What’s at Stake at the London Meeting on Libya?

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The following is a guest post by TIME‘s Vivienne Walt, who is attending the meeting in London over the future of Libya.

Ten days after French and U.S. jets launched Operation Odyssey Dawn in an effort to halt Muammar Gaddafi’s advance on Libyan rebels, the 37 countries involved in the sprawling military coalition converged in London on Tuesday to try and knit together a plan to stop the conflict from spiraling into a protracted war as well as attempt to overhaul a country after nearly 42 years of dictatorship. In a frenzied round of diplomacy, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen holed up behind closed doors to discuss how the fast-moving battles in Libya could ultimately be turned into something the North African country has never known: a democracy.

While the rebels struggle to close in on Gaddafi’s birthplace of Sert, the coalition faces some big hurdles — and potentially big divisions — as it strives to move from the first, intensive phase of bombing to more selective strikes. Three urgent questions are at stake, which are likely to take far more than a one-day meeting in London to resolve:

1. How far will the coalition’s military attacks extend? Since March 24, when the rebels began storming up Libya’s central coastline, the question about how prolonged and deep the air strikes should be has grown more urgent. Under NATO command, the mission remains limited to implementing the U.N. Security Council resolution to protect civilians against the regime’s military. So far, that mission has been successful, allowing residents in Benghazi and Ajdabiyah to rest easy for the first time in weeks. Gaddafi’s forces have withdrawn to areas around Sert — rather than be beaten back by rebel fighters — while rebels convoys have driven hundreds of miles closer to Tripoli, encountering little resistance until they neared Sert, 225 miles east of Tripoli, on March 27.

But what now? British Foreign Minister William Hague told reporters before Tuesday’s meeting that Gaddafi’s forces need to withdraw from all front lines, including the western city of Misratah, where fighting has raged over the past four weeks. Still, Hague insisted that a partition of Libya between the rebel-held east and Gaddafi-held west was not an option. “We support the territorial integrity of Libya,” he said.

With no air force left, Gaddafi still has a powerful weapon to prolong the war: the ability to fight inside urban areas where he has long held an iron grip as well as some genuine allegiance, invisible from the coalition fighter jets’ scopes. These areas include Sert and Tripoli, without which the rebels cannot win the war. Without any coalition forces on the ground to help the rebels, “the coalition’s fundamental challenge remains unaltered,” says Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Libya and now a Libya expert at the British think tank Chatham House. “The bottom line is that the Gaddafi forces are consolidating their position and falling back to strongholds inside fortified urban areas, where they will be less exposed and less vulnerable to air power.” Even without a single working jet, radar system or anti-aircraft missile, Gaddafi will not be easy to defeat.

2. Can the coalition craft an exit for Gaddafi? As the coalition leaders arrived in London on Monday, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox told Sky News that although “regime change is not part of the [U.N.] resolution,” the longer Gaddafi stays in power, the more Libyan civilians are at risk, and protecting civilians is the stated reason for the military strikes. Thus, anything short of Gaddafi’s exit would likely be insufficient to end the international operation. Coalition leaders have floated two possible exit plans for Gaddafi.

Franco Frattini, the Foreign Minister of Italy, which is Libya’s biggest trading partner and closest European neighbor, said on March 27 that he favored a “safe passage” out of Libya for Gaddafi and his family, possibly arranged by the African Union, of which Libya is a member. But Britain, France and the U.S. have all said they would like to see Gaddafi tried for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. That would require an indictment from the court’s prosecutor, which could come as soon as May, since investigators have already begun collating evidence.

The simplest charges to bring an international arrest warrant against Gaddafi would likely relate to his forces’ opening fire on unarmed demonstrators in Benghazi and other cities in eastern Libya, killing about 450 people during the first few days of the uprising in mid-February, before the opposition took up arms. Once the legal charges are crafted, “all countries would have an obligation to cooperate with the indictment,” says Heba Mourayef, a Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch in Cairo. That means any country offering Gaddafi asylum would be harboring an international fugitive.

Indeed, Gaddafi has vowed to die in his country and has said he cannot resign, since under Libya’s bizarre form of government, he technically holds no title. That leaves open the question of how to oust him from power — even while U.S. President Barack Obama and British and French officials insist that that is not the coalition’s aim.

3. Where is the Arab support? One clear aim of the London meeting is to draw Arab countries closer to the coalition.  The U.N. Security Council resolution on March 17, which approved a no-fly zone over Libya and sparked the first French air strikes hours later, came days after the Arab League voted a similar resolution during a meeting in Cairo. Since then, however, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa has expressed deep misgivings about the coalition’s massive firepower in Libya. And the only Arab country to send military help thus far is Qatar, which has dispatched four fighter jets to join the campaign. Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister attended the London meeting on Tuesday, as did the Foreign Ministers of Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. So far, however, Saudi Arabia and other powerful regional leaders have stayed out, while Moussa dispatched a senior Arab League aide to the London meeting. As coalition strikes edge closer to urban areas like Sert, many Arab countries “don’t want to be implicated from what might transpire from an active bombing campaign,” including civilian casualties, says Taufiq Rahim, a visitor scholar at the Dubai School of Government. “There is a lot of hesitation, because they were not all in lockstep with the U.S. in terms of regime change or in terms of attacking the city of Sert.”

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