Qaddafi and NATO agree on need for negotiations, but on what terms?
Two months into the imposition by the United Nations Security Council of a no-fly zone above Libya, the allied forces and Muammar Qaddafi agree that there is no military solution to the Libyan crisis. The problem is that they disagree on whether the solution can involve a continued role for Mr. Qadaffi.
Continued NATO strikes against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces and the Libyan leader’s compound in the capital Tripoli have persuaded the Libyan leader that he cannot continue defying the allied forces indefinitely. They have, however, yet to convince him that it may be time to start looking for a place to spend the rest of his days in exile.
The allies with the United States, Britain and France in the lead may have complicated efforts to reach agreement by explicitly making Mr. Qaddafi’s departure a goal of their military campaign even if that violates the UN resolution authorizing the no-fly zone. Mr. Qaddafi would have probably found it easier to end his 41 years in power had the demand for his departure been made quietly in closed door negotiations rather than publicly through the media.
Mr. Qaddafi’s hints that he is looking for a negotiated way out suggest that he realizes that his failure to respond to protesters’ demands in the early days of the popular revolt that erupted in mid- February coupled with his brutal response since have put him in a no-win position. His hopes that a protracted conflict that lacked popular support would force the allies to sue for peace failed to materialize.
Instead, the no-fly zone is severely restricting Mr. Qaddafi’s military capability. Libyan rebels scored an important victory this week with the capture of the airport in the western port city of Misrata. The victory put the embattled city beyond the reach of Mr. Qaddafi’s heavy weapons and the rebels in a position to drive a wedge between the Libyan leader’s forces in the western and eastern parts of the country. It also gave rebels forces a significant boost while undermining morale in Mr. Qaddafi’s ranks.
A senior aide to Mr. Qaddafi, deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaim, acknowledged as much in a meeting with reporters in Tripoli. Mr. Kaim suggested that Mr. Qaddafi had made a mistake by handing out arms to veterans who had been recalled to duty despite being in poor physical condition and to cadets with no combat training or experience. The move has weakened cohesion within Mr. Qaddafi’s forces.
In a bid to hold out an olive branch and an admission that allied airstrikes had curtailed the ability of loyalist forces, the official said that Mr. Qaddafi’s forces would not try to retake the rebel-held city of Benghazi in eastern Libya. He said that the Libyan leader was hoping that tribal leaders would be able to broker at least a ceasefire. Negotiations, Mr. Kaim said, were “the only exit strategy available to all parties now.”
Mr. Qaddafi’s maneuvering for a negotiated end to the fighting seeks to capitalize on the apparent failure of the Transition National Council (TNC), that groups the various forces aligned against the Libyan leader, to secure US recognition and financial aid. Rebel finance minister Ali Tarhouni returned from Washington to Benghazi with verbal encouragement but no funds to pay for food, fuel and other basic necessities.
Mr. Tarhouni had hoped to gain access to at least part of the $34 billion in Libyan assets frozen in the United States. Legislation proposed by Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, would allow the Obama administration to transfer to the TNC $180 million from Libyan assets but that will cover the council’s expenditure for at most 10 days. Mr. Tarhouni reckons that he needs $3 billion for the next six months.
If lack of funds is putting the squeeze on the rebels, a little reported battle in the highlands of western Libya could significantly complicating things for Mr. Qaddafi in Tripoli itself. Rebel efforts to gain control of Nafusa, a range of hills that stretch from Yafran southwest of Tripoli to the border with Tunisia, aim to cut Tripoli off from water and oil supplies. Tripoli gets much of its water and oil through pipelines from the southern area of Ghadames that traverse Nafusa. Tripoli has already started to experience fuel shortages. The rebels in Nafusa are supported by Berbers, who feel that Mr. Qaddafi treated them as second-class citizens.
In the maneuvering for possible negotiations, time is emerging as a major factor for Mr. Qaddafi as well as the rebels and US President Barack Obama. The longer the conflict drags on, the more discontent is likely to spread among Mr. Qaddafi’s forces whose freedom of movement will increasingly be restricted by allied air strikes. The rebels are hoping that Qatar, which is part of the UN-endorsed military coalition, will come to their financial rescue before they totally run out of funds. Mr. Obama has a legal deadline this week that could force him to withdraw the United States from the bombing campaign unless he seeks Congressional authorization.
Mr. Qaddafi has the weakest hand in the maneuvering in advance of possible negotiations. For the rebels as well as the United States, Britain and France there is no solution that does not involve Mr. Qaddafi’s removal from power. Mr. Obama is certain to figure out in the coming days how to meet his May 20 deadline while the allies cannot afford to let the rebels go bankrupt.
Mr. Qaddafi has no such certainties. He is running out of options. And that is something the allies and the rebels recognize, making it unlikely that they will respond any time soon to his feelers. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is being courted by Mr. Qaddafi as a possible negotiator also acceptable to the allies, admitted as much in an interview with the Financial Times.
Mr. Qaddafi, Mr. Annan said, “eventually, probably … will have to go.”
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com)