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25 March 2011

Confusion remains as Nato takes charge in Libya

Nato takes command of the no-fly zone but the US will remain in charge of air strikes.

By George Eaton

Confusion and uncertainty continue to plague the mission in Libya. Nato has agreed to take command of the no-fly zone, but in order to placate Turkey, the US will remain in charge of air stikes on Colonel Gaddafi’s ground forces. Ankara is understandably reluctant to play any part in a bombing campaign that could lead to heavy civilian casualties in a Muslim-majority country.

For now, the allies are urging greater patience. They argue, reasonably enough, that the mission has already succeeded on its own terms by preventing a slaughter of civilians in Benghazi. But it remains entirely unclear what will happen if the operation results not, as hoped, in the fall of Gaddafi, but in a military stalemate.

As Max Hastings writes in today’s Financial Times, the armed forces fear that the coalition has failed to meet the key test before launching any intervention: “defining clear and attainable objectives”. There is no appetite to deploy ground troops or to police an indefinite no-fly zone, akin to the one that held in Iraq for 12 years. With this in mind, American officials are still reportedly exploring the possibility of a negotiated settlement between Gaddafi and the rebels.

Elsewhere, in today’s Daily Telegraph, Malcolm Rifkind, who remains one of the most influential voices on foreign affairs in the Commons, argues that the coalition must arm the rebels. He writes:

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[T]here is a third arm of the strategy, without which the others will have only modest impact: the overt or covert supply of military equipment to the insurgents. Even without aircraft, Gaddafi has a massive advantage over the opposition with his tanks and heavy artillery. It is difficult to see how he can be overthrown in the short to medium term unless there is a massive popular rising in Tripoli or a mass defection of his army to the insurgents. Neither is impossible, but nor can either be assumed given the fear that Gaddafi still inspires.

But many fear this could trigger a protracted civil war. What we can say with certainty is that few believe the coalition’s ad-hoc approach is sustainable.