After three months of air strikes in Libya, the NATO alliance is showing growing signs of discord over how to bring a successful end to a conflict that has dragged on longer than many anticipated.
Before NATO took command of operations on March 31, replacing the Western coalition that launched the first salvos two weeks earlier, the French minister of defense had said the conflict would last “weeks.”
The bombing campaign has left Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s army in tatters, but rifts and signs of fatigue have emerged within the alliance while the Libyan leader clings to power as the mission enters its fourth month on today.
France said on Wednesday that it had air dropped weapons to rebels south of Tripoli, a move that caught its closest allies off guard, with Britain saying it would not follow suit.
Italy dropped its own political bombshell last week when it called for a suspension of hostilities, which was swiftly rejected by the alliance.
The operation’s commander, Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, refuses to scale it down, saying NATO has made significant progress by bringing “normalcy” to the opposition-held east while rebels scored successes in the west.
The Canadian general said NATO would keep up the pressure until Muammar Qaddafi stops threatening civilians, returns his forces to barracks and allows humanitarian aid to flow freely into Libya.
The military organization has extended its mandate for another 90 days, committing it to the mission until at least late September.
Shashank Joshi, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said NATO had succeeded in fulfilling its UN mandate to protect civilians and will eventually bring down the Qaddafi regime.
“They have degraded Qaddafi’s military capability, pushed him back, stretched his forces extremely thinly and essentially have made regime change an inevitability,” Joshi said.
“On the mission of regime change, which is the more central mission, I think they will eventually succeed, there’s no doubt about it,” he said, although NATO has repeatedly denied seeking regime change or targeting Qaddafi himself.
Outgoing US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates brought these strains out in the open earlier this month when he scolded allies for their over-reliance on the US military, saying they were even running out of munitions in Libya.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy hit back on Friday, dismissing Gates’s criticism on the “bitterness” of a future retiree.
France, Britain and the US launched the first strikes against the Libyan regime on March 19 before handing control of the operation to NATO despite French reservations.
Only eight of 28 alliance members are taking part in the air strikes, and one of them, Norway, has announced that it would end its mission in August because its air force is too small to continue.
The US, France and Britain have pressed other allies to step up their contributions, with Gates singling out Spain, Turkey and the Netherlands as nations that should take part in the bombings.
However, the latter countries have shown no willingness to drop bombs in Libya.
“It is quite a challenge to find somebody to step in,” a NATO diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “In the long run, everybody will need some relief at some point. You will need a rotation.”
France and Britain have invested too much political capital to back out, Joshi said.
“They will not concede Italy’s point about stopping the bombing and they will plough on regardless of whether the Norwegians or the Belgians or anyone else continues alongside them,” he said.
“France and Britain have put so much into this, there is no prospect that they will now.”