Libya’s Regime Seems Unlikely to Collapse Soon: What’s the West to Do?

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A week ago, Western capitals were debating whether to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to help rebel forces give Colonel Gaddafi the final heave-ho. Today’s conversation is more likely to be over how to save the rebellion’s gains, broker a cease-fire and secure some form of political solution to the conflict.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper warned Thursday that on the current balance of forces, Gaddafi’s regime was likely to prevail. That gloomy outlook was underscored by news from the battlefield, where loyalist forces recaptured the oil town of Ras Lanuf to the east of the capital and Zawiya to the west. Their superiority in military hardware, as well as their training and experience currently give the regime’s forces the edge in a confrontation that has quickly become a conventional civil war across a frontline that amounts to a de facto partition of the country. Said Clapper: “You could end up with a situation where Qaddafi would have Tripoli and its environs, and then Benghazi and its environs could be under another mini-state.”

In a timely if depressing op ed in the New York Times, Thursday, Wesleyan professor Eric Chenoweth wrote that statistics show that non-violent uprisings are twice as likely as armed rebellions are to succeed in ousting dictators. It might  be argued that the brutality of Gaddafi’s regime precluded the path of Gandhi and Martin Luther King in Libya, and that armed insurrection had forced the  regime out of eastern Libya. But that path also has limitations in comparison to the non-violent option pursued in Egypt and Tunisia. She writes:

“Why? For one thing, people don’t have to give up their jobs, leave their families or agree to kill anyone to participate in a nonviolent campaign. That means such movements tend to draw a wider range of participants, which gives them more access to members of the regime, including security forces and economic elites, who often sympathize with or are even relatives of protesters.
“What’s more, oppressive regimes need the loyalty of their personnel to carry out their orders. Violent resistance tends to reinforce that loyalty, while civil resistance undermines it. When security forces refuse orders to, say, fire on peaceful protesters, regimes must accommodate the opposition or give up power — precisely what happened in Egypt.”

The International Crisis Group, the respected team of former diplomats and mediators, says the Libyan path was determined by  the way the regime was structured: “Qaddafi built a power structure centered around him and family members and dependent in part on tribal alliances rather than modern structures. As a result, the army and security forces could not remain neutral [as happened in Egypt]; they have split between forces loyal to one side or the other. The country also appears to be dividing along tribal and regional lines.”

But, notes Chenoweth, once Gaddafi’s vicious crackdown had prompted the rebels to take up arms,  “A widely supported popular revolution has been reduced to a smaller group of armed rebels attempting to overthrow a brutal dictator. These rebels are at a major disadvantage, and are unlikely to succeed without direct foreign intervention.”

Such intervention looks increasingly unlikely at present, even if France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy is reportedly urging Anglo-French bombing raids on Gaddafi’s command HQ and other selected targets. Such suggestions are so out of whack with what Western powers are realistically considering that they’re more likely either psy-ops or grandstanding.

The civil war scenario, and the expectation of a more protracted conflict, reduces the prospect for Western intervention: If Gaddafi was dropping bombs on crowds of protesters and killing thousands in a desperate bid to hang on, the case would be overwhelming and resistance mute; the fact that he’s attacking armed insurgents (even if he’s killing hundreds of civilians in the process) has changed the tenor of the Western debate.

Adrian Hamilton in the Independent points out that Gaddafi’s handling of the crisis, while brutal, has been far from irrational, once he found his feet after the initial shock of a rebellion that soon demonstrated it  lacked the organization, weaponry or sufficient support in the capital to bring him down. Hamilton writes:

“Since then Gaddafi has moved quite cautiously – gauging the depth of his support, the strength of the opposition and the will of the international community, and then developing his tactics in consequence… He has upped the ante of heavy weaponry and bombing only very gradually. Which is not to say that – desperate to turn the military tide and end the revolution decisively – he won’t do so now. He’s perfectly capable of it. But if the outside world [is waiting for] massacres that will turn the stomachs of even the hard men of Beijing and Moscow [to remove opposition to intervention], they may well be disappointed.

“Which leaves the West in a dilemma… The Libyan leader doesn’t quite have the strength to win outright. It’s very difficult to see him reconquering the eastern provinces, whatever his superiority in military hardware. International sanctions leave him confined to his own country, and not even all of it. But without a development that could change the balance of advantage for either side, he does look very difficult to oust.”

The Crisis Group says the current standoff and lines of conflict suggests there will be no quick resolution, and that Western calls for military intervention “are perilous and potentially counter-productive”. No fly zones or bombing airfields would even up the odds but wouldn’t bring down the regime, but “could hand the regime a propaganda gift that enables it to reinforce its position, while compromising and dividing the anti-Qaddafi coalition, which needs time to develop into a truly unified movement with a clear leadership and a coherent political vision. It might also prove inconclusive, placing the international community before a difficult dilemma: to deepen its involvement or witness a protracted stalemate.”

Once it’s recognized that Gaddafi isn’t about to collapse, the ICG recommends that the international community’s priority should be to seek a cease-fire and promote a political settlement through direct talks aimed at replacing the Gaddafi regime with a more representative and accountable one.
“Such talks might not succeed. More forceful measures — sanctioned by the UN Security Council and in close coordination with the Arab League and African Union — might become necessary to prevent massive loss of life. But before that conclusion is reached, diplomatic options must first be exhausted. They have not even begun.”

National Security Adviser Tom Donilon disputed Clapper’s gloomy assessment that Gaddafi would win, saying that the pressures on the dictator were such that his regime was untenable in the long run. Still, in the short run, it would be unwise to bet on either the regime’s imminent collapse – or Western military intervention.