NATO Members Feud While Gaddafi Forces Batter Misratah

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It’s increasingly looking like the only factor capable of resolving the international community’s dilemma in Libya is also the one element to that will never cooperate in finding a solution: Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi himself. Because as the meetings, summits, and declarations of coalition partners come and go, it becomes painfully clear that deep divisions undermining the common desire to see Gaddafi leave power act as the mirror image of the determination and unity of the Libyan leader and his backers to stay put for good—or go down trying. Or, to put it in blunter terms, Gaddafi has the evident advantage in maintaining his “over my dead body” position given the bickering and waffling that arises among his international adversaries at the very mention that powerful cadavers may well hold the key to ending Libya’s civil war.

The upper hand that Gaddafi’s ruthlessness affords was demonstrated in nightmarish fashion Thursday, when forces supporting the Libyan leader went into action just as Gaddafi’s foreign antagonists were huddling to discuss him. At the same time foreign ministers from NATO states met in Berlin to debate ways to resolve the stand-off situation in Libya, forces loyal to Gaddafi fired a barrage of rockets onto the rebel-held western city of Misrata, killing 23 people. The massacre was only the latest in the recent brutal siege of Misrata by Gaddafi fighters–itself part of a wider offensive that has kept rebels pinned down or retreating in clashes across the country. That resurgence by Gaddafi’s troops has sparked calls by opposition leaders for NATO to intensify its three week-old campaign of air strikes against pro-Gaddafi militias and their heavy weaponry that initially proved effective. Failure of renewed and strengthened NATO military assistance to materialize has led to calls of betrayal from Libya’s opposition—shouts that will likely resound louder in the wake of Thursday’s massacre in Misrata. Indeed, given the language coming from Berlin, it seems unlikely there will be any significant increase of NATO firepower to tip the balance back to the rebel side any time soon, if ever.The reason? In addition to the tactical and strategic divisions within NATO about expanding the Libyan mission (as Tony’s recent post set out) there are also political clashes about what to do with an operation a minority of members wanted a part of in the first place. Only six of NATO’s 28 member states are actively involved in the air operation, and the U.S. has already handed over its initial lead role to more gung-ho participants France and the UK. Calls by both Paris and London to step up air strikes, meanwhile, are not only being rejected by countries like Spain and Germany-which opposed intervention from the outset—but even active intervention participants like Belgium.

Meanwhile, legal limitations posed by the UN mandate authorizing the intervention have partners jousting over just what action is legal and productive under it. Some members are calling for (and already proceeding with) the arming and instruction of rebel that others stiffly oppose. And though all alliance partners stress their objective in the mission isn’t to bring about regime change, most have made the ouster (and trial) of Gaddafi and his regime a standard part of their declarations on what they expect in Libya.

“There is no future in Libya with Gaddafi,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé declared in Berlin, despite earlier assurances by Paris and other capitals that regime change as such isn’t an objective in the intervention. Similarly, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton—who has also ruled regime change as a goal—noted Thursday that NATO members all share  “the same goal, which is to see the end of the Gaddafi regime in Libya”.

Such declarations—often accompanied by clashing or inconsistent ideas among NATO partners on how to proceed with air strikes—appear to be sending Gaddafi a contrastingly yet clear message: that the international community wants his skin (or at least wants him gone), but is no more united or logical about how it will obtain that than it is about where to take the military intervention next. And despite tougher talk from members like France and Britain, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen seemed fairly candid Thursday about just what Gaddafi can expect from the alliance in the near- and mid-future.

“There is no military solution to the conflict in Libya, only a political solution,” Fogh Rasmussen told the summit. “It is up to the Libyan people to decide their own future. (NATO members) are fully engaged in operations to safeguard the people of Libya, taking every measure possible to prevent Gaddafi’s brutal and systematic attacks on his own people.”

Gaddafi’s response to that just hours later was to unleash a hail of missiles upon the rebels and civilian population in Misrata. The brutality and timing of the bombing made it more obvious than ever that if anyone is serious about being rid of the Libyan strongman, they’re going to have to swap their inconsistent language for decisive military action that takes them deeper into the country’s civil war as a means of ending it–and quite possibly stepping over Gaddafi’s dead body in the process.