28 Mar 2011

Libya: Western alliance ‘reaching crunch point’

The alliance enforcing Libya’s no-fly zone is “reaching crunch point”, a former NATO consultant tells Channel 4 News, as Italy proposes a rival solution of a ceasefire and exile for Muammar Gaddafi.

The military intervention in Libya championed by the French and the British appears to have paved the way for resurgent rebel forces in Libya to begin taking back territory.

By bombing Gaddafi‘s military resources, the alliance opened up the chance for the opposition to seize back Es Sider, Ras Lanuf, Brega, Zueitina, Ajdabiya and Tobruk over the weekend.

Interviewed on Channel 4 News, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said the coalition had not co-ordinated its attacks with the rebel forces. “But of course they are able to take advantage of the retreat of regime forces,” he added.

But diplomatically, the alliance in the west is facing serious challenges.

NATO took control of implementing all military intervention in Libya on Sunday, but on Monday Italy’s Foreign Minister said he would propose a new, alternative plan for Libya – involving a ceasefire, a humanitarian corridor and exile for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Franco Frattini said he hopes to put the plan forward at the international conference on Libya in London on Tuesday.

He told La Repubblica newspaper: “We have a plan and we will see if it can be translated into an Italian-German proposal, perhaps in a joint document that can be presented Tuesday.”

In a sense they are now in a race – to see if they can get rid of Gaddafi before the coalition frays. Professor Julian Lindley-French

Germany resisted military intervention in Libya and Italy, long seen as an ally of the country, was also restrained in its approach – although its military bases are being used in the assault.

William Hague told Channel 4 News that “we all want a ceasefire”, but he said that it must be a real one and must involve the regime’s withdrawal from towns lime Misrata and a halt to attacks on civilian populations.

Crunch point

A former NATO consultant and now Associate Fellow at Chatham House, Professor Julian Lindley-French, told Channel 4 News that the Italian intervention showed the alliance was reaching “crunch point.”

He said: “London, Paris and Washington will be concerned that the coalition is beginning to fray. In a sense they are now in a race – to see if they can get rid of Gaddafi before the coalition frays.

“In conjunction with the Russians saying they have gone too far, the allies will wish the Italians hadn’t done this. It will not be appreciated in many capitals.”

Russia – which also abstained from the UN vote – said the allies were wrong to bomb Libya, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said they could be in breach of their UN mandate.

“Certainly the Russians will seize on this, and Russia as a permanent member of the UN Security Council has the right to insist on a meeting…it’s a very sensitive moment in the alliance,” said Professor Lindley-French.

Read more in the Channel 4 News Special Report on Libya

He said he expected a “good cop bad cop” routine at Tuesday’s London meeting on Libya, with a lot of diplomatic pressure on the Italians to ensure pressure is also maintained on Gaddafi.

Libya: Italy proposes ceasefire as no-fly zone continues to be enforced by France, UK (Reuters)

“The pressure on Gaddafi will continue, with the carpet opened for the rebels to approach Tripoli by the allied air power, in the hope that Gaddafi will take the hint. I expect there to be a good cop bad cop situation,” he said.

In a joint statement, Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said: “Military action is not an objective as such. A lasting solution can only be a political one that belongs to the Libyan people. That is why the political process that will begin tomorrow in London is so important.

“The London conference will bring the international community together to support Libya’s transition from violent dictatorship and to help create the conditions where the people of Libya can choose their own future.”

Read the statement in full

But Professor Lindley-French said the coalition faced an even sterner test soon.

If it means the end of violence, then maybe that is the price that has to be paid. Professor Julian Lindley-French

“At some point, if the rebels reach Tripoli and start firing, under the mandate the air power should be turned against the opposition. So I can see a political way out of this is to get Gaddafi to accept this – then everyone is happy. Gaddafi is out of power, the 1973 resolution is observed, air power ends.

“There are precedents – Baby Doc Duvalier got out of Haiti and to France. It has been done in the past and if it means the end of violence, and that’s the price to be paid, then maybe it has to be paid – it does risk making a mockery of the International Criminal Court though which wants Gaddafi for war crimes.”

Middle East backing

Dr Alexis Crow, a research fellow in Chatham House’s International Security Programme, said that the Italian proposal – as well as destabilising the alliance – also could mean the withdrawal of the use of Italian air bases for the attacks.

“What is important, and how this differs from intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, is the Arab League backing it,” she said.

“So the Qataris, the Emirates, Moroccans and Kuwaitis in addition to the Turks have given military and political support to any lasting settlement – that’s such legitimacy.

“Probably this is more important than Italy’s backing, but let’s hope the coalition can hold. If Italy’s proposal is revoked, they will probably take away the use of their bases, necessitating more aircraft carriers.