Why a Cease-Fire Looms in Libya

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“From the very beginning we have been asking that the exit of Gaddafi and his sons take place immediately,” said Mustafa Abdul Jalil, leader of Libya’s rebel National Council on Monday, rejecting an African Union ‘roadmap’ to peace that had supposedly been accepted by Colonel Gaddafi.  “We cannot consider this or any future proposal that does not include this peoples’ requirement. He leaves on his own or the march of the people will be at his doorstep.” Earlier,  Council member Ahmed al-Adbor told the Guardian that “the sons and the family of Gaddafi cannot participate in the political future of Libya.”

But the grim reality confronting the rebel leadership in Benghazi is that they may not have the leverage to enforce their “non-negotiable” demands.  Parties to an armed conflict rarely achieve at the negotiating table that which they had little hope of achieving on the battlefield. And after nearly six weeks of fighting, it has become abundantly clear that “the people’s march” is not likely to reach Gaddafi’s doorstep any time soon. And nor are the Western powers showing any inclination to provide the air support for a rebel offensive. The “people’s march”, in fact, appears to have reached a dead end somewhere between the eastern port of Brega and the rebel capital of Benghazi; despite NATO air strikes preventing them from using heavy weaponry, the regime’s forces appear to have the upper hand in the ground war.

If the Gaddafi regime is to be militarily defeated, it would have to be by an outside military force. And even in if the rebels wanted that — and they insist they don’t — there are, quite simply, no takers for the job. The U.S. has already withdrawn from a combat role, restricting itself to enabling the NATO-led mission whose own goals are limited to protecting civilian population centers. (NATO, enforcing the no-fly principle, last weekend reportedly prevented a rebel MiG fighter from joining the battle at Ajdabiya; the coalition also inadvertently struck a rebel tank column, but initially declined to apologize, saying the coalition was unaware that the rebels were using armor.)

The withdrawal of U.S. ground-attack capability in the form of A-10 Warthog tank-killing jets and the C-130 gunship platform was a clear sign that the key Western powers are not planning to provide close air support to a rebel offensive.  And there are growing concerns now over whether the Europeans are capable of sustaining even the limited NATO mission without U.S. involvement in combat missions. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reiterated at the weekend that “there is no military solution” to the conflict in Libya. So, Western military power is clearly not being deployed in a manner calculated to bring down the regime, but rather to restrain it from overrunning the rebel strongholds in the east. And the rebels don’t appear capable, for the foreseeable future, of marching on Gaddafi’s citadel. And NATO’s commitment, even to its limited mission, may be finite. As Rasmussen made clear, the alliance is expecting a cease-fire, rather than a military victory, to end the fighting.

So it may not be entirely up to the rebel leadership in Benghazi whether the terms of any truce entirely exclude any of the Gaddafi family from participating. That may be a position they’ll either have to win on the ground, or convince the NATO powers to endorse. That, too, may be more than the U.S. and its allies are willing to do. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday excluded the demand for Gaddafi’s departure from her list of non-negotiables, including it instead in a list of desirables:

“We have made it very clear that we want to see a ceasefire. We want to see the Libyan regime forces pull back from the areas that they have forcibly entered. We want to see a resumption of water, electricity and other services to cities that have been brutalized by the Gaddafi forces. We want to see humanitarian assistance reach the people of Libya. These terms are non-negotiable. We believe, too, that there needs to be a transition that reflects the will of the Libyan people and the departure of Gaddafi from power and from Libya.”

That’s not to say the rebels will be forced to swallow the African Union peace deal. On the contrary, so vague and open-ended are its terms, particularly on the question of a political solution, that the rebels — and NATO leadership — have paid it little heed. The AU delegation has acted as Gaddafi’s lawyers, bringing the rebels a proposal blessed by “the brother leader”, as South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, leader of the delegation, put it.

But some of the AU proposals echo principles include Turkey’s peace efforts — a cease-fire, withdrawal of Gaddafi forces besieging rebel held towns, and opening of humanitarian corridors. The Turkish proposals seem to involve Gaddafi stepping back, although not necessarily leaving Tripoli, and letting his more reform-minded sons run the regime through a period of transition, in which it negotiates the holding of free elections with the the opposition.

Even that may be more than the rebels are willing to accept, right now, but if the military stalemate persists, pressure will mount for a compromise. NATO won’t allow the regime to eliminate the rebellion, but the rebellion is unable to eliminate the regime, and  NATO is not prepared to do the job for them. So, Despite Jalil’s vision of a march to Gaddafi’s doorstep, the battle on the ground may now have been reduced to a fight over the terms of an inevitable truce. There’s little question, now, that the current chapter of the Libyan rebellion ends at the negotiating table, with neither side getting all of what it wants.