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Interview: Liam Fox on international reaction to Libya

British Defence Secretary Liam Fox was in Malta for a lightning visit. Patrick Cooke put questions to him on the Libyan crisis.

Are anti-Gaddafi forces capable of toppling the regime without international assistance that goes beyond sanctions?

It is difficult to say because there are a number of unknowns about the military capacity on both sides. There is a growing analysis that the Gaddafi faction has enough strength to protect Tripoli and perhaps the oil installations, but not sufficient strength beyond that to seriously push back the rebel forces.

On the other hand, the rebel forces do not appear to have the critical mass to decisively defeat the Gaddafi faction. That runs the risk of us reaching a military stalemate. It is hard to get exact assessments of what is happening on the ground but that does seem to be the picture that is emerging.

Are we now at or near the stage where a no-fly zone is necessary to help anti-Gaddafi forces regain the initiative?

I think we have to understand what a no-fly zone would be for. We have said that to establish a no-fly zone there would have to be a demonstrable need; that need would be the persecution of the civilian population using air assets. There would also have to be a very clear legal basis for doing so. We would also want to see regional partners involved, not just the West but Arab countries.

You have to be realistic about just how much a no-fly zone would contribute. It could certainly prevent the use of fast jets, for example, which can be a very potent weapon against the civilian population, and we have done that in other places. But we have to remember that doesn’t really stop the use of helicopters or attacks from ground forces against the civilian population. We have seen it in the Balkans and Iraq, for example.

If decisive action is not taken soon, could we face a situation similar to the Balkans in the 1990s, when Europe fiddled while countries on its doorstep burned?

That is something Western politicians will want to take into account. The memory of what happened in the Balkans, of inactivity resulting in slaughter, still weighs heavily on the conscience of the West. On the other hand, there will be the question of how much can be achieved and whether it’s possible to find a solution another way.

Could the situation on the ground deteriorate to such an extent that the UK would consider action with close allies without the approval of Nato, the EU or the UN?

No. We’ve made it very clear that we want to work with the international community. I was at a Nato ministerial meeting in Brussels yesterday (Friday) when there was a unanimous view that we need to take the approach that the UK has taken on the three criteria, and I think that is where we will be going in the days ahead.

We will also be trying to make sure we know what the status of the rebel forces are and what their aims are, and to see what the potential is of the conflict being resolved without further violence. Of course, the easiest way for that to happen is for Col. Gaddafi to get on a plane and leave, because he needs to realise that he is a liability to himself and his people.

Are you concerned that a no-fly zone or military intervention will be viewed as Western imperialism in the Arab world?

That is why I said it is essential that we are bringing countries in the region into anything that we think of doing or any contingency plans we have. Our mindset should be that we are there to assist countries in the region sort out the problem, rather than them helping us sort out the problem.

This needs to be seen, for the very reasons you give, as something the Arab world is trying to achieve itself. We need to get away from the idea that this is the West trying to impose a Western view on North Africa.

Did the capture of SAS soldiers in Libya hand Mr Gaddafi a propaganda boost in his claims that the trouble is being fermented by Western countries?

No I don’t think it did. It was very clear that it was part of a diplomatic mission to contact the rebel forces to get to know more about them and their motivation, and also to help ensure the safety of our own citizens if any more evacuations were required from the Benghazi area. I don’t think that has helped Gaddafi at all.

If anything, what has been made very clear is that international opinion is very united against him. From the EU meeting yesterday (Friday) to the Nato minister meeting yesterday (Friday), there has been nothing but condemnation from free countries against the Gaddafi regime and the remnants of it.

How vital a role has Malta played in helping the UK evacuate its citizens?

It has been an absolutely key role. We would not have been able to do what we have done without the full co-operation of Malta. For some of us it has been a wonderful experience to turn to one of our oldest friends when we were in great need, and they were willing to respond so comprehensively and so quickly.

