Libya: Perils of the End Game

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A Libyan mourner fires shots in the air at a cemetery in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi on August 12, 2011 during the funeral of five rebels killed in the battle for the control of the oil-rich town of Brega. (Photo: Gianluigi Guercia / AFP / Getty Images)

The good news from Libya is that the collapse of the Gaddafi regime is reportedly accelerating, with rebel forces making military advances towards Tripoli on three fronts and two key regime figures reported to have defected in as many days. But every silver lining has its cloud: The rebellion against Gaddafi has, in recent weeks, also demonstrated a degree of internal disarray that has raised concerns about what might follow if the rebels were to score a decisive victory. Tribal and political tensions within rebel ranks, and the fact that the regime, despite its difficulties, still commands significant tribal and political support and capacity to fight, raises the risk of chaos if the regime’s top leadership were to suddenly flee — as last weekend’s rumors were predicting Gaddafi was about to do.

The NATO powers that have committed to bringing down the Gaddafi regime and producing a decent outcome may, in fact, take as much encouragement from the rebels’ recent military gains as from reports that the two sides are engaged in talks in neighboring Tunisia — claims denied by both sides, of course, although reasons of internal morale and cohesion on either side would necessitate denying that they were in negotiations until such time as a plausible agreement were within reach. 

NATO, on whose air support the rebel military offensive remains dependent, has set itself a September deadline to review and renew the mission, but the alliance member states, frustrated by the failure to produce a decisive outcome, alarmed by some of the signs of turmoil within rebel ranks, and burdened with a deepening economic crisis at home, are wary of an open-ended entanglement in Libya. Signs of tribal tensions in fighting West of the capital, with many reports of abuse against those affiliated with tribes loyal to Gaddafi, and also in the breakdown that followed the assassination by a rebel militia of the Benghazi government’s military chief, General Abdul Fattah Younes, two weeks ago — the Benghazi government sacked its entire cabinet in a move to defuse tensions with Younes’ Obeidi tribe — have raised concerns. And while some rebel fighters are organized within a centralized military structure answerable to the leadership in Benghazi, many others who fight in the rebellion’s name are not exactly under its discipline.

The NATO powers appear to have learned from their own experience in Iraq and Afghanistan that the key to stabilizing a post-Gaddafi order will be to integrate the substantial support base of the regime into a new order. A leaked Western blueprint for a post-Gaddafi order, for example, envisages the police and army remaining intact under new leadership in a post-Gaddafi order. A political agreement between rebels and regime figures could shape a more orderly transition to democracy — once those around Gaddafi have convinced him that the game is lost.

Despite the wave of optimism and expectation that followed the weekend’s battlefield gains, it may yet be early days. The capture of Zawiyah by rebel fighters on Sunday could point to a decisive change — if the rebels manages to break the pattern of the early months of the war and hold it in the face of a regime counter-offensive — because the city controls a key supply line to Tripoli. And its capture comes in concert with rebel advances in the oil port of Brega to the east of Libya, and Gharyan to the south, which could combine to put Tripoli under siege. A frontal assault on Colonel Gaddafi’s heavily defended capital still seems unlikely given the balance of forces, and the rebels — and the NATO countries on whose air support they depend for their military gains — may prefer a siege strategy that could prompt the regime’s capitulation via a political agreement that gives many of its own supporters a stake in embracing rather than fighting a new order.

Tony Karon is a Senior Editor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @TonyKaron. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.