Nato's bombing of Serbia presents lessons for the assault on Gaddafi

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The Independent Online

Twelve years on from the start of weeks of Nato bombing raids against Serbia, military planners enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya can learn valuable lessons from the air campaign against Belgrade.

Both "Merciful Angel" – the name of the campaign against Serbia – and "Odyssey Dawn" – the operation against Libya – were aimed, according to the international community, at helping oppressed people.

But the immediate effect, at least in the case of Serbia, was devastating as security forces loyal to the then Serb president, Slobodan Milosevic, used the Nato raids as cover for the mass expulsions of hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians and for the commission of atrocities. Almost 2,000 people – mostly ethnic Albanians – are still missing after disappearing during the conflict.

Unlike the intervention in Libya, the attacks in Serbia were not supported by a UN resolution. But the criticism that the generals have failed to prepare for what follows the initial and inevitable military victory still relates to Serbia and Kosovo today. It is difficult to see how Libyan society will quickly recover from the air strikes. If the Kosovo conflict is any benchmark, Libyan society will be riven with difficulties. Kosovo eventually managed to extricate itself from Serbian rule, declaring independence in 2008, but the diplomatic wounds are raw, with Serbia still claiming Kosovo as an "inseparable part" of Serbia.

Even in the early days of the Libyan war, there are close similarities to what happened in 1999. The awesome firepower of the West has shown domestic weapons, so feared by the opposition, to be impotent against laser-guided bombing.

As in Belgrade, it seems that the main protagonist – this time Colonel Gaddafi – decided that the best defence was to risk human life, moving human shields into areas the regime believed would be high on the list of Western targets.

Col Gaddafi may manage to use the bombing to galvanise his supporters. In Belgrade, foreign aggression united Serbs and may have made reprisals against the "enemy" worse, at least in the short term.

But Col Gaddafi will also look to the ultimate outcome of attacks on Serbia, Iraq and Afghanistan, and note that despite promises of fighting to the death, the shelf-life of leaders attracting the ire of the West's bombers is very short.

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