(First Person Hugo Swire)

At the time of writing this Libyan rebels are closing in on Gaddafi’s strongholds and the 28-member NATO has taken over all the international operations in Libya, including military operations to enforce a no-fly-zone, enforcement of an arms embargo and civilian protections.

Pressed by Western powers, notably the United States and Italy, to take the helm as swiftly as possible, ambassadors from the 28-nation alliance had approved the transfer after overcoming French and Turkish concerns. It is a significant and important move; the spectacle of American, British and French missiles crushing another Muslim country naturally arouses suspicion around the Arab world.

So how did all this come about?

About five weeks ago the people of Libya took to the streets asking for the rights and freedoms we all take for granted here in the West. Far from meeting these aspirations Colonel Gaddafi - who over a 41 year period had proved himself to be a violent, unreliable, megalomaniac - responded by attacking those people. The world watched in horror as he brutally brought his forces to bear down on them.

As the violence escalated it became clear that the outside world could no longer take the easy option of doing nothing. The time had come to isolate the regime, shrink its power and ensure anybody abusing power was held to account. But intervening in another country, particularly after Iraq, was a difficult decision and it could only be undertaken in exceptional circumstances and with consensus from other nations, particularly the Arab League.

That consensus came when the United Nations Security Council finally resolved to authorise a ‘No Fly Zone’. Ten were in favour - none against – with Brazil, China, Germany, India, and the Russian Federation abstaining. The Resolution authorised Member States to take all necessary measures? to protect civilians under threat of attack.” It did not allow for ground troops. It also called on member states to prevent the use of mercenaries by the Libyan regime.  

There are some who see this action as an attempt at regime change. Not true. The UN resolution is absolutely clear. This is about saving lives and protecting people, this is not about choosing the government of Libya. That is an issue for the Libyan people. Like many countries we have called for Gaddafi to go as this is the only way to ensure that the people of Libya have a peaceful and democratic future. It is extremely difficult to envisage a future in which Gaddafi remains in place.

I cannot deny there are many risks to this venture, particularly as regards its outcome. What if Gaddafi sits out the raids in a bunker? What if Libya is partitioned? What if, chastened by news footage of dead civilians in a Tripoli market, the resolve starts to fall apart? What if the rebels, who are at best a band made up of the willing, turn out to sympathise with Al-Qaeda? What if they go on to behave like the Gaddafi’s own troops and commit the same atrocities?

What we must remember here is that we are dealing with the Arab world’s most violent despot, a man who has vowed to slaughter his own people. If anything that massacre has been prevented by coalition forces. But it’s also important to understand that what happens in Libya will affect its more hopeful neighbours, Egypt and Tunisia. Farther afield, it gives a clear message to other Arab leaders that violence is not an essential tool for achieving their aims. This is particularly relevant in Syria which is also beginning to stir.

So, this also begs the question, will we intervene in other Arab countries which have seen protests – Like Saudi Arabia, Yemen or Bahrain?  I think not. Here we have, some would say, realpolitik. The violence in Bahrain is on a much smaller scale and besides the West is locked into a military alliance with both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, our involvement would affect that alliance and besides, they both have more open societies than Libya.

Yemen is a different situation again. It is home to rival tribes and almost ungovernable, it is full of secessionists and a local branch of Al Qaeda. Besides Yemen and Bahrain could not be controlled by an air campaign, as Libya is, because of long stretches of desert which can expose advancing tanks.

In the end, leaving Libya to get rid of Gaddafi by itself has its risks, but the odds are on the side of the rebels. Once Gaddafi cannot pound other cities, opposition in the country will increase. Isolated and economically strangled - the East of the country will have the oil and his regime will surely fail.

Libya is not Iraq. For one thing it is legal. For another, this mission has the backing of the Libyan people. Success is not guaranteed – how could it be? But Libyans deserve to be spared from a violent and mad dictator; they deserve the chance of a better future.