Top commander to visit Turkey amid NATO’s Libya impasse

March 23, 2011, Wednesday/ 17:47:00

NATO’s top commander, Adm. James Stavridis, is scheduled to visit Ankara on Thursday after the Turkish capital made clear that it is unable to agree to the Western military alliance taking over enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya if the scope of the operation goes beyond what the United Nations had sanctioned.

The visit by Stavridis, the supreme allied commander Europe, also comes after NATO tried again on Tuesday to resolve a fractious debate on who should command the military campaign in Libya once the United States steps back from leading the operation. Officials in Ankara told Today’s Zaman that the visit was arranged via coordination between NATO and the General Staff before the Libyan crisis. As of Tuesday afternoon, no meeting for Stavridis was scheduled at the Foreign Ministry.

US President Barack Obama, seeking to avoid getting bogged down in a war in another Muslim country, said on Monday that Washington would cede control of operations against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces within days and that NATO would have a coordinating role. “The US would prefer a NATO operation because an American would still be in charge -- the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Admiral James Stavridis,” UK daily, The Guardian, wrote on Monday.

But a heated meeting of NATO ambassadors on Monday failed to resolve whether the 28-nation alliance should run the operation to enforce a UN-mandated no-fly zone, diplomats said. The NATO council was meeting again on Tuesday to resume the debate.

France, which launched the initial air strikes on Libya on Saturday, has argued against giving the US-led NATO political control over an operation in an Arab country, while Turkey has called for limits to any alliance involvement. Some allies were also now questioning whether a no-fly zone was necessary, given the damage already done by air strikes to Gaddafi’s military capabilities, a NATO diplomat said.

“Yesterday’s meeting became a little bit emotional,” the NATO diplomat said, adding that France had argued that the coalition led by France, Britain and the United States should retain political control of the mission, with NATO providing operational support, including command-and-control capabilities. “Others are saying NATO should have [either] command or no role at all and that it doesn’t make sense for NATO to play a subsidiary role,” the diplomat added.

Turkey said a summit in Paris on Saturday between international leaders had led to military intervention that went outside the UN framework. Turkey did not attend the summit.

Analysts said Turkey does not completely oppose military action but wants to promote its role as a broker for peace in Libya. “Turkey with its Muslim identity is emerging as a peace-builder and prefers reducing the presence of foreigners, and its policies might differ from those of Europe or the United States,” said İlter Turan, a professor of political science at İstanbul Bilgi University.

Senior French analyst Francois Heisbourg said the best outcome would be to have NATO handle military coordination but hand political decisions to an ad hoc council of states participating in the coalition, including Arab countries. Italy should be given an equal role with France and Britain because of its geographical location, interests in Libya and the key role of its air bases, he said.

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