Libya Peace Negotiations Are Already Underway

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That Libya’s epic struggle for power has slipped quietly out of the headlines is not surprising, in a media culture with limited attention span and an addiction to tidy (and preferably happy) endings. Libya is looking unlikely to provide either anytime soon: A military stalemate is unlikely to be broken by a rebel force of limited weaponry and organization, while Western  powers remain reluctant to escalate their own military involvement; but the NATO-led air mission also prevents the regime from winning the war by eliminating heavy weaponry from the equation. Already, both the regime and the rebels are declaring their opening gambits on peace terms, suggesting that some form of compromise agreement may be what ends the war.

The negotiation process has effectively begun, with both sides delivering their own versions of truce terms in a flurry of diplomatic activity. Their opening bids are not compatible, of course, but opening bids in peace negotiations rarely are. And the outcome of any such negotiation will depend ultimately on the balance of leverage on the ground.

Libya’s deputy foreign minister Abdulati al-Obeidi is currently in Turkey, having met with the foreign minister of Greece to relay Col. Gaddafi’s peace offer to the Europeans. By some accounts, this involves a plan, backed by the dictator’s son, Saif-al-Islam Gaddafi, in which the Colonel would stand down and hand over authority to his sons to negotiate a political transition. Rebel spokesmen dismiss that proposal out of hand, saying it’s simply a device to buy time for the ground offensive by Gaddafi forces to roll back rebel gains. “Gaddafi and his sons have to leave before any diplomatic negotiations can take place,” the Telegraph quoted rebel spokesman Shamseddin Abdulmelah as responding.

Italy has backed that position, and on Monday joined France, Qatar and Kuwait in formally recognizing the Benghazi leadership as the legitimate government of Libya. (Curiously enough, the Benghazi leadership insists on calling itself a transitional council rather than a government, to avoid alienating many in Western Libya that have no stake in it.)

But neither the Libyan rebels nor the foreign powers that have intervened — not so much on their behalf as on a UN mandate to protect civilians there — will muster the leverage on the ground to force the regime’s unconditional surrender: After all, in a personality cult regime, the departure of the leader and the sons who are his key lieutenants implies a complete rout. And such a collapse does not appear imminent.

Disarray in the rebel military ranks underscores the unlikelihood of them being able to march on Gaddafi’s strongholds any time soon, even if Western powers were to begin arming them directly — and most remain reluctant to do that. Despite efforts to inject more organization into the chaotic rebel efforts to recapture Brega and other eastern oil towns from Gaddafi’s forces, there has been a well-publicized split at the top, with former Interior Minister Fatah Younis vying for control with Khalifa Hiftar, a former Libyan military hero returned from 20 years in a life of quiet American exile in Virginia. The most senior figures in the rebels’ military command are reportedly not currently on speaking terms.

And last week’s friendly fire debacle in which a coalition air strike killed 13 rebel fighters in an incident that may have been sparked by the rebels’ habit of manically discharging their weapons as an act of celebration further underscored the difficulties of NATO forces intervening in a ground war where both sides are now using similar forms of transport.

Standoffs continue this week in the oil town of Brega, in the western city of Misrata, and other by-now-familiar locales, with little sign of a decisive victory by either side. And the withdrawal from the air campaign of the key U.S. ground attack assets — the C-130 gunship and the A-10 Warthog tankbusting fighter — suggests that the NATO mission is not looking to escalate its involvement in the ground war.

Instead, key Western powers such as Britain and also Turkey have been pressing for a cease-fire, and there, too, the negotiation is already underway: Both sides are willing to stop fighting, but the rebels insist that a truce require Gaddafi’s forces withdrawing from cities, while the regime insists they hold their current positions. And, of course, the rebels insist they’ll stop fighting only if the Colonel and his sons agree to leave the country. But Western diplomats see that as an opening bid in a negotiation in which the rebels don’t hold all the cards.

The regime, meanwhile, is reaching out through multiple channels to a variety of Western powers, reportedly offering some form of deal that it would involve Colonel Gaddafi stepping down and handing authority to his son Saif-al-Islam to negotiate a transition to democracy. That would square with the parameters of the settlement Turkey’s leaders claimed to be developing on the eve of the first NATO Western bombing raids, and it’s widely reported now that Saif and his brother Saadi are backing such an arrangement, although it’s likely to be opposed by the more hardline sons, particularly Khamis who is leading the military counterrevolution and Mutassim, the national security adviser.

People close to Seif are doing their best to ingratiate him with the rebels and Western powers by telling reporters that he’s been trying to achieve the same goals as the rebellion from within the regime but has been frustrated. Needless to say, he’ll have a hard time persuading the rebels of his bona fides as an agent of change.

Still, with Western powers looking to end the war quickly and the rebels themselves agreeing to rule out partitioning Libya, the military position on the ground suggests that the rebels may not be in a position to impose all of their terms on any truce. On the other hand, despite its bravado, the regime is clearly under mounting strain, and many of its key figures are recognizing the need for a political solution that ends the war — and which will inevitably require that Gaddafi himself relinquish power.

As dramatic as it may be, the exchanges of fire in Brega and Misrata in the coming days may turn out to be less important in shaping the outcome than the exchange of peace proposals now occurring between Tripoli, Benghazi, Ankara and various European capitals.