The international battle lines over how to resolve the Libyan crisis are being redrawn.
China and Russia, staunch critics of NATO’s air campaign against Col. Muammer Qaddafi, are subtly increasing pressure on the embattled Libyan leader to agree to a diplomatic resolution of the four month-old crisis in his country that would end his 41 years in office.
In their latest signal to Mr. Qaddafi as well as the NATO-backed rebels, both China and Russia refrained on Thursday from criticizing France for arming the rebels.
The Chinese and Russian move is in stark contrast to African charges that arming the Libyan rebels is destabilizing Libya and amounts to supporting former elements of Al Qaeda that are now fighting Qaddafi-loyalists alongside the rebels.
In a bland statement Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that his country “urges the international community to strictly abide by the spirit of the relevant UN Security Council resolution and not take any actions that exceed the authority granted by that resolution. We have always urged a political solution to the current crisis in Libya, so that Libya returns to peace and stability as soon as possible.”
For its part, Russia, which like China, has accused NATO of violating a United Nations resolution endorsing the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya to protect innocent civilians by targeting Mr. Qaddafi, abstained from any comment on the arms supplies. Instead, Russia emphasized its willingness to help mediate a solution to the crisis.
France is the first NATO member to publicly acknowledge supplying arms to the rebels—for which the African Union bitterly criticized the French on Thursday. France said it had done so without seeking NATO endorsement. Britain meanwhile said that it was providing body armor, police uniforms and communications equipment to the rebels to enable them to protect opposition leaders and international officials based in the country’s rebel-held eastern cities.
The French arms, including Milan anti-tank rockets and light armored vehicles, are believed to be intended to help rebels in the Nafusa mountains south Tripoli, to break through to the outskirts of the Libyan capital.
By refraining from criticizing the arms supplies, China and Russia are effectively signaling that they believe that Mr. Qaddafi’s days may well be numbered and that they want to ensure that their lines to the rebels are open should they emerge victorious. Both countries have recently held talks with rebel leaders whose peaceful protests against Mr. Qaddafi’s regime turned violent after the Libyan leader employed his security forces in a failed brutal attempt to squash the demonstrations.
China and Russia reinforced their abstaining from criticism by so far giving no indication that they may challenge the arms supplies as a violation of a UN-mandated arms embargo on Libya. UN diplomats have warned that arms transfers without the prior consent of a Security Council committee could violate the embargo.
Earlier, China and Russia endorsed the referral of charges of crimes against humanity against Mr. Qaddafi to the International Criminal Court. The court this week issued arrest warrants for Mr. Qaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi and Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah Senoussi.
The referral and the decision not to take France to task for supplying arms to the rebels suggest that NATO on the one hand and Russia and China on the other are finding a degree of common ground on Libya following a period of acrimonious accusations. It comes as UN and African Union officials are seeking to negotiate a resolution to the crisis that would involve Mr. Qaddafi’s departure.
African leaders gathered for a summit in Equatorial Guinea may enhance their credibility with Mr. Qaddafi by condemning the NATO bombing campaign and the court’s arrest warrants. However, that will hardly enhance their moral standing. Their summit meeting is being president by Equatorial Guinea’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who imprisoned critics in the run up to the summit and built an $837 million resort for the summit in an oil-rich country where three quarters of the population earns less than $2 a day.
By publicly acknowledging the supplies, France may have effectively complicated the fragile efforts to achieve a diplomatic resolution. The acknowledgment and NATO hopes that they can take their fight to Tripoli is likely to stiffen the rebels’ resolve to settle for nothing less than Mr. Qaddafi’s departure. That makes the decision by China and Russia to refrain from criticism all the more remarkable.
As a result, the writing is on the wall even if Mr. Qaddafi may not read it. Mr. Qaddafi however is not one known to easily buckle under pressure. The arming of the rebels following so quickly on the heels of the issuance of the arrest warrants may well strengthen his resolve too and convince him that he has no choice but to fight to the bitter end.
That is all the more likely given that the arrest warrants will hardly inspire confidence in Mr. Qaddafi that he would be safe were he to opt for exile in an African nation. His possible alternative, Venezuela, is looking increasingly less attractive too, with President Hugo Chavez so ill in a Cuban hospital that he had to postpone a Latin American summit.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com)