Libya Clashes Escalate But a Diplomatic Compromise Looms

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Rebels carry out their training with a captured Gaddafi army tank in the city of Zintan June 25, 2011. (Photo: Anis Mili / Reuters)

As NATO’s war in Libya entered its 100th day on Monday, an end to the conflict may be in sight — but not necessarily a decisive one. Military and diplomatic signs point increasingly towards some measure of compromise by both sides in shaping an outcome that neither the regime nor the rebels would have countenanced when their struggle began. (Update: Monday’s announcement of war-crime indictments by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam, and his intelligence chief¬†Abdullah al-Sanussi will complicate efforts to negotiate a political solution, but won’t necessarily change the overall political-military calculus that points to such an outcome.)

Rebel forces who had been consolidating their hold on villages in mountains to the West of Tripoli launched a furious assault Sunday on the approaches to the capital, but were repelled by forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The regime appears unable for the foreseeable future to restore control over those — slowly growing — parts of the country where rebel forces have broken Gaddafi’s iron grip, yet the rebels and their NATO backers so far appear unable to deal the regime’s forces a knockout blow. Nor have the defections provoked by Western pressure been sufficient to force the regime’s collapse. And while the rebel forces may be growing in confidence, the commitment of the Western allies that have enabled rebel advances is clearly finite.

(PHOTOS: See scenes from the battle for Libya.)

The intensification of fighting so close to the capital suggests that both sides may be aware that the clock is ticking down towards what may be an inevitable negotiated solution, and are doing their best to shape it to their advantage. Recent comments by British military commanders and Defense Secretary Robert Gates underscore the sense that the European NATO members responsible for the air war will be hard-pressed to continue
the campaign much beyond the current summer, and diplomatic support for the military intervention is ebbing fast: Italy last week called for a suspension of hostilities, although that suggestion was quickly squelched by NATO partners; the African Union, China, Russia and the Arab League have begun to retract their endorsement of a military campaign they authorized to protect Libyan civilians, but which has morphed unmistakably into a regime-change operation. And President Obama is under fire from both sides of the aisle over U.S. involvement in the campaign.

Such are the limits on rebel military strength that NATO’s decision-making may be decisive — it seems unlikely right now that the rebels could press the fight without outside intervention. And the Western powers that have intervened in Libya may have plenty of reasons to press for a compromise.

The Europeans are increasingly focused on the diplomatic arena, where an African Union delegation headed by South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma is pressing the regime to negotiate a solution that involves sidelining Gaddafi himself, even if the rump of his regime is included in a new political process. The South Africans reported progress at the weekend, at least in as much as they claimed Gaddafi had agreed to stay out of peace talks involving his regime. The AU appears to be pushing for a cease-fire that would establish a transitional government — presumably composed of elements of the current regime (although not Gaddafi himself) and of the rebel leadership in Benghazi — and a mechanism for a democratic transformation.

Last week, Gaddafi was rumored to be considering leaving Tripoli in what some said was some sort of agreement in which he would accept some form of internal exile while a new political process was worked out. But both the regime and the rebel leadership dismissed such talk.

Even if there are weeks of intense fighting ahead, NATO’s calendar and the shifting diplomatic terrain, as well as the regime’s resilience after more than three months of pummeling by the Western alliance, suggest that the endgame is afoot.

And while NATO clearly needs a rapid solution, it’s not only the haste prompted by the limits of Western military commitment to Libya that points towards a compromise outcome. The Western experience of regime-change in both Iraq and Afghanistan suggests that any solution that entirely excludes the old regime is a recipe for protracted instability, and possibly even failure.

The exclusion of the Ba’athists and the Sunni base of the old regime from the post-Saddam political order — and the summary dissolution of the old Iraqi army — made inevitable an insurgency that has tied down U.S. forces in Iraq for eight years. Those decisions left tens of thousands of men who had been vested in the old order, still well armed and organized, with plenty of incentive to destabilize the new one, in which they had no stake.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban were scattered by the U.S. invasion, but not destroyed. As reviled as they were by many in the society, they retained a base in the Pashtun south. And they were excluded from the creation of a new political order, heavily tilted in favor of the ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the Northern Alliance. The new arrangement, which installed India’s Afghan allies at the expense of Pakistan’s erstwhile proxy, also gave Islamabad an incentive to ensure its failure. And almost ten years later, some 100,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan facing an insurgency that has grown stronger over the past four years.

The lesson for Libya is obvious: Even if Gaddafi were killed in a Western air strike, or if he fled to the desert or abroad, the many thousands of Libyans who have fought for his regime would have to be incorporated in shaping a new political order in Libya. Indeed, bringing the war to an end by a negotiated settlement, as NATO clearly intends, all but guarantees that the outcome will not be a simple transfer of power from Gaddafi to the rebel leadership in Benghazi. The question of how much power the regime, even without the Colonel, maintains in the transition is one that will be settled not only in talks, but more importantly on the battlefield. Which is why the fighting is likely to be intense in the days and weeks ahead, in what may well be the Libya war’s final crescendo.

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