By Arab News
By Osama Al Sharif
FRANCE’S latest about-face on Libya proves that sometimes you need to fear your friends more than your enemies! At least this is how the Transitional National Council (TNC) in Benghazi should feel now that Paris, the first capital to recognize the TNC as the legitimate representative of Libyans few months ago, is saying that NATO bombing of Col. Qaddafi’s forces must end and that diplomacy was the only solution.
French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet’s statements on Monday signified a major turnaround in his country’s approach to the Libyan revolt which is now into its fifth month. President Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s David Cameron were the main catalysts behind a Western backed bombing campaign of Libya. They convinced a reluctant President Barack Obama to join them and the military mission was later handed over to NATO.
Longuet’s remarks came as a surprise because they appear to reflect a unilateral stand. Washington was quick to respond by reaffirming its commitment to NATO’s military mission in Libya and reiterating that Qaddafi cannot remain in power. Longuet had said that Qaddafi could remain in Libya “in another room in the palace, with another title.”
A day earlier French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said negotiations would involve the transitional council, but also “all Libyan players” including those in Tripoli. The Libyan opposition has always said that there can be no negotiations with Qaddafi or his sons. And few days ago Seif Al-Islam said that negotiations can never take place with the opposition, adding that talks with France are already under way.
Since April, when French bombers began attacking Libyan targets in a bid to help the opposition fighters who had control of Benghazi and a handful of towns in the east, the political objective of the international community was clear: to protect civilians, under a UN Security Council resolution, and give indirect assistance to the armed uprising as it strove to march on the capital and topple Qaddafi.
The United States and its allies may have miscalculated, believing that sustained aerial strikes and the armed uprising will dethrone a notorious regime within weeks. But Qaddafi has proved tenacious as well as ruthless in his response. His militias, better armed and organized, drove the opposition fighters from key oil installations in the east while heavily bombing Misrata not far from Tripoli. As tribes in the Western Mountain joined the opposition fighters, Qaddafi’s forces shifted their attention from the east. The opposition made slow progress, helped no doubt by NATO strikes, but they were still far from the capital. A military stalemate dominated and even when the West began targeting Qaddafi in Tripoli, the regime remained defiant.
It is not clear yet if Paris is indeed in contact with the Libyan regime. Seif Al-Islam, the trusted and outspoken son, has said that everything is open for discussion, including the drafting of a new constitution, forming of political parties and holding parliamentary elections. But he vowed that his father will never be forced into exile. African and Turkish attempts to mediate between the transitional council and Qaddafi never took off. Summons for the arrest of Qaddafi and his son for human rights violations by the International Criminal Court has complicated the matter even more.
NATO’s military operation is costing the alliance hundreds of millions of dollars each month. And after weeks of bombings no exit strategy is visible. Now Longuet admits that a military solution is not possible and that instead all players must engage in negotiations.
Despite Washington’s commitment to aerial strikes and call on Qaddafi to leave, the alliance may be on its way to adopt a new approach. The opposition leadership cannot but yield in the end. They are in desperate need of money and international support. If the West is fed up and is now pushing for a political settlement, the opposition will have to tag along.
Qaddafi may also find this latest change of heart pleasing. To be allowed to stay in Libya as others engage in negotiations over the future of the country could be the best offer he can expect to get under the circumstances. But a political deal may prove harder to achieve than a military knock out which has escaped NATO and the opposition.
First, a cease-fire must be put in place, ending hostilities and allowing humanitarian aid to flow into the devastated areas. Previous declarations by Qaddafi of truce never materialized. Second, the combatants will have to adopt what Juppe called a road map for a democratic process. And third there is the fate of Qaddafi, now a wanted man, and his close aides.
Engaging parties in a political process that could stretch for years will relieve NATO of its responsibilities and save millions of dollars. But it is not a guarantee that a suitable settlement will be reached. The alternative will be a de facto partition of Libya. Qaddafi and his sons will be spared but the Libyan quest for freedom and democracy will be deferred indefinitely.
Of course the revolution could go on, and it will, but without NATO’s aerial support the situation on the ground will remain deadlocked. It’s not what Libyans and subscribers to the spirit of the Arab Spring had in mind. Victory celebrations will have to be put off!
— Osama Al Sharif is a political commentator based in Amman.