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Gadhafi ceasefire likely halts no-fly first strikes, for now: analysis

The pilot of a Royal Air Force Tornado jet taxis along the runway at RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, northern Scotland March 18, 2011. Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron gave a cautious reaction to a cease-fire declaration from Libya Friday, saying its leader Moammar Gadhafi would be judged by actions not words.

RUSSELL CHEYNE/Russell Cheyne/Reuters

A Western and Arab military campaign against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi could be launched within hours and cripple his forces - perhaps drive him from power - within weeks. But it is not without risks.

Thursday's United Nations Security Council vote backing military action in Libya offers intervening powers a very broad mandate, by authorizing "all necessary measures" to protect civilians.

It is unclear how far the allies want to go, notably in view of Gaddafi's initial response of offering a ceasefire. But it is clear their firepower gives them many possibilities.

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Paul Koring, the Globe and Mail's Washington correspondent, took reader questions on the no-fly zone, the practicalities of imposing it and the likely meaning of the latest developments.

Here's a transcript of the discussion:

Jill Mahoney: Hello everyone. We're pleased to have The Globe's Paul Koring join us to discuss the recent developments on Libya.

Click here to read our latest story.

Paul Koring: Morning, ... so only hours after the UN authorized air strikes to stop Libyan adances ... Col. Gadhafi calls a "ceasefire."

Jill Mahoney: Paul, what's your take on the developments on this file?

Paul Koring: Col. Gadhafi may be a despot and a ruthless leader willing to kill his own people but he hasn't ruled for 41 years by being stupid. He knows that tossing out the ceasefire means that he seems to be in compliance. He may be buying time or he may be serious and is willing to settle for the status quo

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Jill Mahoney: Before Libya announced a ceasefire, France suggested that air strikes were possible within hours. Given Libya's move, are air strikes still looking likely?

Paul Koring: Air strikes - more likely a salvo of cruise missiles fired from submarines and or warships in the Mediterranean - could happen anytime. Although there are discussions planned for the weekend as to how to implement the no-fly zone, there are warplanes and surveillance planes already close by.

Comment From Élazar Gabay: Does this mean that NATO won't attack anti aircraft installations?

Paul Koring: But Col. Gadhafi may have successfully postponed any first strike. It would look odd for the great powers to bomb something, even a radar or missile site, only hours after a ceasefire.

Paul Koring: My guess ... and it is only a guess ... is that French, British and U.S. warplanes, backed up and directed by NATO command and control AWACs aircraft offshore are already probing the Libyan air defences, seeing what's turned on, whether they are detected, and what's working. But there isn't -- yet -- any need to strike.

Comment From parker: Paul how long will it take for the coilition to get control of Lybia once they start?

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Paul Koring: Libyan airspace will be under total control of allied warplanes within hours of the "start." Frankly, it would be suicidal right now to get in a Libyan jet - military or otherwise - and fly anywhere. Maybe a very, very, very, short fleeing flight to Malta all the while calling in the clear that there was no ill-intent but that's about it.

Comment From Henry Leperlier: Are there any news about whether Col. Gadhafi is respecting the ceasefire completely?

Paul Koring: Whether he respects the ceasefire in a macro sense will be pretty clear. Spy satellites and surveillance aircraft can detect flights, certainly any tank fire and or artillery barrages will be known. But you can't know whether some elite group is prowling a re-taken city killing people.

Comment From Bill: What are the possibilities for France/UK to monitor lybian ground movements and events around Benghazi? Also I'm wondering if any actual military engagement would not start before stealth bombers from US bases have arrived in the area?

Paul Koring: The U.S. Air Force has aircraft (and satellites) capable of monitoring ground movements. Also drones (which I suspect are in the air.) Neither the British nor the French have such sophisticated capacity but they too have drones and they will have access to US intelligence. Once the surveillance is fully in place -- especially given that Libya is mainly a vast expanse of desert with a few roads mostly along the coast - nothing much bigger than a pickup truck will move without being known.

Comment From Guest: Does the UN Security Council have a plan? Realistically, how long can we expect the no-fly zone to be in effect? Will this become a waiting game between Gadhafi and the UNSC?

Paul Koring: The UN doesn't run the military operation. Once the Security Council approves it, the operations is essentially run by those nations (a coalition of the willing) that want to impose it.

Comment From Keith Phillips: Why the dithering. They have been talking the talk for weeks while Libyans are getting killed, one would have thought they would already have their 'ducks in a row'?

Paul Koring: The dithering is political, not military. I didn't notice hordes of Canadians pushing their politicians to get involved in a shooting war, just lots of hand-wringing.

Comment From Jamie: Why is the UN resolution being described as a "no-fly" zone when it is actually much broader - authorizing military action against ground troops, etc.?

Paul Koring: There are several key elements of the resolution; a "no-fly" zone, a call for an immediate ceasefire, and an authorization of all necessary means - which is UNspeak for military action - to protect civilian concentrations and, in particular, Benghazi.

Comment From Keith Phillips: Maybe not Canadians but the U.K. and French have, remember Canada is not a member of the security council.

Comment From david robb: is it likely that the no fly zone will embolden the rebels who have fled to reunite? What does this mean for their chance of winning in this conflict?

Paul Koring: The "ceasefire" applies to the rebels too. It would seem that they cannot launch military operations, certainly not to try and "take" a city, without violating the resolution.

Comment From Jake: Do you believe that now that there is international protection in place, the protests will resume in Western Libya?

Paul Koring: No doubt the "protests" will resume but the reality that may emerge is a rump state or an alternative government which will seek international recognition.

Comment From Guest: When will be our attack become directed at their ground installations rather than waiting for Gadhafis planes to begin bombing again?

