The evolving situation in Libya will be top of the agenda at the meeting where the Defence Ministers will consider how the Alliance can best prepare to add value to the efforts of the international community in dealing with the Libya crisis, should there be a call for assistance.
Speaking on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme this morning, Dr Fox explained the principles under which a no-fly zone over Libya could be implemented:
We’ve set out three principles that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made very clear,” he said. “The first is that there would have to be a demonstrable need for a no-fly zone, the second would be that there was a strong legal basis for it, and third, that there is broad international regional support.
I think it’s very easy to see the difficulties that there would be were we not to have our countries involved in any such operation. But I think it’s also fair to say that today’s meeting of NATO Defence Ministers is to look at all the options; it’s not there to take decisions on launching any specific operations.
Asked whether there would have to be a ‘tipping point’ or a moment in Libya where the behaviour of the regime against its opponents crossed some kind of line before action might be taken, Dr Fox said:
Obviously it’s a very changing picture, but there is a very worrying increase in the use of violence by the regime. What the NATO Secretary General was asked to do was to prepare a whole range of contingencies and to be able to look at a full spectrum of possible outcomes, including surveillance, humanitarian assistance, enforcement of the arms embargo and a no-fly zone.
Today will be really about trying to get everybody onto the same page - as you know, there are some countries who favour a NATO lead, there are some countries who favour an EU lead; it will be to try to get everybody focused on the problems, to be properly planned for all eventualities, and to all be speaking with one voice.
Asked if a no-fly zone would only be attempted for humanitarian purposes and not for the purpose of regime change, Dr Fox said:
If it were to be carried out it would be for the protection of the civilian population, yes, and we would have to have that very clear. We would also have to have a clear legal basis and we would have to have regional support.
I think the Secretary General made it very clear that there is a very clear understanding that we [other NATO ministers] want to get a legal basis for this, and the Foreign Secretary I know has been discussing with his counterparts at the United Nations how we might prepare for such a resolution, which would be needed.
Asked if, to impose a no-fly zone, it would be necessary to attack Libya’s air defence system first, Dr Fox said:
There are alternatives. Rather than taking out air defences, you can say that if your air defence radar locks onto any of our aircraft we regard that as a hostile act and would take subsequent action.
It is one military option but there are other military options. So we’d want to look at all of these.
I mean, this is some way down the road yet, and one of the points of having all the ministers today - not only in the general sessions that we will have, but the very wide range of bilaterals throughout the day - will be to make sure that we know what one another think and that we are all on the same page in terms of how we respond to the problems that we face in Libya.
Asked how dangerous he thinks the situation in Libya is and where he thinks it is taking us, Dr Fox said:
I think at the moment what we’re seeing is a relative stalemate between the military forces in Libya. I think we are looking at a picture where, at the moment, the regime itself is digging in around Tripoli. It is able to protect its own areas and the oil installations but doesn’t seem to have the military mass to be able to move decisively against the rebel forces, and the reverse is true.
And what that potentially means is a lot of suffering for the people of Libya, and the best result for the whole country is for Colonel Gaddafi to realise he is a liability to his country and people, and to leave.
Dr Fox also said in the interview that the main purpose of the Defence Ministers meeting in Brussels today is to discuss Afghanistan.
The NATO ministers will be joined by the ministers from ISAF troop-contributing nations and by Defence Minister Wardak of Afghanistan tomorrow for a discussion on the recommendations of the Joint Afghan-NATO Transition Board about the first set of areas to be handed over to Afghan lead.
Ministers of Defence expect that President Karzai will make a formal announcement in this regard on 21 March, marking the Afghan New Year. Defence Ministers will also discuss how to continue supporting Afghanistan as transition evolves through more training of Afghan security forces and through a long-term partnership.
Ministers will also review progress in implementing the decisions taken by NATO leaders at the Lisbon Summit in making the Alliance more effective and more efficient in dealing with emerging security challenges, and they intend to approve a new cyber defence concept.
They will also review work on the development of NATO’s missile defence capability and on the Command Structure, Headquarters and NATO Agencies reform.