NATO takes control of military campaign in Libya

NATO Watch once again provides details and summary of what’s happening with the campaign in Libya.

After a week of heated discussions that opened up major transatlantic divisions and splits among the Europeans, NATO agreed on Sunday to take charge of all three aspects of the Libya military campaign – enforcing a no-fly zone and arms embargo as well as prosecuting the air campaign on ground targets. It now replaces the coalition led by the US, France and Britain that has been attacking Colonel Gaddafi’s forces for the past week.

The discussions over who would run the mission have led to some of the most heated diplomatic confrontations within NATO since the 2003 invasion of Iraq (see NATO Watch News Brief: 21 March 2011), including angry walkouts by French and German ambassadors last week. “NATO allies have decided to take on the whole military operation in Libya,” said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s Secretary General. “Nothing more, nothing less. This is a very significant step”.

The decision came in advance of a conference in London tomorrow that will bring together more than 40 foreign ministers and international organisations to prepare for the humanitarian operation that will be necessary, whatever the outcome of the conflict. There is also to be a parallel meeting of a smaller group to provide oversight for the military campaign, although there is still no agreement as to whether it will include only those actively contributing to the campaign, as France prefers, or whether it should involve all NATO members plus Arab allies. The UK Foreign Office said the smaller meeting would include “all those who have already contributed to the military enforcement of UN Security Council 1973 and those who are considering doing so”. This might exclude Germany, which is not contributing ships or planes, but would probably include Turkey which has committed vessels to help enforce the UN arms embargo. (Ten allies – Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Turkey, United Kingdom and United States – have so far pledged more than 25 ships and submarines, as well as over 50 fighter jets and surveillance planes to monitor and enforce the arms embargo).

In Brussels, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the London conference would “provide broad political framework to ensure there are guidelines for a peaceful solution in Libya”. But she stressed that the North Atlantic Council — NATO’s highest decision-making body — “will remain in day-to-day control of military operations in close cooperation with partners in the region”. The arrangement is expected to be similar to the Peace Implementation Council used for Bosnia during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

Turkey and Germany remain keen to narrow the scope of the rules of engagement for the air campaign, which aims to protect civilians from attacks by Gaddafi’s ground forces. Turkey has also offered to broker a ceasefire amidst Prime Minister Erdogan’s warning that a prolonged conflict could lead to a ‘second Iraq’. Last week, the German defence ministry withdrew its ships from NATO’s mission in the Mediterranean after the Alliance agreed to police the arms embargo from its flotilla in the area. To offset the impact of its action on other NATO allies, Berlin said it would send 300 more troops to Afghanistan to help operate surveillance aircraft.

France, in particular, has continually belittled prospective NATO involvement and a potential dilution of the rules of engagement. Thus, the NATO agreement represents a climb-down by Nicolas Sarkozy, although the issue of military strikes on ground targets is likely to continue to be a point of debate between allies. The targets are likely to get riskier in terms of possible civilian casualties, and more controversial in terms of agreed war aims. Guido Westerwelle, the Germany foreign minister, raised concerns over whether the ground strikes exceeded the UN resolution during a meeting of European Union foreign ministers earlier last week, a stance that led to heated debate within that gathering as well. And with the US keen to step back from the conflict, the course of the campaign against Gaddafi will be an unprecedented test for the European side of NATO.

The NATO operations are to be led by three-star Canadian general, Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, from the Alliance’s joint force command in Naples, while the nerve centre for the no-fly-zone air sorties will be a combat air operations centre in Izmir, Turkey. Several NATO countries have said they would impose caveats on the use of their air and naval forces. The Netherlands, for example, have said they will only take part in air patrols but would not participate in attacks on ground targets. The next task for NATO is expected to be a push to increase Arab and African involvement in the military campaign beyond Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who have pledged 16 aircraft. However, more visible and substantive contributions from the 22-member Arab League seem unlikely at this stage.

Meanwhile, the African Union, in a rare apparent criticism of Gaddafi, has called for a transition period for Libya during which democratic elections could be held.

Best commentary on the Libyan conflict:

Nato ‘is impartial’ in Libya, says Rasmussen, BBC News – video interview, 28 March

Libya remembers, we forget: these bombs are not the first, Mark Mazower, The Guardian, 25 March – To understand Gaddafi’s power, we need to delve deeper into the cultural memory of a once colonised country

When intervening in a conflict, stick to UN script, Gareth Evans, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 March

Turkey and the ambivalent, reluctant military intervention over Libya, Gülnur Aybet, Today’s Zaman, 24 March

Libya, the West and the Narrative of Democracy, George Friedman, STRATFOR, 22 March

Analysis: Libya campaign enters riskiest phase for allies,, 22 March

For more background on the Libya crisis, see: NATO Watch Briefing Paper No.18, 8 March 2011