Is Gaddafi’s Regime Seeking an Exit Strategy?

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If the end game is afoot in the Libya conflict, it has little to do with the provision of armaments, CIA mentoring or air cover to the rebel forces. The counteroffensive by loyalist troops that has driven the rebels all the way back to Ajdabiya, the last town before their Benghazi stronghold, has put paid to hopes of the rebels storming the tyrant’s citadels any time soon. The problem is not only one of the imbalance in armaments — all evidence on the battlefield so far suggests there is no real rebel army to speak of, just clusters of enthusiastic amateurs willing to charge towards enemy positions, but then retreat in disarray when the shells start to fall. There’s no training and little discpline, structure or command in the rebel forces, and even their political structures appear somewhat chaotic, according the reports from Benghazi.

Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen warned during congressional testimony on Thursday that Gaddafi’s forces are not yet on the ropes. “He’s got mobility,” says Mullen. “He’s got the training. he’s got command and control, communications, a lot of which the opposition just doesn’t have.”

And it’s that problem that makes arming the rebels to win the civil war a long-term project, even if it were permissible under the UN Security Council resolution that authorized the military action — and it isn’t, according to NATO, which is now in command of the mission. The Western military effort, with NATO at the helm, will now be confined to protecting civilians. NATO commanders have made clear that rebel combatants do not fit their definition of civilian — indeed, they’ve even warned that they’ll act to protect civilians from rebel onslaughts, too. (That’s not an entirely hypothetical scenario: TIME’s Abigail Hauslohner reported from Bin Jawad on Wednesday that rebels there said the reason they had failed to take the town was its civilian population had committed “treason” by refusing to join the rebellion.)

But NATO’s emphasis, in keeping with the spirit of the Security Council resolution, is on ending the fighting and finding a political solution. “Clearly, there is no military solution, solely, to the problems in Libya,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Reuters on Wednesday. And that may not simply be boilerplate diplomat-speak. Even if the rebel army is not threatening to sweep away Gaddafi any time soon and the NATO air forces are not taking on that mission, a number of developments in recent days suggests that progress towards some form of regime-change is afoot.

Much of the focus over the past day has been on the news that Gaddafi’s foreign minister and longtime fixer Moussa Koussa had broken with the regime and  fled to London. That, and the defection of a number of lesser figures, suggests a crumbling within the regime under the pressure not only of the rebellion, but also of the sanctions and isolation that has put the squeeze on those loyal to Gaddafi. But another Libyan visitor to London may be of equal, or even greater significance: The Guardian  reports that Mohammed Ismail, a senior aide to Gaddafi’s son Saif-al-Islam, has been holding talks with British officials in recent days. British officials told the paper that they believe this, and other contacts initiated in recent weeks, suggest elements of the regime, particularly Saif-al-Islam and two of his brothers, Saadi and Mutasim, are looking for an exit strategy.

The paper reports that the sons recognize that a political solution to avoid anarchy may have to be premised on their father giving up real power. Since the conflict began, the Guardian notes, there have been “persistent rumors that Saif, Saadi and Mutasim – the son who is national security chief – would prefer their father to relinquish real power and hand it to them, allowing them to negotiate a rapprochement with the rebels.”
While the idea of rapprochement may sound far-fetched given the blood that has been spilled, it’s worth remembering that much of the rebels’ military and political leadership had been part of the regime just six weeks ago.

It’s worth remembering, also, that Turkey had reportedly tried, through its ongoing contacts with both the regime and the rebel leadership, to broker a similar deal before their efforts were scotched by the opening of the NATO air campaign. Turkish papers reported that their government was floating a plan under which Gaddafi would hand power to one of his sons for an interim period, pending free and fair elections.

All of that sounds a little pie-in-the-sky amid a war that continues to kill many Libyans every day and has others locked into increasingly desperate humanitarian straits. But it’s quite possible that the more far-sighted elements within Gaddafi’s regime, which would likely include Saif-al-Islam despite his bloodcurdling rhetoric, have recognized — as Moussa Koussa appears to have done — that the game is up. No matter how long the regime’s fighting forces can hold out, its leaders will never restore the same extent of power they had before the rebellion began, and what they have will steadily diminish. Being a lot younger and more worldly than their father, it’s quite conceivable that Saif and his siblings are looking to salvage whatever they can. If so, that could present an opening, albeit fraught with peril, to bring a speedier end to the fighting. But under the stresses that it’s facing, the regime is probably also seriously split. And the extent of control by such political leadership as exists in the rebel camp remains untested. Still, the Western powers don’t want a protracted war, and some NATO members such as Turkey have been pushing for a negotiated solution. Plainly, even amid the fighting, there’s clearly a political track being worked by some of the key players.