Paul Koring: There is no certainty of an 'attack' and certainly not if a ceasefire seems to be holding.

Comment From Bill: What are the possible exit strategies? A wise man once said you have to define your goal in order to achieve them.

Paul Koring: Good question. I know of no instance of a "no-fly" zone that didn't end up with ground troops being subsequently deployed. That doesn't mean that will happen in this case but that has been the pattern. Perhaps this will be different and a democratic, civil state will emerge in eastern Libya, spread peacefully west, Col. Gadhafi will retire or die and the whole UN-mandated operation can be called off without a shot.

Comment From Nicholas: Given this mornings reports that Misrata was being shelled when can we expect news to confirm this. Will news going forward be dependent on information from the particpating militaries?

Jill Mahoney: Click here to read our story on today's developments, which quotes an opposition spokesman as saying there is still shelling in Misrata.

Paul Koring: There will be rebel claims of shelling and attacks. At least some of them will be false and designed to provoke air strikes on forces loyal to Col. Gadhafi. Truth is a rare commodity in war zones.

Comment From Jake: But if the protests do re-emerge in the West, and the elite units of the government begin a crackdown; would that provide justification for the coalition to begin the systematic destruction of Ghadafi's heavy armour, SAM installations, artillery ect. even if this equipment is deployed elsewhere and not directly involved?

Paul Koring: Nothing in the resolution - as I read it - prevents the Libyan government from using ordinary police tactics, including gas, riot squads, water cannon, rubber bullets to disperse crowds. Notice that all of the above have been used quite brutally in Bahrain and no one is talking about outside military intervention.

Jill Mahoney: Here's a related question on Bahrain:

Comment From GuySmiley: So while we act to aid Libyans in their quest for democracy, why are we turning a blind eye to the Saudi invasion to suppress democracy in Bahrain?

Paul Koring: If you believe there is hypocrisy and a double-standard at play here, you are responsible as a citizen in a democracy. There is no simply answer although I suspect you may have one.

Jill Mahoney: Paul - the United States hasn't yet outlined its role in enforcing the no-fly zone. What do analysts expect the U.S. will commit? And what do you make of the delay in announcing details?

Paul Koring: There often a big difference between "announcing' details of a military operation and things actually happening. The US military has been planning for, and moving assets, planes, ships, submarines, in readiness for the possibility that the UN would mandate this mission. Delay is mainly in the minds of the beholders. Certainly Col. Gadhafi seemed to think he didn't have much time this morning.

Comment From Jake: True, but the US has obvious interests in maintaining the status quo in Bahrain. I am sure they would like nothing more than to see Gadafi gone. If he continues cracking down on civilians, legally could one conclude that the presence of Gadafi is itself a threat to civilians and justify a decapitation strike against the regime?

Paul Koring: Jake ... maybe you think there is justification for a "decapitation" strike. There is no legal mandate for one. And I'm sure there are plenty of leaders - North Korea, Iran, Sudan, pick-a-country - that you or others might believe deserve "decapitation." Under international law you need a mandate. There isn't one to take out Gadhafi.

Comment From Bill: I have heard of troup movements in france about when the uprising in lybia started 1-2 weeks ago. (One of my family members reported that on the phone) Apparently AA infantery moving south. Has France been pondering military action right from the start, or was it a late turn?

Paul Koring: Militaries always 'ponder' and prepare and move in anticipation. That's what they do. It's the behaviour of professional warfighters.

Comment From Earl Street: I do not for see the US taking any lead in this UN operation. Obama has neither the political will not the public demand to do something from a war weary, and economically troubled populace. Britain and France have more economic and political reasons to ensure a peaceful resolution to this fighting in Libya.

Paul Koring: I'm sure there are some who share your views.

Jill Mahoney: Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed this morning that Canada will soon send six CF-18 fighter jets. Do you have a sense of how significant Canada's contribution is?

Comment From Dogger: Canada's participation in this effort proves that it is vital that we select our military hardware (e.g. planes) with the utmost responsiblity. We cannot let an irresponsible government shortcut the tendering process and jump willy-nilly to a hasty choice because of some bells and whistles.

Paul Koring: That's significant - if they are used. For instance, Canada deployed a squadron of CF-18s to the Gulf for the first Iraq war to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. But the government of the day banned them from flying over Iraq so they spent the war flying combat air patrols over the sea. By contrast, Canadian CF-18s took a leading role in the bombing campaign against the Serbs in 1999. Yet they have been kept out of Afghanistan, leaving Canadian ground troops to relay on air support from the United States and other allies.

Comment From Earl Street: Our contribution is token. Our jets are more than capable to participate, but the small numbers are just a drop in the bucket compared to what the British and French, who are much closer, and can operate from their own bases, can and will provide.

Comment From Hans Brinker: Mr Koring, what do you make of the SC abstentions?

Paul Koring: Mr. Brinker; a very interesting question. The abstentions, reflect not only international unease from some very major powers; China, Russia, India, Germany, Brazil, but also a pretty stark split on the Security Council. That there was no veto was significant but this will also be a test to see if the mandate to wage war for specific purpose is followed or whether it becomes an expanded operation.

Jill Mahoney: Before we let you go Paul, are there any observations you'd like to leave us with?

Paul Koring: We know what this looks likes if there are air strikes. Witness Iraq and the no-fly zones. What may be more interesting is if there is a ceasefire, a de facto partition of Libya, with the "rebels" in control of Benghazi and Tobruk but Col. Gadhafi ruling the rest of the country, including the key oil fields and oil ports. Even with the assets freeze, can the international community find a way - and a legal justification - to engage in regime change without waging war?

Jill Mahoney: Everyone, thanks for your questions. And thank you, Paul, for joining us.

Keep following developments on this story at globeandmail.com.

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