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    Middle East
     Apr 6, 2011


Libyan waiting game favors Gaddafi
By Victor Kotsev

TEL AVIV - The Western "military option" in Libya has turned into a military fashion show of questionable merit. In order to believe this, we need not take the word of American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) defense officials - many of whom, such as Pentagon chief Robert Gates and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, have been singing the "there is no military solution" refrain practically since the beginning of the intervention.

Nor do we really need to believe the analysts who have sought to explain what the show is really about. It is enough to look at all the "covert" and "diplomatic" developments of the last few days, which would add up to a benign farcical soap opera if it wasn't for

 
the very real suffering of people on the ground.

Unable to penetrate or take out Muammar Gaddafi's military, last week the allies orchestrated a few political defections - most notably by the Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa - which they then drummed up as major successes. As US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitted in a United States Senate hearing, their strategy for removing the Libyan leader devolved into a vague hope that someone within his own regime takes him out; they seem to be zeroing in on a rift between Gaddafi's sons that has been going on for some years, and there is a theoretical chance they will succeed, yet the likelihood that their own "coalition of the willing" will fracture before that happens, is even greater.

The "game" has become ugly to the point that even pretences of transparency and honesty are being abandoned. A disinformation campaign, tailored to the short attention span and lack of genuine interest of Western audiences, is in full gear. Today's promises are forgotten tomorrow or twisted beyond recognition.

Officially, NATO is not coordinating air strikes with the rebels, nor is it arming them, nor are there any special forces on the ground - until further notice, which, of course, would apply retroactively. The rebels - whose "pro-democratic" government, dominated by former regime officials, Central Intelligence Agency assets and freelance opportunists, is arguably the greatest mystification of all - maintained until a few days ago that their only Western adviser was "Google Earth". Correspondents on the ground may wonder where, all of a sudden, they are getting all the rockets that they previously did not have - what rockets?

It is true that NATO has a long history of disinformation campaigns to draw on. Even the ratio of Western claims to realistic estimates of casualties screams "Serbia": consider, for example, the 100,000 Albanian deaths in Kosovo, which subsequently turned out to be closer to 3,000. [1] Then consider the following statistics on Libya which Asia Times Online uncovered: American officials claimed that as many as 50,000-100,000 lives had been saved by the operation, based on roughly 2,000 casualties by March 25. [2]

What is less clear is how the alliance, unable to beat Gaddafi in the field where it has a definite advantage (military hardware), hopes to take him down in a game that he undoubtedly owns. The Libyan leader is a master of double-talk and disinformation - so much so that he has long been branded as "irrational" and even "crazy". His many ceasefire announcements, which he never intended to keep, are just a small example of this. In an environment where it is impossible to tell truth from lies, he would not simply thrive; he could even rehabilitate himself, much in the manner of a Shakespearean fool whose insanity mirrors that of the world around him and who ultimately speaks truth to power.

The standoff on the ground is quickly turning into a stalemate and a game of waiting for whose camp will fall apart first. Both are showing signs of stress, and Western media are eager to announce that (to quote The New York Times) "At least two sons of Col Muammar el-Qaddafi are proposing a resolution to the Libyan conflict that would entail pushing their father aside to make way for a transition to a constitutional democracy ... "

Indeed, there is a long-standing rivalry between Gaddafi's sons, four of whom are at the center of the intrigue. Saif al-Islam, on the one hand, is playing the reformer, possibly supported by his brother Saadi. Motassem and Khamis, on the other hand, are aligned with the so-called hardliners. According to a number of sources, Saif al-Islam's prolonged stay in London was in fact a form of exile, designed to keep him away while Gaddafi Senior sought to engineer Motassem's succession to the country's leadership.

It is hard to believe that these rifts disappeared all of a sudden, but once the rebellion started, they were quickly put on the back burner. Saif al-Islam became one of the faces of the regime, to the dismay of the West, and especially of the London School of Economics where he received his PhD. [3] Motassem and Khamis, meanwhile, worked tirelessly on the military front, as commanders of Gaddafi's crack troops.

One of the reasons why Moussa Koussa's defection is unlikely to prove as severe a blow to the Libyan government as British officials have claimed is that at the height of the uprising, Gaddafi reshuffled his entire apparatus, placing extraordinary power in the hands of his sons and relatives. The regime that Koussa is familiar with is not necessarily the same regime that exists now; if anybody is in a position to oust the colonel, it is his sons, and this is why rifts among them are much more important than other political defections.

However, despite the precedent of a coup organized by Motassem some years ago, it is unlikely that any of Gaddafi's sons will turn on his father. Not only would this defy time-honored traditions of patriarchal loyalty, it would be a political suicide. Under the current circumstances, it would mean an end to the family's rule in Libya; moreover, reports have it, Gaddafi Snr has concentrated most of the wealth in his hands, and any son who defies him will be left without financial resources to draw on.

The most likely explanation of the reports is that all the statements coming from Gaddafi's sons are made with their father's authorization. Gaddafi, in a sense, is playing a game of good cop and bad cop with his enemies, a game designed to soften the military pressure and to win sufficient time to sow discord among NATO and the rebels. To this end can also be interpreted promises that (according to a Reuters report from Monday night) "The Libyan government says it's ready to hold elections, a referendum or any other reform to its political system."

It seems only a matter of time before the diverse alliance - exponentially more diverse than the Gaddafi camp - splits at the seams. As prestigious American think-tank Stratfor observes, "The unity of the rebels, in short, is based upon a common desire to oust the longtime Libyan leader."

