Background Briefing on the North Atlantic Council's Meeting on Libya

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Official
Via Teleconference
March 27, 2011

OPERATOR: Thank you all for standing by. Welcome to our conference. At this time, your lines have been placed on listen-only for today’s conference. During the question-and-answer portion of our call, you will be prompted to press *1 on your touchtone phone. Please be sure to record your name plus affiliation to ask your question. The conference is also being recorded and if you have any objections, you may disconnect at this time.

I will now turn the conference over to Mr. Mark Toner. Sir, you may proceed.

MR. TONER: Thank you and thanks to everyone for joining us on a Sunday afternoon. As many of you already know, NATO allies decided to take on the civilian protection piece of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, in addition to providing command and control to the no-fly zone, and enforcing the arms embargo.

And here to walk us through today’s decision and some of the aspects moving forward to give us perspective is [Senior Administration Official]. And just going forward, this call is on background and he will, from here on out, be known as Senior Administration Official.

So without further ado, [Senior Administration Official], do you want to go ahead and --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Absolutely. Thanks, Mark and thanks all for joining us. As those of you who were on the call on Thursday may remember, at that point I mentioned that we had a political agreement to put the entire military aspects of UNSCR 1973 under NATO command and control to make it a NATO mission. That’s what we now did formally this evening here in Brussels.

From this moment on forward, NATO will be in command not only of the no-fly zone, not only of enforcing the arms embargo, but now also of the civilian protection mission. When you think about it, for an organization of 28 states, getting to consensus given where we were just a few days and weeks ago, we moved with extraordinary speed. Ten days ago is when the UN enacted its Security Council resolution that provided for the no-fly zone and the enforcement of the arms embargo and the civilian protection. And it’s just eight days ago that military operations started.

But today, we did – the President said we wanted – he wanted to do when we were going to do it. We were going to take the lead in the initial period, providing our unique capabilities to shape the battlefield, but then within days, we would hand over control of that operation to others. And that’s what we accomplished today in NATO with all 28 allies now agreeing that not only the no-fly zone, not only the arms embargo, but also the civilian protection mission would come under NATO – under NATO command, under NATO control, and on NATO political guidance.

So that’s the important message of what we did today, and I think at this point, I’d be happy to take some questions.

MR. TONER: Great. Operator, we’re ready to take questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. Please be sure to record your name and affiliation to ask your question. Once again, it is *1 and please record your name and affiliation at this time.

Our first question comes from Elise Labott with CNN. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this, [Senior Administration Official]. Can you talk about the rules of engagement in terms of when it goes beyond the no-fly zone and protecting the civilians? Is that done by the commander of NATO who – and will there be separate commanders for the no-fly zone and the kind of no-fly plus aspects of this?

And we’ve been hearing a little bit about caveats that some nations will have to participate in some operations or all operations. Can you talk a little bit about that? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Absolutely. Thanks, Elise. The rules of engagement were agreed today first by the military committee and then by the North Atlantic Council. So we have a set of rules of engagements. They have been agreed. And now it’s over to the commanders to implement the mission within those rules of engagement as best as they can agree.

The fact is that every country agreed to these rules of engagement, as you have in every military operation. We’re not going to come back to the NAC or to any political decisions about how and when we’re going to implement the mission. This is now over to the commanders within the rules. Those rules allow for the continuation of the mission as it has been conducted, which is the implementation of UNSCR 1973 – no more, no less. And I must say we had no debates, frankly, about the rules of engagement.

In terms of the commanders, the – this mission will come under the same command structure and the same command arrangements as the no-fly zone. Indeed, what we did is we changed and amended the existing no-fly zone plan to include the mission for civilian protection. So we’re still operating under the same plan with the same commander (inaudible). The Supreme Allied Commander Europe General – Admiral Jim Stavridis is in charge and the – as he is of all NATO operations. And the joint task force commander is a three-star from – general from Canada, General Charles Bouchard. He is in charge of all aspects of the NATO operation, including the arms embargo.

With respect to caveats, I think the way to look at it is that not every country within NATO will contribute to every part of the mission. Some countries don’t have air forces. In fact, some countries don’t have militaries, like Iceland, so it is impossible for them to participate in the civilian protection mission. And a variety of countries have decided that they will contribute in different ways. Some will contribute in the arms embargo, some with the no-fly zone, some in the civilian protection mission. And that’s the way alliances operate. It’s why you want to do this in an alliance so you can bring together the collective capacity of the alliance in order to fulfill the entire mission across the spectrum of operations.

