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Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2011-03-24

Just days after Operation Odyssey Dawn was born, there’s little sign of a significant Libyan rebel advance toward the capital of Tripoli. But while the ground war hasn’t yet begun, a low-intensity war of words has broken out in Coalition ranks.

Just days after Operation Odyssey Dawn was born, there’s little sign of a significant Libyan rebel advance toward the capital of Tripoli. But while the ground war hasn’t yet begun, a low-intensity war of words has broken out within Coalition ranks over who should take over command of the Libyan war.

Multinational disagreements over military control within a coalition have been known to break out – before a war.

But they aren’t generally expected in the thick of one.

The latest diplomatic disagreement pits countries that want NATO to wrest control of the Libyan war from the US against those that don’t. It comes at time when experts are mulling likely outcomes of Operation Odyssey Dawn.

While regime change in Libya is something the international community would like to see, Western political leaders are keenly aware that it won't come easily.

The Libyans, we’ve been told, must do the bloody work - getting rid of Muammar Gaddafi after 42 tyrannical years in power - themselves. But if they are unable or unwilling to do so, the prospects look bleak - with experts looking to Iraq circa 1991 and Bosnia circa 1993 for possible outcome scenarios.

In Iraq, the no-fly zone was in place for more than a decade until the 2003 war finally ousted Saddam Hussein. In Bosnia, air operations eventually expanded to include close air support of UN troops until Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was humbled to the negotiating table.

Whether via the diplomatic wrangling off the battlefield or the eventual outcomes on it, Operation Odyssey Dawn seems to already be living up to its name in more ways than one. It may be sometime before dusk falls on this epic international voyage.

US says NATO, France says ‘non’

The latest divisions in the Coalition ranks became evident on Tuesday, when US President Barack Obama, following a phone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said the two countries agreed that NATO should have command and control of the Libyan mission.

The US - which currently has de-facto control of the operation - is eager to hand it over, and Washington believes that NATO has the capability and experience to coordinate a modern, multinational military operation.

But France, which launched the first strikes on Libya, disagrees, citing the US-dominated alliance's poor reputation in the Arab world.

In a speech before parliament Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said France supported the formation of political steering committees, comprised of the foreign ministers of allied nations, to steer the course of the Libyan operation.

But while the international alliance has made much of the Arab League’s support for the UN resolution mandating the Libyan operation, Arab nations have not been very forthcoming with Operation Odyssey Dawn.

On Tuesday, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an oil-rich Gulf nation with a well-equipped modern air force, said it would restrict its involvement to humanitarian missions.

With Saudi Arabia, an Arab powerhouse, locked in cross-border missions in neighbouring Bahrain and possibly Yemen, Qatar has been the only Arab nation to commit three airplanes so far.

Still working on the endgame

On the ground, military strategists are still formulating an endgame - something generals usually try to do before heading into war.

“The worry is to decide how far the mission will go, what the objectives are, what is the exit strategy,” said Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa Director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “Those are questions the military had on Day One and they continue to have them – until this comes to an end.”

The ideal end, of course, would see Libyan opposition forces - under the protection of the internationally enforced no-fly zone - marching on Tripoli and toppling Gaddafi.

But even though the no-fly zone over Libya has been implemented, Christopher Dickey, Middle East editor at US Newsweek magazine, says the signs for a ground troop advance have not been encouraging so far.

“The gamble is, can the Libyan people resolve the situation now under the sheltering sky of the no-fly zone,” explained Dickey. “The signs over the past 24 to 36 hours have not been encouraging. There are problems that I felt might develop - and I’m sorry to see they have – which is essentially [that] the energy of the uprising was spent in the first couple of weeks, when the opposition was advancing, winning; Gaddafi’s diplomats and soldiers were defecting, and it looked like victory.”

That was before Gaddafi gathered his forces earlier this month and recaptured towns the opposition had already won.

But while the no-fly zone has effectively halted Gaddafi’s advance, there’s little sign that opposition forces will swiftly regain the lost terrain, much less advance on the Libyan capital.

Understanding the local partner: rebels or bourgeois protesters?

The fighting power and experience of the opposition forces have always been questionable.

“They’re not troops, they’re protesters,” explained Dickey. “They saw the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which were driven by a new, young, educated bourgeoisie – or aspiring bourgeoisie – and they thought they could do the same in Libya. But unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, Gaddafi turned to his military units, and it became a war.”

Whether these Libyans are called "rebels", "protesters", or simply the “opposition”, they’re still a largely unknown entity - a war partner the international community is still grappling to fully understand.

Their ranks include a motley mix of defected diplomats and soldiers on the ground, coupled with what looks like professionals – doctors, lawyers, teachers – who have taken up guns for a cause.

One of the scenarios gaining weight in policy circles is a sort of Iraq circa 1990s, where Libya would be split into an opposition-controlled east and a Gaddafi-controlled west much in the same Iraq was parcelled into the Kurdish north, Shiite south and Sunni central region during the sanctions and no-fly zone era.

Where do the tribes fit into the political puzzle?

But while much has been said about a rebel-controlled eastern Cyrenaica region – with Benghazi as a capital – pitted against the western Tripolitania area, not much has been said about the vast southern Saharan desert areas – and how Libya’s tribes would fit into the new jigsaw puzzle.

Splits already appearing in coalition

The Warfalla, Libya’s largest, predominantly western tribe, for instance, is spread across the east, with many Warfalla tribesmen who live in Benghazi declaring their support for the opposition.

So, it seems, have the Tarhuna – another major tribe. But not much is known about the political positions of a vast array of smaller tribes, or how they could be used in a possible post-Gaddafi reconstruction process.

But then, as some experts readily admit, not too much is known about Libya, a sparsely populated, predominantly desert nation that has been shrouded from the outside world for decades.

“Basically, Libya was a one-man show and it wasn’t about understanding Libya, it was about understanding Gaddafi,” said Dickey. “I’m not sure even Libyans have a clear idea of who they are because the shadow cast by Gaddafi has been so vast.”

A reassertion of long-curtailed identities following the fall of dictators is a problem the international community has faced before, notably in the conflicts in the Balkans and Iraq.

But with Libya, many experts are still grappling to understand its potentially dramatic implications. As Malley admits, “We really don’t know Libya that well... Iraq was a black box,” said Malley referring to the Iraqi situation before the 2003 invasion. “Libya is an even darker one for many of us.”


Date created : 2011-03-23


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