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Thursday, July 7, 2011

A tightening noose threatens to make Qaddafi more obstinate

The rebel Transitional Nation Council (TNC) says Muammar Qaddafi can stay in Libya if he steps down. (File Photo)

The rebel Transitional Nation Council (TNC) says Muammar Qaddafi can stay in Libya if he steps down. (File Photo)
This has been a week of mixed blessings for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

On the plus side, Mr. Qaddafi has won an important tactical victory: the rebel Transitional Nation Council (TNC) has dropped its demand that he not only relinquish power but also leave the country and South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane has insisted that any resolution to the crisis negotiated by the African Union would have to involve the Libyan leader’s right to remain in his own country.

The concession by the TNC and the African Union’s moral boost remove one major obstacle to ending the fighting. It puts the onus on Mr. Qaddafi to respond so that a quick end to the bloodshed can be achieved. Time, however, may not be working in Mr. Qaddafi’s favor and that may prove to be the Gordian knot of the Libyan crisis.
NATO-backed rebel fighters are making slow but steady progress in their advance towards Mr. Qaddafi’s stronghold, the Libyan capital of Tripoli. The closer they get, the stronger their negotiating position becomes and the less inclined they may be to make concessions.

The rebels seized in the last 24 hours two small towns less than 100 kilometer south of Tripoli in a six-hour gun battle with Qaddafi loyalists, positioning them to target Garyan, which controls a main road leading to the capital. NATO fighter planes targeted Qaddafi police check points and infrastructure in advance of the rebel offensive.

Mr. Qaddafi must also be monitoring with concern stepped up contacts between China and the TNC in what appears to be a Chinese move to become more engaged in the Libyan crisis. China has so far aided the Libyan leader diplomatically by being critical of NATO’s interpretation of the United Nations Security Council resolution endorsing a no-fly zone in Libya. China together with Russia has charged that NATO’s targeting of Mr. Qaddafi violates the resolution.

But in a clear sign that China has come to believe that the rebels will be an important player in the future of the oil-rich North African country, a senior Chinese diplomat visited the rebel stronghold of Benghazi on Thursday for meetings with opposition representatives.

Chen Xiaodong, in charge of North African affairs at the foreign ministry, called for a quick political solution to the four-month-long crisis and urged the rebels to hold talks with Qaddafi officials. China is believed to have encouraged the TNC in its decision to potentially allow for a breakthrough by dropping its demand that Mr. Qaddafi leave the country.

Mr. Chen’s visit follows on the heels of China last month recognizing the TNC as an “important dialogue partner” in talks in Beijing between Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and TNC leader Mahmud Jibril.

Negotiations to achieve a resolution appear nonetheless to be stalling despite the rebel concession and advances on the ground. Ms. Nkoana-Mashabane suggested on Wednesday that the African Union was being sidelined in its mediation effort and that last week’s issuing by the International Criminal Court of arrests warrants for Mr. Qaddafi, his son Saif al Islam al-Qaddafi and the head of Libyan intelligence, Abdullah Senoussi, had undermined it.

Russia, in a clear indication that Mr. Qaddafi was demanding an end to the NATO bombing campaign as a pre-condition for negotiations, suggested on Thursday that the bombings were the major obstacle to ending the crisis. “It is impossible to start political process while NATO airstrikes continue,” Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said.

At the end of the day, Mr. Qaddafi and the rebels have no lack of back channels, including the African Union and Russia.

Those channels however are producing no results. While Mr. Qaddafi appears willing to keep the channels open, he seemingly does not feel sufficiently pressured to cut a deal.

The stepped up NATO-backed rebel campaign is designed to take the battle to Mr. Qaddafi’s doorstep in the hope that it will persuade the Libyan leader that he no longer has other options. That could however backfire. With the ICC arrest warrant hanging over his head like a sword of Damocles, Mr. Qaddafi may feel that making a last stand is his only option. If so, ever more bloody battles are Libya’s most immediate prospect.

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