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Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Libya's Stalemate Shows It Is Time To Tempt Gaddafi Out, Not Blast Him Out
As the appetite for war in Nato countries wanes, a ceasefire becomes the logical first step to peace
By Jonathan Steele
Libyan rebels fixing an anti-aircraft gun on the front line near the southwest desert hamlet of Gualish as rebels repel an attack from Muammar Gaddafi's forces. Photograph: Alessio Romenzi/Corbis
At last some good news on Libya. France and Britain have changed their position on Colonel Gaddafi's future and now say he can stay in the country if and when he decides to leave power. For the two Nato countries which did most to get the alliance to start bombing in order to produce regime change in Tripoli, the shift is enormous.
In spring, when Nato launched its no-fly zone ostensibly for humanitarian purposes, Paris and London hoped Gaddafi would be toppled within little more time than it took to remove Mubarak, in Egypt. Now the two governments have realised they need to think seriously about a negotiated rather than a military end to the war. They will have to tempt Gaddafi out, not blast him out.
This puts them in line with the UN, whose tenacious mediator, Abdul Elah al-Khatib, was in the rebel-held city of Benghazi on Monday and moved to Tripoli on Tuesday in his latest round of shuttling. France and Britain are also gradually getting in step with the African Union, whose efforts at taking a lead on ending the crisis through a ceasefire and talks have repeatedly been marginalised by Nato.
The Franco-British shift is a big blow to Luis Moreno Ocampo, the impetuous prosecutor at the international criminal court who rushed to seek the Libyan leader's arrest only weeks after fighting erupted. This damaged the chances for negotiations. Ocampo further sullied his reputation with claims of regime-ordered rape that were strongly criticised by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who also interviewed victims. At the time William Hague, the foreign secretary, had no doubts. "The request for these warrants is a reminder to all in Gaddafi's regime that crimes will not go unpunished, and the reach of international justice will be long," he thundered.
Once issued, ICC arrest warrants cannot be withdrawn without undermining the court's authority. But since Libya is not a signatory to the statute which created the court, an agreement on ending the fighting in Libya need not insist on Gaddafi's seizure. He will merely not be able to travel much abroad.
Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, last week led the hawks' change of mind. The Obama administration quickly followed. "He needs to remove himself from power – and then it's up to the Libyan people to decide," said Jay Carney, the White House spokesman. Hague's statement echoed that line, which was endorsed at the weekend by Mustafa Abdel Jalil, a leader of the rebels' Transitional National Council (TNC).
The rebels have made important public relations gains in the past two weeks. The US and Britain recognised them as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people. They also received promises of cash and aid from doves, including Germany and Turkey, who were dubious about Nato's military intervention.
On the battlefield the news for the rebels has been less good. Almost six months into their uprising the war remains deadlocked, and with the fasting month of Ramadan due shortly, when fighting is bound to subside, no change can be expected. The front lines – in the east, around Misrata and in the Berber-populated mountains south of Tripoli – ripple like the edges of a carpet under which dogs are fighting. But Admiral Mike Mullen, the US chief of staff, was right on Monday when he said Nato had got itself into a stalemate.
In the US there is little appetite for another war. This month the House of Representatives passed an amendment blocking the Pentagon from arming the rebels. Italy, initially a Nato hawk, is reducing its military engagement on cost grounds. These pressures are likely to increase across Nato as the war eats into national budgets while people are asked to tighten their belts at home.
No wonder western governments are having to review their strategy. The parameters of a settlement have been clear for some time. There must be a mutually agreed ceasefire, on the ground and for Nato's bombs and missiles. This would allow internationally supervised access for humanitarian supplies to Tripoli and other government-held areas as well as rebel areas. Talks need to accelerate, either through the UN mediator or between government and TNC negotiators, towards forming a power-sharing administration that can find a path to a new constitution and elections. Gaddafi has indicated he does not want to be part of the talks. He will probably have to make clear he will not be part of the next government either. Whether, after 42 years of power, any such promises would be delivered will be a thorny issue. The rebels already snort at it.
All now depends on the sequencing of the elements of a settlement. For the rebels to insist Gaddafi stands down before talks start dooms everything. Ideally, the first step is a ceasefire. This would be by far the best way to protect civilians. The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, called for an immediate ceasefire earlier this month. If Ban were a stronger figure, his call would have carried more weight instead of being ignored by western leaders as well as most of the media. Nato hawks fear it would look defeatist so they prefer to parrot the line that that Gaddafi cannot be trusted, and therefore a ceasefire would be worthless.
Privately the rebels are divided. Some say a ceasefire deprives them of imminent military victory. Others say a true ceasefire would spark an uprising by the people of Tripoli once they knew Gaddafi's forces would not shoot them in the street.
Whether that speculation is right depends on complex factors. The mistake in most international crises is to over-personalise the issue by making a pariah of the wicked man and his corrupt family at the top and thinking that, once they go, all problems will easily be solved. Gaddafi's flamboyant and odious behaviour certainly encourages this view. But the Libyan crisis is not a battle between a big man and "the people". It is a complex struggle over modernity, constitutionalism, and the equitable distribution of resources in which Libya's regions, tribes and social classes all have different demands and stakes. Unless amnesty is part of any negotiated settlement, there are many people in Tripoli who will resist the rebels by force even if Gaddafi himself shows a readiness to step aside. Others fear instability or that they and their capital city will be punished if the rebels win outright. The excessive de-Ba'athification process in post-Saddam Iraq set a bad precedent.
It is better to resolve these issues through negotiations than try to break Libya's military stalemate with yet more war. Having shifted on Gaddafi's future the next step for France and Britain should be to persuade their rebel allies to accept the principle of an immediate ceasefire. Then give the word to the UN negotiator and let him work on getting a response from the government side. Ramadan provides the incentive for an all-round military pause. With persistence it might even take permanent root.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 26/07/2011
- Jonathan Steele is a Guardian columnist, roving foreign correspondent and author. Since 9/11 he has reported from Afghanistan and Iraq as well as on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict