The Logic of Talking and Fighting in Libya

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Wait a minute: One minute Libya’s rebels are telling us that Gaddafi is offering to negotiate the terms of his ouster; the next we learn that the rebel offensive is losing momentum and taking a fearsome pounding from regime planes, tanks and artillery in Zawiya and Ras Lanuf. So was the claim that Gaddafi is ready to talk — and reports in the Wall Street Journal that the regime is reaching out to tribal leaders and rebels in search of a political solution — simply rebel psy-ops, designed to weaken the morale of those still fighting for the regime by suggesting that their leader is about to do a runner? Possibly. But the news from the battlefield, and from inside Tripoli, suggests that Gaddafi’s regime is not quite on the ropes, and remains the dominant military force. Still, that doesn’t mean he’s not ready to negotiate.

Despite his deranged rhetoric and theatrics, Gaddafi has over the years also shown himself capable of making calculated compromises in order to preserve his power — he made that much clear in the deal over the Lockerbie terror attack on an American airliner, and also in his agreement to suspend his nuclear program in 2003 and hand its materials over to the West. Even now, Gaddafi seems to be picking his battles, fighting furiously to restore control over towns vital to Libya’s energy exports, like Ras Lanuf, and the town of Zawiya, where the earlier rebel victory seemed to symbolize the regime’s imminent demise. But thus far, he appears to be  refraining, for example, from unleashing the full might of his air force on the rebellion’s “capital” of Benghazi. The Libyan leader is likely aware of the fact that gruesome massacres of civilians could force President Barack Obama and other Western leaders to intervene despite their reluctance to do so. Indeed, the Guardian reports that British and French diplomats at the U.N. expect to get Arab backing for a Security Council resolution authorizing imposition of a no-fly zone, but it would require the trigger of Gaddafi’s air force inflicting mass civilian casualties.

Reports from the frontline Tuesday suggest that the heady optimism of rebel fighters that followed their early gains is giving way to a more measured assessment of their abilities given the mismatch in armaments. A frontal assault on Tripoli seems highly unlikely right now. The Gaddafi forces are too well-warmed, organized and professional to be simply overrun, and even the imposition of a no-fly zone right now would not necessarily guarantee a quick rebel victory. Still, Gaddafi may also be aware that the scale of the rebellion is far greater than he acknowledges in his own public rhetoric, so much so that his forces may be able to contain its advances, to a degree, but would be unlikely to succeed in crushing it altogether.

At the same time, however, the rebels have little organizational structure, and their leadership is divided. That’s why reaching out to the Benghazi rebel leadership even as its forces fight hard to regain lost ground may be more than simply a trick: Instead, it may be part of a strategy to demonstrate to the rebels the limits of what they can achieve by force of arms right now, in the hope that they’ll take some sort of deal more favorable to Gaddafi. And, of course, to exacerbate divisions among the rebels. The rebel response was to reject negotiations, which was hardly surprising, since  right now, a rebellion being waged by loose alliance of secular democrats, radical Islamists, tribal discontents and a host of others  may lack the coherence within their own ranks to enable negotiations.

But the longer the conflict persists, of course, the more the rebel position is likely to harden. The regime itself is also reportedly divided, but the logic of salvaging what he can of his power will require that Gaddafi seek to end the conflict sooner rather than later — both by demonstrating his regime’s ability to hold its ground and by initiating talks. Right now, however, most of the conversation will be conducted on the battleground as each side seeks to underscore the power behind its bottom line.