Libya coalition seeks to convince Turks on NATO role

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 24, 2011 3:17 PM

By David Brunnstrom and Paul Taylor

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Muslim NATO member Turkey cast new suspicions on Thursday on the motives behind Western intervention in Libya as NATO states tried again to resolve differences over the command and aims of the military action.

The United States wants to hand over command of the air campaign within days, putting French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron under pressure to define the mission and command arrangements when they meet other European leaders at a Brussels summit on Thursday.

The White House said President Barack Obama was confident Washington will be able to hand over control of the Libyan military operation to NATO within days.

"We are still operating under that timeline, that it will be days, not weeks," Obama's spokesman Jay Carney said. "we feel very confident that it will happen soon."

Ambassadors of the U.S.-led defense alliance resumed negotiations on expanding its role in Libya, shortly before an EU summit dinner, which was due to discuss the subject. Days of sometimes heated wrangling have failed to reach a deal so far.

The Turkish parliament approved a decision to join a NATO naval operation to enforce a U.N.-sanctioned arms embargo off Libya by sending four frigates, a submarine and a support vessel for the naval operation.

But Turkey, whose ambitions to join the EU have been obstructed by France, remains a key obstacle to forging an deal for NATO to fill the command gap when Washington steps back.

Ankara has pressed for NATO to have sole control of Libya operations, but has attached conditions, saying it does not want to see it conducting offensive operations that could harm civilians or to be in charge of enforcing a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone while coalition planes are bombing Libyan forces.

France, which launched the air campaign with Britain and the United States on Saturday, says NATO should play a technical role by providing its command structure for the operation, while an ad hoc steering group of coalition members, including the Arab League, exercises political control.

It has argued that having NATO in charge would erode Arab support because U.S. unpopularity in the Arab world.

On Thursday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said it may take a coalition of Western powers days or weeks to destroy Muammar Gaddafi's military, but not months.

TURKEY TAKES AIM AT FRANCE

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan took a swipe at France on Thursday, saying that the same people who were reluctant to let Turkey into the European Union now spoke in terms of "crusades" in Libya, a reference to a loose comment by Sarkozy's interior minister.

He voiced suspicion that some seeking to act outside NATO had their eyes on Libya's oil while President Abdullah Gul said the coalition lacked an agreed policy, planning and exit strategy, and Libya could be "looted" like Iraq.

"I wish that those who only see oil, gold mines and underground treasures when they look in that direction, would see the region through glasses of conscience from now on," Erdogan told a conference in Istanbul.

Britain's Cameron sought to assuage concerns about Western motives by saying the coalition should not stray beyond the U.N. resolution by targeting Muammar Gaddafi.

"It is very important we don't go beyond that in any way," he said when asked if the Libyan leader was a legitimate target.

Daniel Keohane of the European Union Institute for Security Studies expected a NATO role would be agreed in coming days.

"My sense is the French have accepted in principle that NATO should play a role. The real issue is Turkey and whether or not they get the assurances they want. Everyone else at NATO is pretty clear a NATO role makes sense," he said.

Keohane said it was vital to clarify the aim of military action, noting that while the EU and the United States say Gaddafi must go, the U.N. resolution did not authorize regime change.

"It's about imposing the no-fly zone and to protect civilians by all necessary means," he said. "The problem is that some people in Turkey and some of the European countries like Germany worry it may become about regime change."

Germany argued against Western intervention, but has made clear if would not stand in the way of a NATO role.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday that Obama, loath to become entangled in another war in another Muslim state after Iraq and Afghanistan, did not want Washington to keep command of the operation, which began last Saturday, for "more than a week or so."

Britain will host a "contact group" meeting next Tuesday of an ad hoc group of coalition members, including the Arab League. France envisages that body should have political control.

Kehone said prolonged wrangling over command arrangements and objectives could erode coalition morale.

"If it goes on for another week or two, it could do. It doesn't look good if there confusion over aims and the chain of command," he said.

"The military will get on with the job as best as they can, but it's not good for morale, certainly at the political level, and for holding the coalition together and keeping Arab support."

(editing by Paul Taylor)