Gaddafi's tanks and guns. The one thing that is clearly ruled out is a full-scale invasion.

No one knows where this campaign will end. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Western forces have been dragged into bloody and expensive conflicts. Generals hope that this time will be different, that we can win this fight from the air, but if planes can't stop Gaddafi's attacks we may need boots on the ground.

Uncertain future
In war, nothing is predictable. But whatever happens next, an important precedent has been set. For the first time, the UN has acted to uphold its so-called 'responsibility to protect' – a rule that calls for intervention when citizens face violence at the hands of their own government.

After Iraq, many thought that the age of interventionism was over. Libya has proved them wrong.

You Decide

  1. Should western countries be involved in Libya's civil war?
  2. If intervening was the right thing to do, why wait for the UN? Does UN approval matter?


  1. The UN has representatives from every country in the world. Choose a country and, as a class, debate the Libyan intervention from your country's perspective.
  2. From your own research, create a timeline of the Libyan conflict. What are the key events?

Some People Say...

“All war is wrong, no matter what the cause.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What's the UN Security Council and why does it matter?
The UN was set up in 1945 to provide a voice for the international community and to enforce international law. The Security Council is the UN's most important body, with representatives from the UK, USA, France, Russia and China, as well as from ten non-permanent member countries.
Who enforces the UN decision?
The UN has no army – instead it relies on member states to provide military forces. In this case aircraft France and Britain will take the lead with American support. But Denmark, Canada and some Arab nations will also be helping.
And is the intervention legal under international law?
Yes. The legal basis is the UN's 'responsibility to protect', which obliges member states to take action if civilians are facing a massacre from their own government.


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