LONDON – Depending on whom you ask, the warplanes sent to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya are there to carry out Operation Odyssey Dawn, Operation Ellamy or Operation Harmattan.
All three names refer to the same mission. But the different designations by the U.S., Britain and France, respectively, are also emblematic of the fact that, after days of joint airstrikes, the coalition trying to keep Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in check still can’t agree on who should take united command of a military campaign with no clear end in sight.
Diplomats continued to squabble over the contentious issue Tuesday, their discord centering on what role the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should play in the conflict, especially as the U.S. tries to scale back its involvement.
On Tuesday, during the next-to-last day of his trip to Latin America, President Barack Obama assured Americans and the world that the U.S. would quickly cede the skies and the military campaign. “We will continue to support the efforts to protect the Libyan people, but we will not be leading them,” Obama said in El Salvador.
Nations such as Britain and Italy want NATO to take the lead, regarding it as the logical choice because it already has command and control structures that could easily be activated. But other members of the alliance, including France and Turkey, have insisted with equal vehemence that a NATO-led, mostly Western coalition would send the wrong message to the Muslim world.
The divisions have cast a cloud over the future of the allied campaign, particularly if it drags out much longer after taking out many of its fixed targets, such as Gadhafi’s ground-based air defenses.
“We’re still left with an ad hoc coalition here that will be increasingly struggling to survive,” said Barak Seener, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank in London. “How does it sustain itself? That’s the big challenge.”
At NATO headquarters in Brussels, ambassadors from member states were able to forge an agreement Tuesday on helping to enforce an arms embargo against Libya, but remained at odds over the no-fly zone.
Hammering out a consensus could take several more days. Among the possible compromises are a coalition headed by Britain and France, which pushed hardest for United Nations approval of a no-fly zone; a campaign led by another ally but using NATO assets and expertise; or a NATO-led mission of narrower scope.
French officials said Tuesday evening that ministers from allied nations and from the Arab League would meet in the next few days to discuss the situation.
At present, “the operation remains under U.S. command,” British Maj. Gen. John Lorimer said Tuesday. Allied officers are in constant, almost hourly contact as they run sorties by American, British, French, Danish and Italian pilots, among others.
But the lack of a clear command structure for the future, or the possibility that NATO won’t be at the head of it, has already led Italy, Norway and Luxembourg to express reservations about their involvement.
In addition, without a central command, exactly what kind of operations are necessary or allowable would remain subject to differing interpretations: for example, whether Gadhafi himself is a legitimate target under the U.N. resolution, which authorizes “all necessary measures” for protecting Libyan civilians without specifying how far that goes.
Some of the strongest objections have come from Turkey, the only Muslim nation in NATO.
Ankara was furious at not being invited to an emergency summit convened in Paris on Saturday by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The meeting had barely broken up when Sarkozy sent French warplanes streaking over Libya.
“The French have just been very trigger-happy,” a senior Turkish official said on condition of anonymity, because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “We have to be careful on what we want there. Are we going to save people there? Are we trying to depose Gadhafi? What is the objective?”
In Libya on Tuesday, forces loyal to Gadhafi carried out attacks on several rebel-held areas and deployed an elite military brigade to help bolster defenses, U.S. officials said, despite sharply stepped-up coalition airstrikes against his regime.
Gadhafi’s military assaults Tuesday suggested that the Libyan strongman is seeking to crush the remnants of the 5-week-old popular rebellion against his regime, underscoring questions as to whether the U.S.-led air campaign is succeeding.
Libyan army tanks and artillery were reportedly used against defenders in the seaport of Misrata, the last major city in western Libya held by the ragtag rebel force trying to overthrow Gadhafi’s four decades of rule.
Coalition forces struck the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and its surroundings for the fourth night. At least three loud explosions, presumably coalition airstrikes or missiles, shook buildings as anti-aircraft fire and tracer rounds lit up the sky around 9 p.m.
Two U.S. Air Force aviators were safely rescued after they parachuted out of their F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet late Monday before it plummeted into the desert near Benghazi, the rebel stronghold in eastern Libya. U.S. officials attributed the crash, the first major loss of the coalition’s air campaign, to “equipment malfunction.”