Disarray on Gaddafi’s Fate, Top Rebel’s Killing Highlight Struggling Libya War Effort

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Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi about to get into a car in Tripoli, Libya, Sunday, April 10, 2011. (Photo: Pier Paolo Cito / AP)

(Update: The mysterious circumstances of Thursday’s killing of General Abdul Fattah Younes, military chief of staff of the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council,  suggest the rebel war effort is teetering in crisis. The Independent reports that  Younes had been in rebel custody at the time of his killing, having been arrested on suspicion of treating with the Gaddafi regime. Rebel leader Mustafa Jalili initially refused to disclose the circumstances of his death, but later TNC statements insisted Younes had been killed by regime supporters — a claim dismissed by his supporters, who allege he was either shot or tortured to death under interrogation. Troops loyal to Younes were later reported to have barged into the government facility where Jalili had spoken and sprayed the room with fire. Other forces are reported to have put up check points near Younes’ home. When the rebellion began in February, former interior minister Younes had taken his Force 17 military unit over the rebel side en masse, and they had played a major role in defending the city from Gaddafi. But he later found himself in a fierce contest for leadership of the military effort with Khalifa Hifter, a former Gaddafi general who returned from exile in suburban Virginia to join the rebellion. The episode has not only struck a blow at the credibility of the rebel military effort, but it also appears to have have set off a potentially violent backlash that could further weaken anti-Gaddafi forces.)

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, leader of Libya’s Transitional National Council, says the rebel leadership has   “rescinded” an offer to Gaddafi to stay in Libya if he agrees to step down. The offer had been on the table for a month as part of a power sharing proposal, Jalil said, but it was now “no longer valid.”

The rebels’ turnabout on Gaddafi’s fate may reflect an emboldening effect of the TNC’s recent recognition by Britain, France and the U.S. as  the “legitimate” government of Libya, but even then, it’s hard to take seriously — because there’s no discernible change in the balance of forces on the ground to support a new confidence that the regime can be militarily dislodged. The coronation of the Benghazi rebel leadership by the main NATO powers is hardly a recognition of the TNC’s sovereign control: Indeed, the Independent reported this week that Gaddafi’s regime today controls about 20% more territory than it did in the immediate aftermath of the uprising that began in February. And even the extent of fealty  to the TNC on the part of those actually fighting in the field against the regime is far from clear. (That point has underscored by the uncertainty of events surrounding the killing of Gen. Younes.)

The logic behind Western powers granting the rebels a status they have not yet won on the battlefield or by any other measurable means may simply be fiduciary: Declaring the rebels the legitimate government of Libya allows Western countries can unfreeze that country’s assets and transfer them to the control of Benghazi, which relieves cash-strapped Western powers of some of the burden of sustaining the TNC.

The rebels  “rescinding” their offer to Gaddafi may be a sign of its unpopularity within their ranks. They would also have been encouraged by British foreign minister William Hague insisting this week that any peace agreement would have to be made under the auspices of the NTC. Even then, any rebel divergence from the positions on Gaddafi’s future adopted just this week by the leading NATO powers is unlikely to be sustainable, given the rebels’ inability to follow through by inflicting a military defeat on the regime: That much ought to be clear from the limits of what they’ve managed to achieve with Western air forces flying close air support; should NATO terminate its mission, the rebels’ ability even to hold ground at this stage would come into question.

(SEE: Photos of rebels training in Libya.)

So, neither the rebels withdrawal of their offer — nor the International Criminal Court’s insistence that Gaddafi be delivered to The Hague to stand trial — are likely to decide the matter. (The ICC does not get a vote at the geopolitical table except where its pursuit of justice corresponds with the agendas of the major powers.) The U-turn in the U.S., British and French positions from an earlier demand that Gaddafi’s exile from Libya was a precondition for peace is simply a sign that NATO has bumped up against the limits of what a mission now in its fifth month can achieve.

Even discussing whether or not Gaddafi gets to stay in Libya if he agrees to stand down is arguably premature, given the absence of any sign that he’s about to cry uncle. Having watched NATO prove the adage that an exclusive reliance on air power rarely secures an objective on the ground — and with the alliance having ruled out introducing ground forces — Gaddafi may expect that he’ll be able to extract even more attractive truce terms.

The regime in Tripoli is well aware of the limitations of the NATO commitment: The U.S. always restricted itself to a very limited role, while the mainstays of the mission — Britain and France — are fast approaching the ceiling of what their resources will allow them to commit to the fight. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins next month, which will likely see a lull in fighting (declarations to the contrary by both sides notwithstanding), which means August is unlikely to see any breakthrough in the stalemate. The fast will, however, raise political pressure on Gaddafi, with rising food prices likely to escalate the suffering of the residents of Tripoli and other areas under his control. (Some rebel leaders reportedly believe that if there were to be a cease-fire now, Gaddafi would be overthrown in a popular uprising — although many such optimistic scenarios have been evoked to no avail over the past five months.)

The NATO mission comes up for review within the alliance the following month, and international pressure for a cease-fire by that point may be overwhelming — after all, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized a limited military operation to protect civilians while seeking a political solution to the crisis, not the regime-change mission into which it has morphed. And most of the Security Council has not followed the lead of the major NATO powers in recognizing the TNC as Libya’s government, but instead demand that it negotiate a political solution with representatives of the regime (although they do agree that Gaddafi himself will have to step down).

Defeating Gaddafi’s regime militarily would appear to require a considerable escalation of NATO’s combat role, but the political-military trajectory of the mission appears to point in the other direction. NATO is clearly seeking an exit strategy, and that may yet demand even more compromise than simply sparing a deposed dictator a prison cell in the Netherlands.

Don’t bet against an outcome that sees Gaddafi’s own representatives negotiating terms with the rebel leadership for a political transition, even if that prospect seems as dubious today as it did  in March when the NATO bombing began.