Libya: Managing a Fragile Coalition
March 24, 2011
The members of the broad international coalition implementing the no-fly zone over Libya and military actions to protect civilians from attacks by the Muammar el-Qaddafi regime have differing interests, political sensitivities, and goals. Sustaining the coalition will require a difficult balancing act. The Libya crisis also highlights divisions within NATO and the European Union over how to deal with emerging security problems that make ad hoc coalitions of willing member states a likely approach in coping with future crises.
France and Britain have led the international response. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain was the first leader to call for imposition of a no-fly zone, even without UN backing, to prevent Qaddafi from slaughtering his people. Criticized for being slow to embrace the Arab spring, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was the first leader to recognize the Libyan Opposition Council, but wanted a UN mandate to implement a no-fly zone. French officials also publicly expressed frustration with the slowness of the United States to define its position. A French Foreign Ministry spokesman declared that Franco-British leadership demonstrated “a political and diplomatic dynamic of European construction and an active European voice in world affairs.”
But European countries, which have the biggest strategic and economic interests at stake, have hardly spoken with one voice. Cameron and Sarkozy could not secure support of other EU leaders for military action at an emergency summit on March 11. A week later, Germany abstained from the UN Security Council vote, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has been adamant that her country will not participate in military action against Libya. Germany offered instead to take on greater responsibilities in Afghanistan as other NATO allies draw military assets into the Libyan operations. Italy, which depends on Libya for 28 percent of its oil and 13 percent of its natural gas imports and has considerable business interests in the country, was also reluctant to support military action. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, under pressure from his Northern League allies who fear Libyan reprisals and refugee flows into Italy, initially urged caution. However, Berlusconi joined the March 19 leaders meeting in Paris, agreed to the use of Italy’s military bases for military operations to protect Libyan civilians, and suspended a 2008 friendship treaty with Libya. Thus far, Spain, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, as well as Canada, have also committed combat aircraft and other capabilities to Libyan operations.
The Obama administration, concerned about military overextension and perceptions that the United States was once again organizing military action against a Muslim country, signaled its willingness to support but not assume a preeminent role in the international coalition. U.S. economic and energy interests in Libya are limited, but in addition to humanitarian concerns, instability in the country threatens wider U.S. goals in the region.
Operations commenced on March 19, under separate U.S., French, and British chains of command and code names, and differences among NATO allies soon became apparent. French officials said that coalition operations are being coordinated but not commanded by the U.S. military. NATO Airborne Early Warning Aircraft (AWACS) and naval assets in the Mediterranean have provided intelligence support to coalition forces. France opposes placing the operation fully under NATO command and control, claiming it would alienate supportive Arab states. Prime Minister Cameron said that the coalition is “operating under U.S. command with the intention that it will transfer to NATO.” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters that the United States was open to command-and-control arrangements that are “most accommodating to all the members of the coalition,” noting the reluctance of several Arab states to operate under NATO auspices. Gates indicated that the United States could support either British and French or NATO command of the operation—or some hybrid that would draw on NATO’s command-and-control capabilities without it being characterized as a NATO mission. Italy suggested that it would reconsider allowing access to its bases for coalition operations unless the military actions are conducted under NATO auspices. Meanwhile Turkey, uncomfortable with undertaking military operations against an Arab neighbor and anxious to preserve substantial business interests in Libya, has objected to both coalition and NATO actions. Turkey has expressed support for UN Security Council resolution 1973, but contends that it only authorizes humanitarian actions to ensure the safety and well-being of the Libyan people.
Turkey, excluded from the March 19 Paris summit, chafed at France assuming the posture of “enforcer of the UN Security Council.” It claims coalition military actions have exceeded the scope of the UN mandate, and it refused to support NATO assuming command and control of the operations. NATO was able to agree on activation of a task force of ships and aircraft in the central Mediterranean under the supreme allied commander to support implementation of the UN arms embargo on Libya, including through interdiction of vessels, and welcomed contributions from partner countries to the effort. Six NATO countries, including Turkey, have made 16 vessels available for this operation.
On March 22, following a series of contentious NATO meetings and high-level phone calls, a two-tiered framework for managing the coalition emerged. Foreign Minister Alain Juppé of France announced that President Sarkozy had proposed creation of a “political steering committee,” composed of the foreign ministers of Western and Arab countries contributing to the coalition. Juppé said that, with British support, the committee would meet in London on March 29 and hold regular consultations and provide political direction thereafter. Following phone calls that President Obama had with President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron, the White House announced that agreement had been reached on “the means of using NATO’s command structure to support the coalition,” and a British spokesman said that Obama and Cameron had agreed that “NATO should play a key role in the command structure, and that these arrangements now need to be finalized.” NATO’s proven military planning and command-and-control capabilities would be the most effective mechanism for orchestrating a complex multinational military operation, and the alliance has partnership arrangements with a number of nonmembers in the Arab world, including Qatar and Oman.
Meanwhile, U.S. and European diplomats have been working to maintain Arab support for the military intervention. While the 22-member League of Arab States endorsed a no-fly zone on March 12, as the operations unfolded, the league’s secretary general, Amr Moussa, expressed concerns that coalition military strikes appeared to exceed the UN mandate to protect the Libyan people. While Arab League governments still support Security Council resolution 1973, thus far Qatar is the only one to commit military forces for its implementation.
As political oversight and command arrangements are sorted out, there remain the larger questions of the scope of the mission, its ultimate goals, and what the coalition is prepared to do to support post-conflict Libya. While the coalition strikes halted the assault on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, Qaddafi forces have continued attacks elsewhere with mounting civilian deaths and refugee flows. It’s unlikely that the coalition would support further escalation or that the rebels can defeat Qaddafi’s forces on their own. Most contributing countries have wisely ruled out engagement on the ground saying the Libyan people should determine their own future, which leaves the option of providing arms and training to the rebel forces—a move that would require removal of the UN arms embargo. Cameron, Sarkozy, and other European leaders have stated that Qaddafi cannot remain in power, and the Obama administration clarified its position that Qaddafi must go. Arab leaders have been more cautious. It’s not too soon for the new coalition political steering committee to begin urgent discussions of what to do if Qaddafi continues attacks on his people and how to handle various outcomes, including enduring instability, massive refugee flows, de facto partition, and the return of forces to the barracks and development of a transitional government. It is unclear how other multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations, the Arab League, and the African Union, will respond to these developments. How “the West,” under the auspices of active U.S. and European leadership or a combination of both, working in tandem with Arab governments, deals with events in Libya will shape the future of North Africa and transatlantic relations for some time to come.
Stephen J. Flanagan is senior vice president and Henry A. Kissinger Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.