By Chris Marsden
7 April, 2011
Washington’s decision to withdraw from participation in air bombardment of Libya has exacerbated tensions between the major powers, above all between the United States and France.
The United States pulled its 40 or so combat jets out of operations on Monday, leaving 11 jets on call and promising to continue support missions, such as aerial refuelling, if requested by NATO.
On March 31, NATO took over the Libyan military campaign, but only after a row between France, on one side, and the US, Turkey and the UK, on the other. France wanted the campaign to be run by a more informal council drawn from all those states participating in the campaign. But the US rejected anything that would suggest France having any operational control of the operation. An American diplomat also made clear that the transfer to NATO control signalled that Washington would “no longer have a significant role in strike operations”―a pledge it made good on within days.
The US withdrawal places the onus on the European powers to assume a greater share of the military bombardment and its associated costs. Britain has responded to the US move by sending four additional Tornados on Monday. A NATO official commented, “We will need more strike assets, and that is being addressed. Britain has stepped up to the mark with four Tornados but will have to do more”.
NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero told Agence France-Presse Wednesday that operations have continued “at the same rhythm” since NATO took control last week, but this is being disputed amidst warnings that the European powers do not have the operational capacity to fill the vacuum left by Washington’s action.
Nine nations have been involved in making 72 attack planes available for strikes against ground targets. This includes 18 from France, 10 from Britain, seven from Canada and six from the United Arab Emirates.
The Guardian points out that France is the second biggest force involved in the campaign, with the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, two frigates, 16 fighter aircraft and 33 aircraft in total. But until the US shift on Monday, “the Americans had performed most of the attacks on ground targets, with the French executing around a quarter and the British around a 10th. Given the US retreat, Nato is seeking to fill the gap, but only the British have pledged more”.
An additional indication of tensions, noted by the Guardian, is that “the US and the French, who have been the two biggest military players until now, are retaining national control over substantial military forces in the Mediterranean and refusing to submit them to Nato authority…. When Nato took over from the coalition, it was stressed that it had assumed ‘sole command and control’ of all air operations. However, countries are dipping in and out of Nato command, withdrawing ‘air assets’ for national operations before returning them to alliance control”.
The Financial Times (FT) quoted a senior British defence official on the US decision, “Lots of people are interpreting this as a very direct signal from the other side of the Atlantic that it’s high time the Europeans got their act together”.
“Transatlantic relations are being tested by the US’s refusal to lead the military mission in Libya, with figures on both sides of the ocean depicting the conflict as a wake-up call for Europe’s military and political establishments”, the FT commented.
“What we’ve seen in Libya is hugely significant”, comments Lord Hutton, a former Labour defence secretary. “The US has been saying for 10 or 15 years that it wants the Europeans to share more of the security burden, and we have to heed that lesson”.
The US position has also served to exacerbate hostilities between the European powers. “The French are spitting tacks at the Germans because of the stance they have taken on Libya”, a British official told the FT.
Britain now has 12 Tornados flying over Libya and the RAF has 10 Typhoons enforcing the no-fly zone. The head of the Royal Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Stephen Dalton, told the Guardian that British warplanes are likely to play a role in the no-fly zone over Libya for at least six months.
The swift response from London demonstrates how anxious the UK’s ruling elite are to preserve good relations with the US. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat government has made clear its readiness to do more. But it is also being called on to shake down the other European powers to take a greater share of the load.
Defence Secretary Liam Fox has called on his European counterparts to contribute additional aircraft. A source told the Telegraph that the Ministry of Defence is ready to send more aircraft—“the whole lot if we need to, all 129 of them”, but insisting, “There will be an uplift from other nations, including the French, being asked to provide more to fill the gap”.
Aside from France and the UK, five other nations have thus far taken part in bombing missions―Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Italy and Norway―with 30 warplanes in total. A French military official told AFP, “Every ally, in particular those who take part in few strikes, will have to pick up the tempo”.
Paris clearly feels pressured by the US move, particularly given it is now involved in three ongoing conflicts―Libya, Afghanistan and the Ivory Coast. Though France has not promised any additional aircraft, Foreign Minister Alain Juppé chose to respond to the US move by staking his country’s dubious claim to be the most resolute champion of the anti-Gaddafi opposition.
Following the US decision to withdraw its fighter aircraft from operations, the commander of rebel forces, Abdelfatah Yunis, accused NATO-led aircraft of “letting the people of Misrata die every day”. “If NATO waits one more week, there will be nothing left in Misrata”, he said Tuesday.
The statement solicited a forceful rebuttal from NATO spokeswoman Romero, who replied Wednesday, “We have a clear mandate and we will do everything to protect the civilians of Misrata”. Another spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, told Al Jazeera, “In the last six days we’ve flown over 1,000 sorties, and out of those over 400 were strike sorties. Yesterday we flew 155 sorties, today almost 200 are planned. So we are taking our mandate very seriously indeed, we’ve been striking tanks around Misrata and we’ve also been striking armoured vehicles, air defence systems, rocket launchers around Misrata, Ras Lanuf and Brega”.
Juppé was also stung by the criticism. He replied in defence that it had become more difficult to distinguish Gaddafi’s forces from civilians and friendly forces. Airstrikes had destroyed most aircraft and armoured vehicles and Libyan troops were using pickups and less sophisticated weapons similar to those used by the rebels, the French foreign minister asserted. “The military situation in the field is confused and uncertain and the risk of engulfing exists”.
He then went on to tell France Info radio, “Misrata is in a situation which cannot continue, and I am going to discuss it in a few hours time with the secretary general of NATO”, Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
France’s defence minister Gerard Longuet pledged to open a sea corridor to get supplies to the besieged Mediterranean city. “We are going to ensure that...aid comes from [the rebel stronghold] Benghazi, and that Gaddafi’s military forces will not be able to stop this”, he said.
The longer the offensive against Tripoli goes on, the more the pretence of a unified effort gives way to ill-concealed and sharp conflicts over who will pay for the campaign and who will seize the lion’s share of post-war Libyan oil assets.
The US also has substantial reservations over Paris’s favoured option of arming the Benghazi rebels. Juppé raised this possibility immediately following the March 29 London meeting of foreign ministers on Libya. But Washington fears doing so, given its knowledge of Al Qaeda involvement in the opposition and reports that it is already using the conflict to acquire weapons, including surface-to-air missiles. An Algerian security official was widely quoted April 5 claiming that the missiles are being smuggled to bases in northern Mali and could be used to target passenger planes.
NATO’s top commander, US Admiral James Stavridis, earlier said that intelligence showed “flickers” of an Al Qaeda presence in Libya. Defense Secretary Robert Gates ruled out arming the rebels on March 31, when testifying before the US Senate and House armed services committees, and was backed up by Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen.
NATO Secretary General Rasmussen concurred, commenting after talks with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, “As far as NATO is concerned, and I speak on behalf of NATO, we will focus on the enforcement of the arms embargo”.