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May 12, 2011 | 12:17 GMT

6 mins read

Europe's Weak Hand Against Gadhafi

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini and Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa issued statements May 11 discussing the Europe-led NATO effort to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Frattini said Gadhafi has until the end of the month to go into exile, or the International Criminal Court will issue an arrest warrant. La Russa hinted that Gadhafi would be a legitimate target for an airstrike, implying that the Italian government is open to attempts to kill the Libyan leader. The officials' comments reflect the various methods being considered to foment regime change in Tripoli, but they also exemplify the inability of the European countries leading the NATO air campaign to accomplish their goal of ousting Gadhafi. The threat of exile or arrest is unlikely to sway Gadhafi, while an assassination attempt from the air would be a difficult operation.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini issued an ultimatum to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi May 11, giving him until the end of the month to either go into exile or be presented with an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant. On the same day, Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa intimated that Gadhafi would be a legitimate target for an airstrike, implying that Rome is open to the prospect of trying to kill the Libyan leader. Nearly two months into the NATO campaign in Libya, the eastern part of the country is quickly turning into an unofficial NATO protectorate. Gadhafi, having all but given up hope of reclaiming the other half of the country so long as the no-fly zone remains in place, remains firmly entrenched in the west. Aside from outposts of rebellion in Misurata and the Western Mountains region along the Tunisian border, the western portion of the country remains under Gadhafi's control, meaning he has no impetus to leave. So long as Gadhafi stays, and the balance of power within Libya remains roughly as is, the current trend has the country heading toward a partition, in a reconfiguration that would bring Libya back to roughly the same state that existed in the pre-independence era. Thus, Italian officials' comments on May 11 reflect the various methods being considered to foment regime change in Tripoli. They also exemplify the inability of the European countries leading the NATO air campaign to accomplish their goal of ousting Gadhafi. Threats of exile or arrest will likely have little effect on Gadhafi's future plans and an attempted assassination from the air would be a complicated and difficult operation.

Arrest or Exile

Exile has long been an option for Gadhafi, but one he has never given any indication he would pursue. There are always personal reasons for any head of state to balk at the notion of leaving his country in the face of external pressure; Gadhafi's case is no exception. He still controls the core of western Libya and no one has yet proved able to physically force him out or credibly threaten his grip on power. The Libyan rebels do not pose a threat to his position in most of western Libya, and there has been no serious rise in calls for the insertion of foreign ground troops from Europe, which would pose the biggest threat to Gadhafi's rule. While the prospects of a palace coup or death in a NATO airstrike can never be completely ruled out, there is no pressing reason for Gadhafi to consider leaving Libya. Moreover, threatening Gadhafi with an ICC arrest warrant will actually further convince him that offers of exile are not to be trusted. He need only consider the case of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who accepted an offer to go into exile in Nigeria only to be handed over to the ICC shortly thereafter. Assuming majority support from the six ICC judges in the pre-trial division (who hail from Brazil, Germany, Bulgaria, Botswana, Italy and Argentina), issuing a warrant in Gadhafi's case over potential Russian and Chinese objections is possible. The U.N. Security Council can only block an ICC proceeding through a resolution. This in turn could be blocked by a veto from any of the five permanent members — including the United States, France and the United Kingdom, three of the main proponents of the Libyan campaign.

The Airstrike Option

In his May 11 interview with an Italian media outlet, Defense Minister La Russa said NATO forces could legitimately target Gadhafi in an airstrike if he were situated in a military installation, adding, "If, for example, it's a place from which orders are being issued to strike against civilians, then a raid is legitimate." This rationale could be used to justify any future strike on a building that may be housing Gadhafi, and it may be Rome's way of pre-emptively preparing a legal defense for use in the aftermath of an eventual strike. As the European-led NATO campaign in Libya wore on, some began pushing for an escalation from airstrikes to a ground attack. These calls have died down, however, and an intervention on the ground is not seen as likely in the near future. So long as the insertion of ground troops is not considered worth the risk, France, the United Kingdom and Italy will struggle to accomplish their objective. All the actors affiliated with the NATO air campaign against Libya have thus far strongly denied that there have been any attempts to assassinate Gadhafi using airstrikes, which, though certainly possible, would be a challenging operation. These repeated denials mean very little in light of two facts:
  • The countries that initially called for the NATO campaign have issued denials before, most notably saying at the outset that the goal of the air campaign would not be regime change in Libya, before reversing their position weeks later.
  • Multiple compounds belonging to Gadhafi have already been targeted in airstrikes, the most high-profile instance of which came April 30, when one of Gadhafi's sons and three of his grandchildren were reportedly killed.
It is notable that Gadhafi has not been seen or heard from since the morning of April 30, just hours before the strike that, according to the Libyan government, hit a building Gadhafi was in — though it is impossible to confirm subsequent rumors that Gadhafi was killed or injured in the strike. The May 2 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden may have convinced Gadhafi to lay low, in which case La Russa's May 11 statement would only give Gadhafi more incentive to keep a low profile. Italy long ago reversed its initial policy of attempting to balance continued support for its old ally Gadhafi with support for the new fonts of authority in Libya's east. While it is always possible that, if Gadhafi manages to retain power in Libya, he could once again open business ties with Italy — namely its state-owned oil company ENI, which has significant energy concessions in the country, particularly in the Gadhafi-controlled west — Rome likely sees this chance as quite small. It is thus in Italy's interest to see the downfall of the Libyan leader through to its end. Italy and France are the only two European countries that have recognized the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people. Rome reportedly has gone so far as to promise to send the rebels military advisers, aid money and even light weapons. Rome now completely supports the rebel council and eastern Libya as a whole. The goal of regime change would be to avoid the entrenchment of a status quo in which the country is partitioned. The Italians feel that the best way to see this through is by removing Gadhafi, but the strategies Rome seems to be pursuing largely illustrate the weakness of the Italian — and European — hand.

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