As NATO prepares to take over the command of Libya air operations, NATO spokesman has indicated on March 25 that the İzmir NATO Airbase in Turkey will act as the command and communications center for further air operations. With this capacity a Turkish major-general and an American lieutenant-general will have the ‘authority and responsibility’ for all NATO air-only operations through the NATO’s İzmir airbase. It is understood that NATO will take over the command of the air operations “either on Sunday or Monday” – March 27 or 28, respectively for a tentative period of 90 days, which can be “extended or shortened depending on circumstances”.
Turkish commentators indicate that the designation of the İzmir NATO airbase as the command center of Libya air operations was an ‘expected’ decision. Today, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters that the decision is ‘positive, because it fades France out of the equation‘. This position is also supported by Turkish defence analysts and stratèges who claim that “the operation is now legal and ‘normal’ after the NATO’s takeover“. Turkish analysts emphasize three humanitarian aspects of NATO’s utility in the Libya operation, directed towards Turkey’s primary objective: imposing a fast ceasefire.
1- Establishing a naval blockade to impose the arms embargo on Gaddafi’s forces
2- Providing security for a possible and probable international humanitarian mission
3- Enforcing the no-fly zone to prevent further human cost.
‘Civilian casualties’ argument and the subsequent assertion that any NATO involvement in Libya should be as fast and as decisive as possible, are likely to be the primary drivers of Turkish policy with regard to NATO’s operation and its aftermath. This isn’t so much of an ideological or philosophical concern; rather Turkey’s arguments are based on the fact that prolonged conflicts that end up creating civilian casualties will be unpopular domestically in the countries that join the NATO operation. Turkish analysts warn that a lack of domestic support will cause these countries to waver in their NATO efforts and can end up quitting prematurely, before a final settlement can be reached in Libya.
So far, Turkey has committed 6 F-16s, to the forward airbases of Sigonella and Trapani and will strictly carry air-to-air combat load. This means that the Turkish fighter jets will not be dispatched with any bombing or otherwise air-to-ground payload. Turkey also remains strongly opposed to a land operation, as it will render the operation an invasion.
On the political front, Libya operation is likely to witness the already wide rift between France and Turkey, which mainly is a result of the Turkish diplomatic retaliations against what the Turks call the French government’s ‘negative attitude’ regarding Turkey’s European Union accession process. Secondly, Turkey has around 25 billion US-dollars-worth investment in Libya, which it intends to protect. Therefore, Turkey sees French involvement in Libya a serious threat to its current and post-operation business interests there.