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NATO in Libya

March 21, 2011

While NATO ambassadors met in Brussels to discuss a possible role in enforcing a United Nations-backed no-fly zone over Libya, France says the alliance is ready to back up the mission within a few days.

Black smoke and fire
The results of US and British intervention in LibyaImage: AP

Last week NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed the UN resolution for a no-fly zone over Libya, which he said sent a strong message to the Gadhafi regime to stop his "brutal and systematic violence against the people of Libya immediately."

The message from NATO itself, however, has been less clear. Besides agreeing on an operations plan to help enforce a UN arms embargo, members have failed to reach consensus on any collective role in Operation Odyssey Dawn.

And although French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe announced in Brussels Monday that NATO was "willing to come in support (of the operation) within a few days," the alliance is still a long way from taking up the reins of control. For that, there is simply too much opposition.

France, which fired the first shots at the weekend, is one of the leading opponents to the mission operating under a NATO flag, on the grounds that it could anger the Arab world.

For very different reasons, Germany, which abstained from last week's UN Security Council vote, stood firm in opposing the mission in North Africa. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters that Berlin had "calculated the risks" and would not be sending any soldiers to join the coalition.

Fast-moving situation

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh RasmussenImage: AP

Talks between the 28 alliance members have since resumed, this time against the backdrop of Washington's announcement that it does not plan on a "preeminent role" in the operation, but expects to hand over responsibility to France, Britain or NATO within the coming days.

Britain is one of a number of countries including Canada, Denmark, Italy and conditionally, Turkey, which have said they would back the alliance taking charge of the situation.

But Giles Merritt, Director of the Brussels-based think tank, Security Defense Agenda told Deutsche Welle that he doesn't anticipate any such outcome from the talks.

"The thing is moving so fast that we don't know exactly what we are looking at. First Libya says cease-fire then Gadhafi becomes defiant, then the Brits and the French use muscle to make it clear they mean business," Merritt said. "I think it is virtually impossible to call together national representatives from the NATO states and ask them to reach agreement."

Widespread reluctance

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi
The British military says Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is not a targetImage: AP

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, who is in favor of an alliance-led campaign in Libya told reporters Monday that the "game between the coalition and NATO" was undermining the whole international community.

But Lisa Aronsson, NATO expert at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based security think tank, agrees that there is unlikely to be any consensus from the alliance any time soon.

"I would be surprised if the ambassadors were able to muster consensus," she told Deutsche Welle, adding that besides objections from Paris and Berlin, there is widespread concern among central and eastern European countries about getting involved in an indefinite conflict with no clearly defined objectives.

"They are worried that NATO would be taking on too many out-of-area operations, and about the long drawn-out conflict that Germany has been warning of," Aronsson said. "It may turn out to be right. We have no idea what will happen but it looks like there is no possible end to the Western intervention without Gadhafi getting out of the picture one way or another."

A mission without America

Without the necessary consensus, Aronsson believes control of the mission which has been dubbed the "coalition of the willing" will fall to either the French or the British, with the alliance offering some logistical support such as information sharing, consultation and surveillance.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy
French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Paris would be quite happy with that arrangement, which Merritt says is because it would give President Nicolas Sarkozy positive opinion poll ratings in the run-up to an election period and it would also put to the test the Anglo-French security agreements reached at Lancaster House last year. (Defense treaty signed last year on joint military operations - ed.)

"I think they see this as a good, practical way of using the Libyan situation as a confidence-building device which sees them work together in difficult circumstances and helps to cement what is otherwise an industrial relationship."

Yet Libya is a situation in a rapid state of flux, a step-by-step crisis, which may require political structure in the coming days or weeks. Until it becomes clear whether the fundamental problem is the overthrow of the Gadhafi government or a stand-off between western and eastern Libya, Merritt believes an "unstructured ad-hoc arrangement" is enough.

And minimal US involvement, he says, is possibly a very good thing, as too high an American profile could ultimately create more hostility toward the European efforts to stabilize the situation in the North African state.

"The question mark over the US involvement has less to do with the situation in Libya and more to do with the wider Middle East," he said. "This really is a highly complex and potentially very explosive situation right across the Arab world, and nobody wants to be stomping around in great big American boots."

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge