Who Ends the Libya War, the Rebels or NATO?

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Rebels walk to take positions next to a main road leading to Al-Quwalish in the western mountains of Libya during an offensive by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi July 13, 2011. (Photo: Ammar Awad - Reuters)

Like two evenly-matched bantam-weights tiring as they enter the final round of a matchup low on the global strategic undercard in which the crowd has long-since lost interest, NATO and Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi are staggering towards the final bell. NATO will keeping jabbing away and win the bout on points, no doubt, but it’s looking increasingly likely that Gaddafi will leave the ring narrowly beaten, but still on his feet — probably claiming he was robbed.

Of course, NATO itself is ostensibly not a contender in the Libya conflict — its bombing campaign is supposedly intended simply to protect civilians in the bloody showdown between Gaddafi’s forces and those of the Benghazi-based rebel leadership who defied the odds to take up arms against the tyrant. But it would be naive to imagine that NATO did not wield the casting vote on when and how the conflict ends, for the simple reason that the rebels are in no position to win — or even necessarily sustain their gains — without continuous Western air support. And the Western powers are clearly signaling that they believe its time to end the conflict with a political solution — one that involves sidelining Gaddafi, but not necessarily his regime. (Some might cynically brand this an “Egypt solution”, given the fact that the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak has not exactly removed his regime from power.)

(PHOTOS: Scenes from the Battle for Libya)

As my colleague Bruce Crumley points out, the signs this week  from both Tripoli and European capitals pointed unmistakably to the conflict ending in a political solution that would involve Gaddafi accepting some sort of “Brother Leader Emeritus” title with no executive authority, while the rump of is regime — possibly (or probably, depending on who’s talking) under the leadership of his son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi — negotiates the terms of transition to a more democratic arrangement.

The French government has pointedly urged the rebels to negotiate directly with the regime, which it has been reluctant to do while Gaddafi remains at the helm. And French urgency was underscored on Wednesday by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who said ahead of the coming Friday’s Istanbul meeting of allies involved in the campaign that “the time to find a [political] solution is now.”

The rebels have been reluctant to negotiate with the regime while Gaddafi remains in power, and Western governments in their statements on the issue tend to emphasize the rebel leadership’s centrality to any decisions over a political solution.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, however, this week mocked the idea that the rebels have any say in the matter, telling an Algerian newspaper: “The truth is that we are negotiating with France and not with the rebels… France said: ‘When we reach an agreement with you (Tripoli), we will force the [rebels'] council to cease fire’.”

French officials denied that, but made clear that  that in the Libya conflict, everyone is talking to everyone. And they sought to spin the new developments as the prelude to a cry of “oncle” out of Tripoli, with Gaddafi’s emissaries indicating his willingness to step down as part of a political solution if hostilities are ended.

(PHOTOS: The Perilous Voyage of Libyan Refugees)

The truth may lie somewhere in between NATO’s formal statements about the rebels making the key political decisions and Saif al-Islam’s derision of that idea. Rasmussen on Wednesday emphasized that a political solution must be “led by Libyans, supported by the international community, and fulfill the legitimate demands of the Libyan people.” NATO is hardly going to be seen to be imposing terms on the rebels. Yet, it’s plain to see that the timetable and urgency for such a solution is driven by NATO’s waning commitment to a fight the rebels would struggle to sustain without direct Western involvement. As bravely as its fighters have acquitted themselves, the rebel army simply lacks the means to fight the war without the support of NATO air power. The Benghazi-based Transitional National Council is entirely dependent on Western support, not only militarily and diplomatically, but also financially. In other words, however they choose to frame the matter, the casting vote is in the hands of those NATO powers waging the air campaign.

And NATO’s commitment to field the resources necessary to wage a campaign that began almost four months ago is nearing its ceiling. Officials have long made clear that the alliance would struggle to sustain the air campaign beyond the summer. U.S. intelligence believes the Gaddafi regime’s own ability to fight on is also deteriorating, with fuel supplies expected to run out by summer’s end, mounting pressure on the civilian population as a result of the war and sanctions, and a steady stream of defections as officials seek a way out.

But while the rebels have recently been making a better fight of it, there’s still plenty of resilience in the regime’s forces, and little sign that the rebels are capable of overrunning the capital. Hence the growing talk of a political solution, particularly with a slowdown expected in the ground war with the onset of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan a little under three weeks from now.

It’s not only the necessity of limited resources that is shaping NATO’s push for a  political solution now: Mindful of the chaotic aftermath of regime-change wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where more than 150,000 Western troops remain tied down, the NATO powers are inclined to seek a compromise formula in which most of those currently fighting for the regime are given some stake in a new order, or at least given no incentive to destabilize it.

Even though the Western alliance’s goals quickly evolved from the protect-civilians mandate by the UN Security Council towards an explicit quest for Gaddafi’s ouster, it has never made itself accountable to the rebels, nor is it likely to. And it’s highly unlikely that the rebels would be in a position to defy a NATO decision to end the fighting, as much as Alliance leaders are careful to stress that the key decisions will be made in Benghazi. Sure they will, but quite possibly on the basis of the proverbial offer they can’t refuse.

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