By Declaring ‘Ceasefire’, Gaddafi Muddies the Waters on Libya

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So who will be the sharp end of the spear enforcing the U.N. Security Council resolution that demands an end to the Libyan regime’s assault on civilian population centers — a squadron of French Mirage fighters? British Tornadoes? A couple of F-16’s from the United Arab Emirates Air Force, to emphasize Arab participation? None of the above. It’s more likely to be a phalanx of U.N.-appointed diplomats heading to Tripoli and Benghazi to figure out truce terms.

That’s because the Libyan regime has responded smartly to the Security Council resolution, declaring on Friday that it would halt all military action and implement the cease-fire demanded by the international community. Whether or not Gaddafi is sincere, his response is tactically astute: By saying “We will do what you say” and declaring a halt to the military offensive — even if it doesn’t intend to honor that pledge — the regime behooves the international community to more clearly define truce terms and its expectations of the regime before dropping bombs on them. As Libya’s deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaaim said Thursday night following the adoption of the Security Council’s cease-fire resolution, “We are ready for this decision but we require an interlocutor to discuss how to implement it.”

Hence the role of the U.N. Special Envoy to Libya, former Jordanian foreign minister Abdul Ilah Khatib — and, perhaps, also of behind-the-scenes players like Turkey, which has kept open channels with the Gaddafi regime by steadfastly refusing to back international military intervention, but at the same time earlier this week became the first country to send a shipload of humanitarian aid into the besieged rebel capital of Benghazi. Turkey earlier this week brokered the release of a reporter from Britain’s Guardian newspaper held captive in Tripoli; it may soon be called on to intercede on a grander scale.

For Gaddafi, defiantly pressing forward with a frontal assault on Benghazi would have made things easier for the U.S., European and Arab governments committed to implementing the resolution’s provisions on military intervention to protect civilians — the urgent priority would have been to launch air strikes to stop such an assault. Instead, by declaring an intention to go along with the resolution, the regime forces its adversaries into a more complex and protracted process of defining and implementing a cease fire. And, of course, the purpose of the resolution is not regime-change per se, but bringing an end to the fighting and finding a  political solution to the conflict. If Gaddafi agrees to enter an internationally mandated cease-fire process, the rebels will have no choice but to concur, forcing them into a dialogue with the regime that they had thus far rejected.

Any truce, of course, will provide many advantages to the rebels, whose strength is popular support rather than military hardware. But it will also necessarily be a protracted and confusing process more reminiscent of the Balkans in the early 1990s than of the fall of Egypt’s and Tunisia’s dictatorships.

Defiance by the regime of the Security Council resolution would have clarified matters; acquiescence, feigned or real, complicates them immensely. Colonel Gaddafi may like to act crazy, but his is the craziness of the fox that has survived 42 years in power.