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Libya operation is a hot potato for allies

After days of joint airstrikes, no one has stepped up to take command of the coalition trying to rein in Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi.

March 23, 2011|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • An Italian Tornado jet taxis before taking off on from Trapani-Birgi airbase in Sicily. North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations are in apparent disagreement about how much of a lead the alliance should take in the Libya conflict.
An Italian Tornado jet taxis before taking off on from Trapani-Birgi airbase… (Alberto Pizzoli / AFP / Getty…)

Reporting from London — Depending on whom you ask, the warplanes sent to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya are there to carry out Operation Odyssey Dawn, Operation Ellamy or Operation Harmattan.

All three names refer to the same mission. But the different designations by the United States, Britain and France, respectively, are also emblematic of the fact that, after days of joint airstrikes, the coalition trying to keep Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi in check still can't agree on who should take united command of a military campaign with no clear end in sight.

Photos: U.S., allies launch attacks in Libya

Diplomats continued to squabble over the contentious issue Tuesday, their discord centering on what role the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should play in the conflict, especially as the U.S. tries to scale back its involvement.

Nations such as Britain and Italy want NATO to take the lead, regarding it as the logical choice because it already has command and control structures that could easily be activated. But other members of the alliance, including France and Turkey, have insisted with equal vehemence that a NATO-led, mostly Western coalition would send the wrong message to the Muslim world.

The divisions have cast a cloud over the future of the allied campaign, particularly if it drags out much longer after taking out many of its early targets, such as Kadafi's ground-based air defenses.

"We're still left with an ad hoc coalition here that will be increasingly struggling to survive," said Barak Seener, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank in London. "How does it sustain itself? That's the big challenge."

At NATO headquarters in Brussels, ambassadors from member states were able to forge an agreement Tuesday on helping to enforce an arms embargo against Libya, but remained at odds over the no-fly zone. NATO officials said only that they had plans in place to support the no-fly zone "if needed."

Hammering out a consensus could take several more days. Among the possible compromises are a coalition headed by Britain and France, which pushed hardest for United Nations approval of a no-fly zone; a campaign led by another ally but using NATO assets and expertise; or a NATO-led mission of narrower, more sharply defined scope.

French officials said Tuesday evening that ministers from allied nations and from the Arab League would meet in the next few days to discuss the situation.

At present, "the operation remains under U.S. command," British Maj. Gen. John Lorimer said Tuesday. Allied officers are in constant, almost hourly, contact as they run sorties by American, British, French, Danish and Italian pilots, among others.

"There is no centralized chain of command at this moment. Everyone is using their own military structures in a coordinated fashion," Laurent Teisseire, a spokesman for the French Defense Ministry, told reporters.

But the lack of a clear command structure for the future, or the possibility that it won't be NATO at the head of it, has already led Italy, Norway and Luxembourg to express reservations about their involvement in the campaign.

In addition, without a central command, exactly what kind of operations are necessary or allowable would remain subject to differing interpretations. For example, disagreements have already surfaced — between and even within nations — over whether Kadafi himself is a legitimate target under the U.N. resolution, which authorizes "all necessary measures" for protecting Libyan civilians without specifying how far that goes.

"You have a tremendous amount of indecisiveness and a lack of clarity as to the mission statement itself, because … U.N. Resolution 1973 understandably had to be written in a very fluffy manner in order to get the most amount of consensus," Seener said. "It's bound to create objections."

Some of the strongest objections have come from Turkey, the only Muslim nation in NATO.

The Turkish government was furious over not being invited to an emergency summit convened Saturday in Paris by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The meeting had barely broken up when Sarkozy sent French warplanes streaking over Libya, a haste that reportedly surprised and miffed other allies.

"The French have just been very trigger-happy," a senior Turkish official said on condition of anonymity, because he is not authorized to speak to journalists. "We have to be careful on what we want there. Are we going to save people there? Are we trying to depose Kadafi? What is the objective?"

With NATO already leading the war in Afghanistan, the coalition needs to tread carefully regarding Libya if it wants to avoid inflaming more anger in the Muslim world, analysts say.

Turkey said Tuesday that it would support humanitarian operations conducted under the umbrella of the U.N. but that joining the military intervention was not an option.

"Turkey will never be on the side of pointing the gun at the Libyan people," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told lawmakers in his party.

Besides Turkey, Germany has also declined to support the aerial assault. Outside Western Europe, Russia, China and Algeria have demanded that the coalition halt its campaign.

Seener warned that failure to settle the question — and soon — of who will assume command of the mission could sink the coalition.

"There is a danger of this alliance coming apart even before it could be called an alliance," he said.

Photos: U.S., allies launch attacks in Libya

henry.chu@latimes.com

Special correspondents Kim Willsher in Paris and Julia Damianova in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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