Portraying his assailants as colonial bullies, Muammar Gaddafi is gambling that a long war would allow him to play the role of victim and erode Western resolve, enabling him to negotiate some form of continued rule. For now, that looks like a very long shot, analysts say.
World powers who began a U.N.-backed military campaign overnight are acutely aware of the human cost of Gaddafi’s determined crackdown against a six-week-old popular uprising. And Libyans with four decades of grievances to address will not abandon their push to end his rule, the opposition says.
But if Gaddafi can cling on, forcing the allied coalition and Libyan opposition to fight for months and possibly cause a large number of civilian casualties, his chances of cutting a deal allowing him continued rule of a rump regime may improve. Mounting bloodshed might stimulate the emergence of a Western peace campaign, altering the calculations of Western strategists sensitive to misgivings about intervention in Muslim lands amid continuing Western involvement in Afghanistan.
“That is the one scenario where he might get advantage,” said Ashour Shamis, a UK-based opposition activist and editor, adding that the opposition now had to “get its act together” for an advance on Gaddafi’s bastion in the capital, Tripoli.” But Shamis and other analysts said Gaddafi would find it impossible to transform his personal image into that of victim, no matter how long the conflict lasted. “Trying to portray himself as a freedom fighter will not convince anyone. Libyans know it’s humbug,” he said.
WEST “GREEDY FOR LIBYAN OIL”
His life as well as his rule at stake, Gaddafi responded to the launch of the military campaign overnight by calling his assailants terrorists and colonialists greedy for Libyan oil. “This is an unjustified aggression. We will not leave our land and we will liberate it,” he said. Saad Djebbar, a London-based expert who acted as an intermediary in talks with Libya over the Lockerbie aircraft bombing, said despite Gaddafi’s remarks it was clear that Arab opinion was broadly favorable to the military campaign so far.
“This will show the Arab street that ordinary Arabs actually count in Western policy,” he said. “The notion that this attack would mobilize the Arab street against the West, well, that’s what the remaining Arab despots would like to happen, because they themselves fear uprisings.”
Gaddafi has seen his options shrink sharply since the U.N. Security Council on Thursday evening endorsed a no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” to shield civilians from his forces. Analysts who know the longtime autocrat, an old hand at surviving prolonged international isolation, say the goal of U.N.-backed action must be regime change. Any endgame short of that will offer openings he can exploit. For example, some expect Gaddafi, adept at brinkmanship, to call for talks mediated by African statesmen to gain time and carve rifts in the coalition ranged against him. “He’s a manipulator and a survivor,” said Djebbar.
“He shouldn’t be allowed to negotiate to stay on in Tripoli. He wants to engineer the division of Libya, like Korea was split into a North and a South in the 1950s. “His only option should be to leave.” That endgame received explicit backing on Friday when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the international effort against Gaddafi was aimed at ousting him, although it would move “one step at time” and first halt violence against civilians.
“The overwhelming vote by the Security Council I think reflects a broad understanding that, Number One: stop the violence, and Number Two: we do believe that a final result of any negotiations would have to be the decision by Colonel Gaddafi to leave,” she said.
GADDAFI IN THE HAGUE?
However, beyond ending the killing of civilians and Gaddafi’s departure from power in some way, much remains unclear about the aims of the rapidly assembled coalition on Libya. First, it is not clear that Gaddafi’s departure is the principal objective of all major powers. Many may be content to ensure an end to civilian suffering. Some Western strategists would like to see a rapid transfer of Gaddafi and his associates to the war crimes court at The Hague, an outcome implicit in the U.N. resolution. How big the constituency would be for that result is unknown.
Then there are uncertainties about how a post-Gaddafi government would be assembled in a society taught for four decades that democracy is wrong and pluralism is a fraud. And there are the practical challenges of confronting a pragmatic leader adept at international machinations.
Gaddafi skillfully negotiated Libya’s rapprochement with the international community in 2003-05 by agreeing to give up weapons of mass destruction programmes. He later publicly admitted that he was motivated by his desire to escape the fate of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, toppled by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 and later hanged.
UNLIKELY GADDAFI WILL TURN TO TERRORISM
One outcome that many analysts see as unlikely is a return by Gaddafi to sponsoring terrorist acts by armed groups overseas, his practice for much of his long rule. They see as mere bluster an interview Gaddafi gave to Italy’s Il Giornale in which he said he would join forces with al Qaeda in the event of an attack by the West. There was a time when a remark such as that would have been taken extremely seriously.
The last time Gaddafi was attacked by the West, in 1986, a Libyan operative two years later blew up a Pan Am jumbo jet over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 259 people in the air and 11 people on the ground. In the reading of many, the 1988 bombing was a reprisal for the 1986 attack, which saw U.S. forces raid Tripoli and Benghazi in retaliation for what Washington called Libyan complicity in the bombing of a discotheque in Berlin a month earlier in which three people, including a U.S. serviceman, were killed.
DANGER OF LIBYA SPLITTING
For now, Gaddafi and his sons are expected to try to cling on, based in Tripoli in the west, and perhaps pull their forces back from the eastern city of Benghazi to undermine accusations that they are preparing to level the opposition bastion there. But such gambits may be of little use. There is little doubt that the overwhelming momentum now is for military force to be brought to bear until Gaddafi’s government is brought to an end.
Any endgame allowing their political survival would lead to Libya’s de facto partition between the west and a rebel-run east, and years of strife between the two regions, analysts say. Jytte Klausen, Professor of International Cooperation at Brandeis University, said that if Gaddafi clung on, a divided Libya was a real possibility “consisting of two dysfunctional city states separated by peace-keepers.”
Meaningful negotiations will only be about the manner of his departure, many experts say.