Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Libyan rebels jubilate on the front line outside of Bin Jawaad, 150km east of Sirte, central Libya (25 March 2011)
Amidst all the dramatic headlines about the rebel advances in Libya, two things are clear.
Firstly, that the rebel forces still have a very limited offensive punch; Libyan government units seem to have dissolved in front of them rather than being defeated in battle.
Secondly, the retreat of the Libyan government troops has been prompted by the damage that they have sustained from the air.
We do not know how extensive the air attacks have been but they clearly have dented the morale of Libyan government forces.
So far, according to coalition commanders, the air attacks have been motivated simply by a desire to protect civilians under threat from Libyan government troops - a robust interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973.
But what happens if Libyan government forces decide to make a stand in a built-up area? What if the rebels begin to approach Tripoli itself?
Aiding the rebels?
Continuing air attacks will reach a point where they are no longer ensuring the protection of civilians but aiding the offensive operations of the rebels. Some might argue that point has already come.
Last week, a reader contacted me in response to a piece that I had written on the air campaign saying that some reports suggested that Libyan tanks had been hit from the air while they were heading west, away from Benghazi.
A US airforce F16 lands in front of a C17 at Italy's Aviano air base (25 March 2011) Flights have been leaving for Libya from Italy's Aviano air base
How, he asked, could this be acceptable in terms of the UN Security Council resolution?
At the time, with Libyan government forces still very much on the front foot, it seemed clear that the coalition military authorities regarded the immediate goal as degrading Col Gaddafi's offensive capabilities across the board.
The logic was simple - what was pulled back from one city could be used to attack another town elsewhere.
But, with the rebels advancing, the picture changes significantly.
Some capitals may want to prosecute the air campaign for as long as possible; hoping that the Col Gaddafi regime will simply collapse from within. Others may believe that enough is enough.
Nato strains
Inevitably, this will cause strains within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).
The Atlantic alliance is in the process of assuming command of all three missions demanded by the Security Council resolution: the maritime embargo, enforcement of the no-fly zone and the air strikes to protect civilians on the ground.

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The Italians are already talking about a potential exit route for Col Gaddafi himself”
But in some capitals - Berlin and Ankara for example - there has been an uneasiness from the outset. No wonder then that diplomatic efforts are beginning to focus on how this crisis might end.
A major conference involving the coalition countries and the Arab League is to be held in London on Tuesday.
The Italians are already talking about a potential exit route for Col Gaddafi himself.
Will the decision to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court so early in the crisis come back to haunt the coalition, effectively barring the door to Col Gaddafi's escape?
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is casting himself in the role of mediator to attempt to bring about a ceasefire.
Turkey may have been on the sidelines up to now, but it could be the country to watch as the diplomatic moves unfold.
Turkey is a member of Nato. Ankara is unhappy with the air strikes, believing that a no-fly zone is one thing, striking ground targets in a Muslim country quite another. It is also angered by the leading role France has played since the outset, having been excluded from the Paris summit a little over a week ago.
There is also simmering resentment in Ankara at the long-standing opposition of the Paris government to Turkey's EU ambitions.
Most of all, Turkey is fast becoming the key regional player. France may have had a key part in the opening moves of the Libyan crisis. But the Turkish government is positioning itself to play a leading role in the endgame.

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