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Opinion Force of international military transforms Libya's Arab Spring into civil war

A tank belonging to forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi burns after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011.

GORAN TOMASEVIC/GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS

Early evening on Saturday, European time, the full force of Operation Odyssey Dawn - the military mission hastily assembled by the French, British, American, Canadians, and other European and Arab partners - became apparent to Moammar Gadhafi's forces and the people of Western Libya.

This massive show of military might will transform, in an instant, the grass-roots Arab Spring into an internationalized civil war. And despite America's squeamishness about using military force without an 'exit strategy' (supposedly the great lesson of Vietnam), it isn't at all clear what the end game will be.

Earlier this week, it all looked very different: an unprecedented level of international consensus around the need to protect civilians, particularly in and around Benghazi, and a new lease on life for the United Nations. The Arab League - comprised of Mr. Gadhafi's regional neighbours - had requested the Security Council to impose a no-fly zone in order to save ordinary Libyans from potential slaughter. The Security Council looked ready to respond, and without the heavy hand of the United States. It was the UK, France, and Lebanon that led the diplomatic charge.

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But the UN Resolution 1973 (2011) went further than a no-fly zone. It also contained ambiguities about the ultimate goal of international action, which could come back to haunt its drafters and split apart the international consensus. Indeed, it was precisely these ambiguities which led five key countries on the Security Council (China, Russia, India, Brazil and Germany) to abstain. The Council authorized 'all necessary means' to protect civilians, but also 'civilian populated areas'. With this latter phrase, the international community seemed to be saying to Mr. Gadhafi, 'there are certain cities you cannot attack' - thereby inserting itself into a domestic struggle. U.S. President Barack Obama went even further, giving Mr. Gadhafi an ultimatum to pull back from key cities he had already taken.

There are clearly some members of the new coalition of the willing that are committed to seeing Mr. Gadhafi go; that is the definition of success. However, for other members of the international community (including in the Arab League), the objective is not to intervene decisively on one side of a civil war. It is to protect civilians and bring about the cessation of violence so that a political process can take root. In other words, Libyans must decide their future for themselves.

So what would happen if Mr. Gadhafi offered another cease-fire? Will Operation Odyssey Dawn tolerate a political compromise? Or, is this mission at bottom about the removal of Mr. Gadhafi and his supporters from the country? Every government, including the Canadian one, has to have an answer to this question - not only for domestic publics, but for the Libyan people.

Jennifer M. Welsh is a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford, Somerville College.

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