QUESTION: But just – a quick follow-up, just to put the finest point on it possible, there’s no nation that can object to these kind of additional measures in terms of air strikes on troops? And basically, just not every country has to participate in that; is that --


QUESTION: -- a good way of looking at it?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. I mean, the way to put it is that we have made a decision that this is a mission that NATO is taking on. It is now over to the commanders and the individual troops to fulfill that mission in – within the agreement that we reached at 28. And some countries have decided that they may not participate in all aspects of the mission, but NATO as a whole, working with partners from around the world, including from the region, will fulfill the entire mission and will do so in a coordinated and single command-and-control manner.

QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.

MR. TONER: Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Ilhan Tanir with Turkish Press. Your line is open.

QUESTION: [Senior Administration Official], I had a quick follow-up on the same question, actually. We know that there were strong Turkish objections to the aerial bombing under Qadhafi’s forces. How did you overcome these objections at this moment?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We frankly didn’t hear of any objections; what we – from Turkey or anybody – any other ally. What we heard was a strong preference, one that was shared by Turkey, to have the entire operation – the no-fly zone and the civilian protection, as well as the arms embargo and support for humanitarian assistance – to have all of that conducted by NATO. That was Turkey’s position, it was the position of a lot of countries, and that is, in fact, the position that the North Atlantic Council took today.

From this one moment on forward, the entire operation with respect to military – the use of military force will be under NATO command. That is Turkey’s position. It is now the position of all 28 nations in NATO.

QUESTION: I’m going to do one more quick follow-up and please forgive me for my ignorance. Does it mean that in an event that NATO commanders decide to take a target on Qadhafi forces, all the members, the NATO members, have to agree on every single attack?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, it doesn’t mean that. It – what it means is that NATO has agreed to take on the mission of protecting civilians, and that mission will be executed in the – by the commanders in the best way they judge possible. It means, in practice, that NATO will conduct the military operation in a way that is very similar to the way the coalition has conducted it up to this point, and no more but also no less.

And we – all 28 allies, every single one, agreed that that should be the case. And if it is judged by the commanders that there’s a need to bomb forces of the Libyan regime, then the forces of the Libyan regime will be bombed, and no one is going to be able or in a position to challenge that. That is a military judgment to be made by the military authorities, and we, as an alliance, agreed today to give the supreme allied commander of Europe that authority.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: The next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Mary Beth Sheridan with The Washington Post. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thanks. Thanks a lot, [Senior Administration Official]. I just wanted to make sure I understood when you talk about the civilian protection mission – we’ve obviously seen this in action in terms of troops – regime troops and tanks and so on being targeted outside of, I think, Misrata, Ajdabiyah and so on. But how far does it go? In other words, were the rebels – if the rebels arrive at (inaudible), if they arrive at the outskirts of Tripoli, would all those places also be covered in this civilian protection mandate?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the mandate is very simple. It is to protect civilian and civilian-populated areas from attack. And any forces that are attacking or threatening to attack civilians will be subject to targeting by NATO in exactly the same way they’re subject to targeting by the coalition today, or up to this point.

So the mission is clear. It’s about protecting civilians and civilian-populated areas against the threat of actual attack. And that mission, which was the same mission that existed from last Saturday until this point, is the mission that NATO now takes on. It will do so with the same means – no more, no less. The specific question of where, how, when military forces may be engaged are operational questions that the military commanders will have to decide on a case-by-case basis, and certainly not something that some – a political person or a diplomat like me is going to get involved in.

MR. TONER: Great, next question.

OPERATOR: It comes from Courtney Kube with NBC News. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. I’m sorry, I’m still unclear on two things – the command structure and also the – protecting the civilian population. So in the command structure, is it fair to say that Admiral Stavridis is now taking essentially the role that General Ham has been playing?

And then also, specifically on the protecting civilian population, you’ve said several times now that there will be no more and no less as far as who is involved. As far as assets, I’m assuming you mean enforcing these – the no-fly zone and whatnot. But does that mean the U.S. is still going to be participating, actively participating, in both air strikes and enforcement of the no-fly zone flying missions over Libya?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Courtney, for your question because that allows me to clarify something that’s important.

First on command and control, you’re exactly right. We’re moving from Admiral – from General Ham to Admiral Stavridis. General Ham was the coordinator of the coalition. As the President said, we want to hand off that responsibility to others. Today, we agreed to hand it off to NATO, and the NATO – commander of NATO is the supreme allied commander, and he is now tasking his Joint Task Force Commander, General Bouchard, to take control of this mission. And it’s General Bouchard who’s going to run this operation from here on forward.

On the protection of civilians and when I say “No more, no less,” what I mean is not – has no relationship to who will do it, but what we will do. So it was not meant to be in any way a comment on who would do it. When I say under NATO we’re going to do no more and no less than we did under the coalition, it’s with respect to which targets to hit, how to hit them, and what the mission is.

