Analysis: French criticism highlights NATO limits in Libya

By David Brunnstrom and Paul Taylor

BRUSSELS/PARIS (Reuters) – French criticism of the pace of NATO’s air campaign in Libya may be laying a trail to blame the U.S.-led alliance for a looming military stalemate that could leave Muammar Gaddafi clinging to power.

It also reflects frustration at the United States’ withdrawal from ground strikes on Gaddafi’s forces and at restrictions placed by several European allies on the use of their warplanes in Libya, diplomats and analysts said.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Tuesday that NATO should be doing more to destroy Gaddafi’s heavy weapons. “It’s not enough,” he told France Info radio.

In a barbed reference to NATO’s takeover from an ad hoc coalition under U.S. command, which France initially resisted, he said: “NATO must play its role fully. It wanted to take the lead in operations, we accepted that.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague called for NATO to “intensify our efforts” and urged other countries to follow Britain in providing additional ground-strike aircraft.

The Libyan rebel council last week also complained that NATO was not doing enough to stop Gaddafi’s forces but toned down its protests after weekend air strikes on tanks halted a government assault on the key rebel-held town of Ajdabiyah.

Juppe’s broadside may also be a move to pre-empt criticism, at home and abroad, that French President Nicolas Sarkozy rushed the world into an unwinnable war without a clear exit strategy.

“It’s an attempt by France to begin politically building an argument for why there’s a stalemate in Libya,” said Marko Papic, an analyst at strategic risk consultants Stratfor.

“It seems that Paris is already beginning to dampen expectations as to where this is going, probably mostly in terms of their home population,” Papic said.

Nick Witney of the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank also said Juppe appeared to be looking to deflect responsibility for a potentially messy outcome.

“France never wanted NATO to run this operation, so as the unpalatable prospect of stalemate and even the survival in power of Gaddafi look increasingly possible, blaming NATO is a no-brainer,” Witney said.

“The more so, when France can point out the apparent contrast with a ‘decisively-run’ operation in Ivory Coast,” where former President Laurent Gbagbo surrendered to his elected rival Monday after French and U.N. forces destroyed his heavy weapons, he said.

“JUST BOGUS”

NATO responded officially to Juppe by saying it was conducting military operations in Libya “with vigor within the current mandate. The pace of the operations is determined by the need to protect the population.”

Privately, NATO officials insist there has been no fall-off in the operational tempo since the Brussels-based alliance took over command of all operations in Libya from a coalition under the United States on March 31.

“The idea that somehow NATO taking over has reduced the number of strikes is just bogus,” one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

With Gaddafi’s anti-aircraft defenses eliminated and his air force destroyed, the mission now mainly involved hitting ground targets such as tanks and artillery without causing civilian casualties or striking the rebels, he said.

“We’ve got to be careful. We have seen what happens if you don’t have exactly the right information on a very fluid terrain where people are moving up and down main roads using similar types of vehicles. We’ve got to make sure that in protecting civilians we are not actually killing them,” the official said.

The U.N. Security Council mandate authorizing the use of force to impose a no-fly zone and protect civilians in Libya explicitly ruled out a ground occupation and did not call for the overthrow of Gaddafi’s government.

“It was never realistic to assume that an air operation alone was going to solve the Libyan problem,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said. “That is why it is imperative that we get the political process and a ceasefire as soon as possible.”

CAVEATS

Britain and France, Europe’s two main military powers, are carrying the overwhelming brunt of air strikes on Gaddafi’s armor since President Barack Obama ordered U.S. forces to take a back seat. The Americans are providing intelligence, logistical support and air-to-air refueling, but not bombing.

Several European countries have put restrictions, known in NATO jargon as ‘caveats’, on what their forces can do.

Italy has said its aircraft will not open fire, the Dutch are enforcing the no-fly zone but may not bomb ground targets and non-NATO Swedish planes may only open fire in self-defense while patrolling the no-fly zone.

NATO allies Germany, Turkey and Poland opposed the Libya operation and are not involved in the air campaign.

Defense analyst Tomas Valasek of the Center for European Reform said NATO faced a situation reminiscent of the 1999 Kosovo air war against Serbia, when it took the veiled threat of a ground invasion to persuade then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his forces.

Gaddafi was placing his armor in populated areas to try to provoke NATO into strikes that would kill civilians and split the coalition, peeling off Arab support. Any attempt to target Gaddafi and his entourage entailed the same risk, he said.

The West undoubtedly already had special forces on the ground in Libya working with the rebels, despite official denials, but could do more to arm and train them, he said.

“I know we have stepped up our involvement and conversations with the rebels and they have been a little more effective, but I am not sure we are yet doing all we can do in terms of linking our air power with the rebels’ ground forces,” Valasek said.

(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie in Rome, Victoria Klesty in Oslo, Niklas Pollard in Stockholm, Roberta Cowen in Amsterdam and John Irish in Paris, writing by Paul Taylor, editing by Gareth Jones)

Analysis: French criticism highlights NATO limits in Libya