Social Democrats in Libya mission u-turn

The Social Democrats have altered their view on Sweden's military presence in Libya, expressing their support for an extension and expansion of the Swedish military and humanitarian contributions to the North African country.

Social Democrats in Libya mission u-turn
Top Social Democrat Håkan Juholt; surveillance image of Libya taken by a Gripen

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Social Democrat leader Håkan Juholt affirmed his party’s position that Sweden’s current mission in Libya, in which Swedish JAS Gripen fighter planes are helping to enforce a UN-mandated no-fly zone, should end.

He added, however, that he would like to see other Swedish military and humanitarian contributions to Libya.

Juholt presented the Social Democrats’ Libya proposals during a press conference on Wednesday at the Riksdag.

Without naming names, he directed stinging criticism against those in Sweden who are open to allowing Swedish planes to attack targets on the ground in Libya, labeling the notion as “flippant”.

“The risk of making serious mistakes is just too great,” he said, pointing out that Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi’s children and grandchildren had been killed.

Juholt called his party’s proposals a mission for the Libyan people which contained humanitarian, civil, and “if required, military” measures.

He also reaffirmed that his party was standing firm in its belief that it is time to call home the squadron of Gripen planes currently patrolling the skies over Libya.

“We said yes to maintaining a no-fly zone with eight Gripen planes when Qaddafi was bombing his people. But we think that continuing like this, when Qaddafi’s air force is out of commission, sets our ambitions all too low and is simply wrong,” he said.

“We have higher ambitions than that to support the Libyan people,” he said, adding he believed the measures have “a good chance of achieving broad support in the Riksdag”.

“We remain committed to our earlier position, that we support the Libyan people. We are committed to having the Gripen mission end after the previously decided three-month period, and we’re committed to having broader engagement than purely military.”

According to Juholt, it’s important to take a wider view toward Sweden’s mission in Libya.

“There has been a lot of focus on the view that, if we aren’t there with eight Gripen planes then, well, we’re not doing anything and thus letting the Libyan people down,” he said.

“We want to broaden that and point to a cohesive policy which is based on an analysis of what can be expected in the future.”

According to Juholt, it’s not appropriate to simply continue with the current Gripen mission.

“We actually have a larger toolbox than eight Gripen planes,” he said.

The comments come following an opinion article published on Wednesday by Social Democrat foreign policy spokesperson Urban Ahlin and defence spokesperson Peter Hultqvist in the Dagens Nyheter (DN) daily.

According to the authors, the party would now like to see an extension of the Sweden’s military mission in Libya, but shift focus from enforcing the no-fly zone for Libya’s air force, which they argue has been demobilized, to enforcing a weapons embargo.

The Social Democrats would instead like to see Swedish marine resources deployed as part of a naval embargo, as well as other humanitarian measures.

“For the Social Democrats, a commitment for peace, democracy and development in Libya is a matter of course,” Ahlin and Hultqvist wrote.

Juholt has previously said that he finds it very hard to imagine that the mandate for the no-fly zone enforcement would be extended beyond July 1st, provoking a storm of criticism from the centre-right parties and from some fellow Social Democrats.

Swedish public opinion is divided on the issue, according to a survey published by Novus last Friday, with 43 percent supporting the withdrawal of the planes.

Some 38 percent of Swedes supported extending the military operation, while the rest remained uncertain.

The Social Democrats now appear to have bowed to the criticism, indicating they are prepared to send the navy to help with the mission directed against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, envisioning a long-term Swedish commitment.

Ahlin and Hultqvist argue that Sweden should contribute both civilian and military resources to further development and democracy, suggested an increase in aid to those fleeing the conflict by increasing allocations to international organisations.

The party also argued for the establishment of a dedicated Swedish fund for democratic development.

Defence minister Sten Tolgfors nevertheless questioned the suggestion that Sweden should deploy naval resources to Libya.

“Why would it be better to contribute to the international mission with something other than we already have – an ongoing, in demand, appreciated, and successful mission with Gripen planes to enforce the no-fly zone?” he said in a statement.

Stefan Ring, an expert in military strategy at the Swedish National Defence College (Försvarshögskolan) believes that continuing the Gripen mission is a better choice than using the marines to enforce a weapons embargo.

“It’s important to use the airborne missions to keep the pressure on Qaddafi,” he said.

Liberal Party (Folkpartiet) defence policy spokesperson Allan Widman, is highly critical of the Social Democrats’ position on Libya, saying the party “in less than two months has succeeded in taking every single position on the issue”.

“It doesn’t inspire confidence. These are just smoke screens. Urban Ahlin and Peter Hultqvist can’t be ignorant of the fact that it would not only take a very long time to change from a fighter unit to a marine unit, but that it would also impose very high costs on the military,” said Widman.

Foreign minister Carl Bildt sees the new proposal as an indication that the Socail Democrats don’t have a clear position on the issue, but that his impression is that they don’t want to continue with the Gripen mission.

“It’s important to not lose sight of the goal,” Bildt told reporters of the government’s current policy.

“If we get a request, we do our duty.”

He pointed out that Sweden accounts for about 25 percent of the airbourne surveillance.

As a result, breaking off the Gripen mission would be a major blow to international efforts to enforce the no-fly zone.

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