In terms of the assets, one of the reasons you want to put this into NATO is that you will be able to rely on a great deal, a great number of allies who, up to this point, while wanting to participate in the operation, were unwilling to do so until it came under NATO. And there are a number of allies who have made very clear that they will participate, but they wouldn’t participate as part of the coalition. And indeed, there were a number of coalition partners who said this has to come under NATO and it has to come under NATO quickly.

So what we will see now is more countries participating, and that will allow the United States to be part of a much larger effort rather than having to take the lead. That’s why we wanted to hand it off in a matter of days, and we have now done that.

QUESTION: Will those more countries participating include more Arab participation?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We will seek as many Arab and regional partners to participate, and we’re continuing the process of engaging with Arab countries to bring them into this operation. One of the advantages of using NATO is that NATO has established procedures, established practices of working with non-NATO countries, including many in the Arab world, in order to bring them into established operations. So they have a political visibility on what’s happening as well as military participation. And I would expect that in the coming days and weeks, we will see more and more non-NATO members joining this effort.

QUESTION: Thank you.


MR. TONER: Our next question, and I think we’ve got time for just a couple more.

OPERATOR: It comes from Margaret Warner with PBS NewsHour. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior Administration Official]. Thank you for doing this. I want to go back to Mary Beth’s question because it seems to me there is a difference between whether the rebels are on defense, which is where they have been, say, in Ajdabiyah, and if they go on offense. Say if they go to Sirte, we’re there, the government forces are the ones who hold the civilian-populated area and the attackers, if you will, will be the rebels, or if they were to get to Tripoli. In that situation where rebels are on offense against civilian-populated areas held by the government, will they get an assist from NATO bombing?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll answer, Margaret, the same way as I did for Mary Beth, which is our mission is to protect civilians against the threat or actual use of military force. So when civilians are being attacked or threatened to be attacked, those who are doing the attacking or threatening are the ones who are going to be subject to military action.

It’s been very clear up to this point that it is the regime of Colonel Qadhafi that is engaged in horrendous acts against civilians, and therefore, it is those forces that are being targeted. But the mission is clear. It’s about the protection of civilians and civilian-populated areas. It is not anything more or anything less than that. And as long as civilians are being threatened, as long as civilians are being attacked, there is a very legitimate military mission, which is to make sure that those who are doing the attacking or those who are doing the threatening are being – are unable to continue their actions.

QUESTION: But if I can follow up, I mean, that still doesn’t really answer my question. If you’re in a situation in which it is really the rebel army against Qadhafi forces and civilians are not directly involved or targeted at that moment, are you assisting the rebels?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I’ll answer the same way, and I think that will explain it. When civilians are attacked, those doing the – those attacking the civilians are a legitimate target and will be targeted by NATO. If there is a threat to attack civilians and civilian-populated areas, that is what we will go after. So civilians need to be threatened or attacked for NATO to take military action, as indeed the coalition has done so up to this point. That’s the mission we have had up to this point, and that’s the mission that NATO is now taking on. It’s the same mission in the same way.

QUESTION: All right.

MR. TONER: Thank you. This is --

QUESTION: Would you say civilians in Sirte are being threatened or attacked?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sorry, Margaret, I didn’t hear it.

QUESTION: Would you say civilians in Sirte currently are being threatened or attacked?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t follow the operational details, so I don't know exactly where we are on this, and I’d leave that open to the commanders. They’ve got a clear mission and they need – now need to execute it.

MR. TONER: Thank you. This will be our last question.

OPERATOR: It comes from Adam Levine with CNN. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. If I could follow up, so are you saying that if rebels are advancing and they (inaudible) an activity that threatens or endangers civilians by starting fighting, rebels are fair targets for the alliance?

And my – just another question also: How will NATO coordinate or interact with the rebel groups?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right now, all the threatening and striking of civilians is being done by Qadhafi forces, and that’s the focus. But our mission is clear. It’s about protecting civilians first and civilian areas. That – first and foremost, and that’s what it’s about. And NATO has just taken on that mission.

In terms of coordinating with rebel forces, no, our mission is to protect civilians. It’s not about the rebels. It’s about the protection of civilians and civilian populations. That’s what UNSCR 1973 mandated and that’s the mandate that NATO is now taking on.

MR. TONER: Great. Well, thank you all so much and especially to our Senior Administration Official for walking us through this decision today. Everybody have a good remainder of their Sunday and thank you again.

OPERATOR: That does conclude today’s conference call. We thank you all for participating. You may now disconnect and have a great rest of your day.

PRN: 2011/483