Two vague camps already appear to be forming in the anti-Gaddafi coalition. The rebels are supported by Britain and France in their demand that the Libyan leader and his family depart from power, while the United States and some of the other allies are progressively getting cold feet. The Obama administration already sought to extricate itself from a combat role in Libya over the weekend, but was forced to reconsider, ostensibly for 48 hours, "due to poor weather conditions" that hampered operations by the rest of the NATO allies. Translation: if America leaves, Britain and France are lost.

The American prevarications can also be interpreted as a strategy to put pressure on the rebels and on the European allies to accept a ceasefire; after the disastrous offensive against Gaddafi last week, it became clear that the opposition simply isn't up to the task of defeating the government forces. [4] On the other hand, however, the rebels refused a ceasefire on any realistic terms, insisting instead that the government withdraws its forces and allows "peaceful" protests. Over the weekend, they even sent their best troops to the frontline near Brega, most likely hoping to show the world that they still have a fighting chance. The show failed miserably: the best they could do, assisted by NATO air strikes, was hold the line.

A ceasefire would allow the West to save face, to pile more soft pressure on Gaddafi, and also to train and arm rebel forces. According to an Al-Jazeera report:
In the east, which is largely free of the regime's control, rebels are reportedly receiving specialized training from US and Egyptian forces, although the US has denied that claim ... A rebel fighter and former teacher who asked to remain anonymous told Al-Jazeera that he had received training from Egyptian and American "special forces" at a "secret facility" in the east ... "He told us that on Thursday night a new shipment of Katyusha rockets had been sent into eastern Libya from Egypt. He didn't say they were sourced from Egypt, but that was their route through," our correspondent said.
However, if the end goal is to oust the Libyan leader, this is a risky move. International backlash against the campaign is mounting, and once stopped, it would be hard to resume it. The best NATO can realistically hope for is a division of Libya, similar to that of Bosnia or Serbia and Kosovo.

This would embarrass seriously Britain and France, who have staked much - most importantly, oil and prestige - on the departure of Gaddafi. Moreover, it would give the colonel an opportunity to consolidate his grip on the western part of the country and to purge his government of any potentially weak links. He is making steady progress on Misrata, the third-largest Libyan city and only major rebel stronghold in the west, and, according to a report by Asharq Alawsat, he put down a "small" officers' revolt on Friday.

Gaddafi is actively exploring additional rifts inside the Western alliance, specifically by courting Greece and Turkey - two longstanding rivals - at the same time. On Sunday, his deputy foreign minister, Abdel Ati al-Obeidi, visited Greece. "The Libyan envoy wanted to convey that his country has the intention to negotiate," a Greek official told Al-Jazeera subsequently. "We don't think that there can be a military solution to this crisis."

The next day, the same Libyan official was in Turkey, negotiating a ceasefire. Turkish officials have been saying more or less the same as the Greeks, but they angered Gaddafi by calling on him to step down, and subsequently by sending a hospital ship to Misrata accompanied by warships and fighter planes. The colonel likely wanted to remind them that, if they persist, he can trim Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ambitions to play a pivotal role in the Arab world by allying with his Balkan rival.

Greece, afflicted with an unprecedented economic crisis, would find it hard to refuse a Libyan offer of cheap oil. It could probably count on tacit support from its other major economic backer, Germany (which refused to take part in the air campaign and abstained at the United Nations Security Council on resolution 1973).

The Libyan opposition is less than thrilled at the news of talks. "People in the eastern city of Benghazi are angered by the talk of negotiations. They continue to stand resolute in their call for Muammar Gaddafi and his entire family to leave power," Al-Jazeera reported on Tuesday. Yet, the rebels are beyond doubt unable to keep fighting on their own; apart for being disorganized, according to reports, they are desperate for money, and this is most likely their motivation to pursue a far-fetched deal to sell the oil they hold in store via Qatar. [5] They are currently completely at the mercy of their Western patrons.

The behavior of the NATO allies will depend to a certain extent on their undeclared objectives, and largely on the back-stage bargaining that is beyond doubt going on frantically. Asia Times Online's Pepe Escobar has already fleshed out many of their "business" goals. [6] Suffice it to add the findings of a recent Reuters report:
"This is turning into the best shop window for competing aircraft for years. More even than in Iraq in 2003," says Francis Tusa, editor of UK-based Defense Analysis. "You are seeing for the first time on an operation the Typhoon and the Rafale up against each other, and both countries want to place an emphasis on exports. France is particularly desperate to sell the Rafale." ... The Libyan operation to enforce UN resolution 1973 coincides with a new arms race - a surge of demand in the $60 billion a year global fighter market and the arrival of a new generation of equipment in the air and at sea.
It is uncertain what shape the final compromise will take, but time seems to be on the side of Gaddafi. Militarily, he can keep spinning out his Maoist tactics, while politically, he only has to survive long enough to see the corpse of his enemies' unity floating downstream on the proverbial river. From that point until a conquest of Benghazi, it is only a short march.

Notes
1. Serb killings 'exaggerated' by west, Guardian, August 18, 2000.
2. Syrian sauce for the Chinese gander, Asia Times Online, March 25, 2011.
3. LSE investigates Gaddafi's son plagiarism claims, BBC, March 1, 2011.
4. Colonel Gaddafi goes Mao, Asia Times Online, March 30, 2011.
5. Libyan Rebels Want to Trade Oil for Guns, 0, Wired, April 1, 2011.
6. There's no business like war business, Asia Times Online, March 29, 2011.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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