A realization that neither forces loyal to Libyan Leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi nor NATO-backed rebels are likely to break the military stalemate any time soon has boosted prospects for a negotiated settlement in the war-torn North African country.
In separate interviews with Reuters this weekend, Mustapha Abdul-Jalil, chairman of the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC), and Said al-Islam al-Qaddafi, one of the Libyan leader’s sons, laid out positions suggesting that chances for a deal were improving.
In a significant softening of rebel demands, Mr. Jalil said that Mr. Qaddafi’s opponents had dropped their demand that the Libyan leader and his family go into exile as part of any deal to end the five-month-old crisis in the North African country.
Mr. Jalil said the rebels had communicated their concession to Mr. Qaddafi a month ago through a United Nations envoy, but had yet to receive a response.
“We offered that he can resign and order his soldiers to withdraw their barracks and positions, and then he can decide either to stay in Libya or abroad,” Mr. Jalil said.
Mr. Jalil may have finally received his response on the very day he publicly disclosed the rebel offer.
In what appeared to be a first reaction to the offer, Mr. Qaddafi junior said the Qaddafi regime was prepared to make concessions but would fight for its country.
“You want democracy, we are ready. You want elections, we are ready. You want, what, a new constitution? We are ready. Ceasefire? We are ready. But, the other side is refusing, all the time. But to tell my father to leave the country, it’s a joke. We will never surrender. We will fight. It’s our country,” the Libyan leader’s son said.
The public acknowledgement of privately made concessions constitutes not only recognition by both parties that neither is likely to prevail militarily any time soon. It also signals that the issuing last week of arrest warrants by the International Criminal Court for Mr. Qaddafi, his son Saif, and Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah Senoussi, has reduced the chance that the embattled leader would agree to leave Libya.
Mr. Qaddafi is unlikely to feel secure anywhere outside of Libya with the arrest warrant hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles. An African nation or Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela were widely viewed as the most likely option if Mr. Qaddafi were to agree to exile. Mr. Chavez’s bout of cancer for which he is being treated in a Cuban hospital has moreover cast doubt on his grip on power in Venezuela and made the Latin American country a less viable option for Mr. Qaddafi.
By allowing Mr. Qaddafi to stay in Libya, Mr. Jalil has offered the embattled but proud Libyan leader a face-saving solution. However, angry reaction by some in rebel-held areas of the country suggests that getting Mr. Jalil’s followers to accept the need for compromise may not be easy. Some rebel leaders said that there was no consensus within the Transition Nation Council on the offer to allow Mr. Qaddafi to remain in Libya once he steps down.
Nonetheless, the narrowing of the gap between Mr. Qaddafi and the rebels comes as NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is scheduled to meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a staunch critic of the alliance’s enforcement of a UN-endorsed no-fly zone in Libya and Western support for the rebels, to discuss the Libyan crisis. Russia called for an immediate ceasefire in the fighting and the start of negotiations between the rebels and the Qaddafi regime on the eve of the talks with Mr. Rasmussen.
Russia has repeatedly offered to mediate but has said the UN or the African Union could do so too. The rebels rejected this weekend a call by African leaders gathered in Equatorial Guinea for talks with the Qaddafi regime because it did not include a demand for the resignation of the Libyan leader after 42 years in power.
The conciliatory moves by Mr. Jalil and Mr. Qaddafi junior also acknowledge that even though the diplomatic score card favours the rebels, it is unlikely to change the balance of power on the battlefield.
The rebels won diplomatic points last weekend with Turkey’s decision to break off relations with the Qaddafi regime and recognize the TNC as Libya’s legitimate representative and an announcement by the Arab League that it would investigate alleged human rights abuses perpetrated by Mr. Qaddafi’s forces. Turkey also said it would give the rebels $200 million in aid.
The conciliatory moves by both parties in Libya guarantees by no means that a resolution of the Libyan crisis is anywhere near.
It does however suggest that both the rebels and Mr. Qaddafi are looking at alternatives to what otherwise promises to be a protracted sluggish and costly battle with risks for both sides.
It also sends a powerful message to the embattled leaders of Syria and Yemen who so far continue to cling to power at whatever cost.
(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)