Libya coalition: a unity of purpose, a multitude of opinions

The coalition of nations working to enforce the Libya no-fly zone are finding it difficult to balance their different political, military, and social concerns for the future of Libya.

Raphael Martinez / Courtesy of the French Army / AP
A French Navy Rafale jet fighter takes off from the deck of the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean sea as part of the Operation Odyssey dawn, March 24. France, Qatar, Turkey, and the US are part of a coalition of forces enforcing the no-fly zone and protecting Libyan civilians.

There is an old Russian soldiers’ toast that Pentagon officials like to cite: May all of your enemies be coalitions.

It is the US military’s ironic nod to the complexities of coordinating allies with perhaps roughly similar intentions, but a vast array of political considerations and resources.

The war in Libya is no exception. The alliance of western and Arab nations comprising the coalition to enforce UN Resolution 1973 must broker their different political, military, and social concerns for the future of Libya – while balancing military realities on the ground.

The military coalition

As the United States prepares to hand off leadership of no-fly zone operations to NATO, operational command will remain much the same. The US will continue to lead coalition strikes on Libyan ground forces, a mission for which some allies have expressed little appetite, and some opposition.

NATO may yet take on a greater role in running overall operations, but for now, mission command is being transferred from one US general – the head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command – to another, Gen. James Stavridis, the supreme allied commander of NATO.

As coalition operations reach the end of their first week, key questions surround the transition and the shape of the coalition’s mission in the weeks to come. Among the most pressing: Will its scope be expanded? That hinges on the answer to another vital question: What, precisely, is its ultimate goal?

Different coalition members would give different answers. There have been a number of public tussles already in the first few days of an effort that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has acknowledged has been put together “on the fly.”

Some have insisted that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi must go. Turkey objected to US air strikes on Libyan ground forces, saying that they go beyond the UN mandate of protecting civilians – much to the head-scratching of other western officials. The Arab League, which initially authorized military action against a fellow Arab state for the first time in its history, began expressing similar qualms shortly after operations began. Until the United Arab Emirates announced Thursday that it would be joining operations, Qatar was the only Arab state to publicly commit forces to the operation.

There are some general points of agreement. Most allies have ruled out providing any ground troops, citing the importance of the Libyan peoples’ right to self-determination. The UN Security Council resolution does not explicitly rule out ground troops, though it does prohibit any occupying forces.

Yet even as the US continues to coordinate the no-fly zone and lead air strikes on ground forces, Pentagon officials acknowledge the limited effectiveness of current operations, which have so far ruled out using tactical aircraft to attack Libyan troops inside cities.

“Nothing prevents us, in the rules of engagement, from doing that, [but] we’re fairly confident we couldn’t…meet our collateral damage concerns,” explained Vice Admiral William Gortney, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, at a Pentagon briefing Thursday. When asked whether it is possible to protect civilians while limiting operations to strikes outside cities, Gortney acknowledged that it’s a “very, very hard task to do, and we’re trying to do it to the best of our ability.”

In lieu of ground troops, the coalition could decide to arm rebels to more effectively take up the fight themselves. Yet there is limited appetite for this move, too. “There seem to be plenty of weapons in Libya to go around,” says Stephen Flanagan, former National Security Council staffer and current Henry Kissinger fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Arming rebels would likely require overturning the current UN arms embargo, he notes.

Political coalitions, too?

Even as NATO looks to the UN to coordinate its actions, France this week has proposed a “political steering committee,” composed of foreign ministers of western and Arab countries, who would consult regularly and provide political direction on Libyan operations, starting next week.

This committee has the potential to add another level of coalition coordinating to operations.

The developments of the past several days also raise questions about “whether NATO can act without reference to the UN,” warns Mr. Flanagan. He finds some merit in the idea of a political steering committee to guide NATO: "It could create some new capacity and an opportunity for advancing relations with the Arab world." On the other hand, he warns, "As with anything else, there are potentials and pitfalls here.”

New indications from Qaddafi

In the meantime, late this week came the first hazy signs that Qaddafi may be starting to look for an exit strategy, with his family members reaching out to some western officials. Yet Qaddafi is no doubt weighing brokering some deal against the possibility that the coalition could still splinter. “He may be thinking, ‘All we need is for some innocent civilians to be killed and all this will collapse,’ ” says Flanagan.

In the days to come, he adds, Qaddafi will no doubt be “looking for ways to create these complications.”

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