WASHINGTON - The fate of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi remains up in the air after the United States and its allied partners began missile strikes over the weekend to impose a no-fly zone (NFZ) in the North African country.
"[T]he six-million-dollar question is where is this heading and I don't think we have a clear sense of it," Charles Kupchan, U.S. foreign policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told IPS.
U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated his prior calls for regime change in Libya on Monday during a televised press conference from Chile, the second stop of his three-country visit to Latin America this week.
"It is U.S. policy that Gaddafi needs to go," he said. "We've got a wide range of tools in addition to our military efforts to support that policy."
"[W]e will continue to pursue those, but when it comes to our military action, we are doing so in support of United Nations Security Council resolution 1973 that specifically talks about humanitarian efforts, and we are going to make sure that we stick to that mandate," Obama continued.
While some analysts criticise Washington's military involvement in Libya, questioning the justification that it preempts a humanitarian crisis and instead intervenes in a civil war, others call for Gaddafi's ouster through military might, arguing that it is permitted under the UNSC resolution.
Top Pentagon officials – like Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Carter Ham, U.S. Africa commander – have stressed in recent days that Gaddafi is not among the targets of what the U.S. is calling "Operation Odyssey Dawn."
Although current military operations in Libya are restricted to the protection of civilians, U.S. allies, notably Britain and France, have also been vocal in calling for regime change.
"[W]hat the U.S., at this point, is trying to focus specifically on is humanitarian objectives – that is to say, to stop the killing of the opposition by Gaddafi's forces – and is leaving in a more ambiguous state what comes after that objective," Kupchan explained.
Bombs Over Benghazi
"The military mission here…is very clear, frankly, and what is expected of us to do: to establish this no-fly zone, to protect civilians, to…get the withdrawal of regime ground forces out of Benghazi," Ham reiterated Monday.
"[W]e are so far achieving our military objectives consistent with our mission," Ham said, adding that U.S. and British ships and submarines in the Mediterranean Sea have launched 136 tomahawk missiles since the start of military operations on Saturday.
According to the general, no Libyan military aircraft has been observed operating since, Libyan naval activity has ceased, and pro-regime ground forces have halted their advance on the opposition-stronghold of Benghazi.
"[W]e know that regime ground forces that were in the vicinity of Benghazi now possess little will or capability to resume offensive operations," Ham announced.
The U.S. is leading this initial phase of military operations, which is aimed at disabling Gaddafi's air defences and implementing and patrolling a no-fly zone, which will extend south- and west-ward from Benghazi to eventually encompass about 1,000 kilometres along the top third of the country.
Subsequent phases, which Obama said will come in a manner of "days, not weeks", will operate under a coalition leadership.
Partners active in the operations now include the British, Danish, French, Italian and Spanish, with Belgian and Canadian allies beginning to participate on Monday and Qatari forces en route to the area, Ham said.
Additional countries – including those from the Arab League – are expected to add their names to the list in the coming days.
The White House has insisted on "Arab leadership and participation" in international efforts to contain Gaddafi's attacks against his people, with the Arab League's endorsement of a NFZ in Libya one of the key contributing factors in the U.S.'s involvement.
But Arab support wavered on Saturday, when the League's Secretary-General condemned the intensity of the missile strikes. Then on Sunday, the League issued a second endorsement of the NFZ.
As details of how the coalition leadership will be structured are defined, it is clear that parties must tread carefully to accommodate the policies and intentions of the nations involved.
"[T]here are a couple of possibilities – one is British and French leadership, another is the use of the NATO machinery," U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates told reporters Sunday.
"I think there is a sensitivity on the part of the Arab League to being seen to be operating under a NATO umbrella, and so the question is if there is a way we can work out NATO's command and control machinery without it being a NATO mission and without a NATO flag and so on."
Ultimately, Gates said, "this is basically going to have to be resolved by the Libyans themselves."