Aided by coalition air strikes, rebel forces in Libya began rapidly recapturing cities along the coast over the weekend before their westward advance was halted at Sirte. Coalition leaders are meeting in London today to discuss their roles in the Libya operation now that NATO has assumed command.
The coalition has no political mandate for regime change in Libya, and without any way of guiding the rebels’ actions, enforcing the no-fly zone could turn into a drawn-out and ambiguous military operation. Libya could become another Afghanistan or Iraq, which would greatly undermine both Obama’s and Sarkozy’s chances of winning re-election in 2012.
The coalition badly needs a road map for Libya, complete with a clear route and destination.
At the meeting in London, coalition leaders will likely approve NATO’s political and military patronage of Libya’s immature and unruly rebel movement, and also lay to rest the coalition of the United States, Britain and France, which started the “humanitarian mission” to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi a week ago. From now on, NATO will be fully in charge of the Libyan operation.
Officially, the aim of the London meeting, chaired by Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague, is to formalize the coalition’s commitments to supporting the Libyan people, implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1973 and providing humanitarian assistance to Libya. Of the 40 attendees, there are 35 foreign ministers (including from 28 NATO countries and adjacent Middle Eastern countries), the general secretaries of NATO and the UN, and delegates from the African Union and the Arab League.
A distorted UN resolution
Although the London meeting is ostensibly open to any country, the list of attendees includes only those who are playing an active role in the Libyan operation. Russia is not one of them.
There are four issues on the agenda: seeking an immediate ceasefire, continuing the embargo on arms supplies to Gaddafi, protecting civilians, and planning for life after Gaddafi.
No one has any sympathy left for the colonel, but developments in Libya could sour the general attitude toward the “democratic forces” in Libya and the NATO-led coalition.
Burying Gaddafi in rubble is not the same thing as him being overthrown by a popular uprising. Using NATO to “export democracy” is not at all what Arab countries want.
The UN resolution on the no-fly zone is sufficiently broad to begin with, and it will surely be stretched even further. Actually, all UN resolutions are vaguely worded, so that smart lawyers can extend their scope to the point where the initial goal becomes almost invisible. Resolution 1973 is no exception. Worse still, the approved air operation is rapidly turning into a ground mission.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said in an exclusive interview with The Guardian that the no-fly zone in Libya is rapidly becoming a no-drive zone. If this policy does not change and the rebels continue their offensive, occupying the cities whose people have no sympathy for the “revolution”, the international community could have to bomb “revolutionaries” to protect Libyans.
The danger is quite real, because the UN resolution does not specify from whom peaceful civilians in Libya must be protected.
Fighting over oil
The Turkish prime minister also said the liberation of Libya from Gaddafi must not turn into a fight over Libyan oil.
The rebels have already recaptured the oil towns Ras Lanuf and Brega. The cities have two oil refineries and oil storage facilities, which handled 20% to 25% of Libyan oil exports (1.5 million barrels a day) before unrest erupted in Libya.
The authorities of rebel-held Benghazi have announced that Qatar will sell oil on their behalf after the refineries resume operation.
NATO ambassadors on March 27 “decided to take on the whole military operation in Libya under the UN Security Council resolution,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced after the meeting. They approved a document justifying strikes on ground forces to protect civilians now that Gaddafi’s air defense systems have been destroyed and NATO aircraft are in complete control of Libya’s airspace.
NATO’s current priority is to expand the involvement of Arab countries in Libya. So far, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have only provided 16 fighter planes, whereas Egypt has not contributed any planes to the coalition, contrary to expectations.
Germany and Turkey have been the most skeptical of the operation, while French President Nicolas Sarkozy did his best to wrench control of the Libyan operation from NATO, where he has little weight.
France continues to insist that political control should be turned over to a “contact group” consisting of France and all other countries actively involved in the operation against Gaddafi. Turkey and Germany would not be involved in the group.
However, speculation about serious differences among coalition members and about Germany and Turkey’s strong opposition appear to be exaggerated.
Russia passed over
Sources in Brussels say that Turkey and Germany have agreed to dispatch warships to the Gulf of Sirte. German ships will help enforce the arms embargo, while Turkish ships will safeguard the humanitarian corridor.
France would like to see the London meeting lead to the approval of its idea for “a coalition of the willing,” which is unlikely. President Sarkozy will not assume control of NATO’s military forces because, as a NATO diplomat has said, the alliance’s role must not be diluted.
Prime Minister Erdogan has said that Turkey could mediate the ceasefire talks between Gaddafi and the coalition.
Russia is also prepared to do anything it can to deescalate the conflict, Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin has said.
The Libyan crisis was also discussed at the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels on March 29, after which the NATO secretary-general went directly to London. But I doubt Moscow’s voice will be heeded or even heard, as it is not a member of the “coalition of the willing.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.