We understand all the issues associated with neutrality and the political difficulties that the government had here in responding to what we wanted, and yet they did so magnificently, largely without reservation. The reason I’m here is to say a huge thank you to the government and the people of Malta for helping the UK and the people of the UK when we needed it.

Did the Maltese government seek guarantees from the UK government that its constitutional neutrality clause would not be compromised by allowing Britain to use Malta as a base?

We had made clear from the outset that any help we wanted would respect the neutrality of Malta. We were very clear that this was not a military operation, this was a humanitarian operation. In co-operating with the UK, Malta was of course helping the citizens of many other countries who were evacuated using British military assets.

The whole exercise showed that the UK could co-operate across its own government in helping our own citizens. It showed that internationally we could provide in Britain a key enabling capability in terms of headquarters to provide evacuation and safety for a range of foreign nationals. And it also showed that our relationship with the government of Malta was based on mutual respect for our positions, but was overwhelmingly pitched towards the well-being of our people.

It has also had the effect of increasing the profile and prestige of Malta internationally. It has shown it is a government that knew exactly where it stood, who its friends were, and shown itself to be a staunch and loyal ally. In the eyes of many people that has greatly enhanced Malta’s position.

Did the Maltese government give consent for SAS soldiers to be stationed in Malta?

We made it very clear that any military personnel would only be involved in humanitarian operations, and that we would not be doing anything that would in any way compromise the neutrality, which we greatly respect. So we stuck by our agreement at all times and our general approach was that we would not do anything to compromise that neutrality.

Would Malta be needed as a base to enforce a no-fly zone?

Not necessarily. But if we had a humanitarian catastrophe and the EU, Nato and the UN wanted to ensure we were all playing a part, then naturally Malta would become part of the discussions.

Whether the government of Malta felt they would be able to operate on that basis is entirely a matter for them in relation to how they think their concept of neutrality fits with international law related to what might be a humanitarian disaster.

Of course, the more countries co-operating, the more options we have in terms of our physical ability to carry it (no-fly zone) out. But I have to say that remains a hypothetical issue at the moment.

Why does the UK continue to oppose taking refugees from Malta in the eventuality of an exodus of refugees from Libya arriving in Malta?

We would hope that we would be able to stabilise the situation in Libya so there will not be this huge movement of people.

It is in the interests of the people of Libya and in the interests of the people in Europe that we get a situation where they don’t want to leave their own country.

That’s why our efforts are on resolving the conflict in Libya and getting a transition to peaceful, stable and more representative government, rather than trying to have plans to deal with the failure of policy.

But if there is an influx of refugees to Malta from Libya, and Britain refuses to take some of the refugees, what would Malta have to show for all the help it has given Britain in recent weeks?

As I say, our focus at the moment is on resolving the problem. If we are unsuccessful and if there is a net migration of people – and there are a lot of ‘ifs’ in that sentence – we would want to look at that, but we would be doing that along with the whole of the European Union, and the whole of the European Union would have to accept its responsibilities in such a situation.

I’m sure that we would take part in those discussions if and when they arose, but overwhelmingly we want to make sure we don’t get to that position – as I’m sure does the government of Malta.

Does the British government advocate granting political asylum to the Libyan pilots who defected to Malta?

That’s a matter for the government of Malta. The days of Britain trying to dictate other people’s foreign policy is long behind us.

How can Britain participate in enforcing a no-fly zone now it no longer has any aircraft carriers in service?

We will be participating as with other European nations: we have a Nato base in Sicily, there are other countries with fast jet capabilities, we’re not that far off the southern coast of Europe and we have our sovereign base area in Cyprus.

We also have our command and control, and we have British Awacs (surveillance aircraft), so we have a number of assets we could bring to that. There is no real need at the moment that requires fast jets from an aircraft carrier.

If Mr Gaddafi remains in power long-term, would the British government be able to re-establish relations with his regime?

Our aim is very clear, which is to isolate and hasten the removal of the Gaddafi regime and move to more representative government. That will continue to be the aim of our policy. The quicker Col. Gaddafi goes the better, for Libya, for the Libyan people, and for Europe.

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