Libyan Contact Group in major policy shift on Libya

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (C) Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez (L) and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan (2nd R) chat during the Libya contact group meeting in Istanbul. (File Photo)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (C) Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez (L) and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan (2nd R) chat during the Libya contact group meeting in Istanbul. (File Photo)
In a major policy shift, the Libyan Contact Group has endorsed a Turkish peace plan that calls for a ceasefire and steps to ease Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi out of power and at the same time granted Libyan rebels recognition as the country’s sole legitimate governing authority.

The move by the group, which is made up of more than 30 governments and international and regional organizations, including the United States, the European Union, the Arab League and NATO, significantly boosts the cash-starved, Benghazi-based rebel Transition National Council (TNC) and puts forward for the first time a plan to end five months of fighting between the NATO-backed rebels and Qaddafi loyalists.
Absent from the meeting were China and Russia, who although not members of the group, were invited to attend. Both countries may well have been willing to endorse the Turkish plan which strokes with their calls for an end to the fighting and a negotiated solution, but did not want to be put on the spot by having to object to the recognition of the TNC. Russia and China both maintain contacts with the rebels but also with Mr. Qaddafi. China, however, in recent weeks has intensified its contacts in the apparent belief that the rebels were likely to eventually get the upper hand.

At a meeting in Istanbul, the contact group authorized United Nations envoy on Libya Abdul-Elah al-Khatib, to present the Turkish plan to Mr. Qaddafi. The authorization signals the group’s need to find a way out of the crisis in Libya. NATO-implementation of a UN-endorsed no fly zone in Libya has failed to produce the quick end to Mr. Qaddafi’s rule NATO countries had hoped for and is sparking mounting criticism at home of an increasingly unpopular military engagement.

As part of the major policy shift, the group left unclear whether it continues to demand Mr. Qaddafi’s departure not only from power but also from Libya as part of any deal. Mr. Qaddafi has insisted that he would rather fight to the bitter end than be forced to leave Libya. Mr. Qaddafi’s resolve was hardened by the last month’s issuing of a warrant for his arrest on charges of war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The warrant hangs like a sword of Damocles over Mr. Qaddafi’s head and is unlikely to ever make him feel completely secure no matter where in the world he would go.

Besides proposing an immediate ceasefire, the Turkish plan calls for the withdrawal of Qaddafi forces from all besieged towns and cities, UN peace monitors and establishment of humanitarian aid corridors, and a transition to a democracy with free and fair elections within six months. Arab and Turkish leaders see the plan as a way to halt the fighting before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins in early August.

The recognition of the TNC makes it more difficult for the rebels to maintain their opposition to a ceasefire prior to Mr. Qaddafi’s removal from power, particularly given their desperate need for a cash infusion to fund daily operations and services in eastern Libya, the area they control. Rebel leaders had earlier said that they were willing to drop their demand that Mr. Qaddafi leave the country as part of any deal.

The rebels hope that the recognition will allow countries that have frozen Libyan assets to make those available to the TNC. That could prove legally tricky given that most members of the contact group still maintain diplomatic relations with the Qaddafi regime and have embassies in Tripoli and Libyan missions in their own capitals.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini nonetheless said his country would open an immediate $141 million credit line for the rebels using frozen regime assets as collateral. Mr. Frattini said Italy would release an additional $423 million in two weeks time. Italy was one of Mr. Qaddafi’s major trading partners and has in recent months frozen Libyan investments in major Italian companies, including banks and soccer clubs.

The contact group believes Mr. Qaddafi may be more amenable to a deal given that his forces are suffering from dwindling fuel supplies, low morale, and a cash crisis as a result of oil exports that have been reduced to a trickle and UN sanctions. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said earlier this week that envoys from Mr. Qaddafi have said that the Libyan leader was ready to relinquish power as part of a deal. In a bid to avoid the problems in Iraq that resulted from the disbanding of Saddam Hussein’s military and as a further bone thrown to Mr. Qaddafi, British officials said that the Libyan leader’s forces were likely to be kept intact in a post-Qaddafi Libya.

The contact group’s endorsement of the Turkish plan effectively puts the ball in Mr. Qaddafi’s court. He now has to make clear what weighs more: his fiery rhetoric reiterated in an address hours before the contact group meeting in which he admonished his supporters to “prepare to march to the Western Mountains,” adding, “men and women, prepare to end this charade and march through Libya in defiance” or the suggestions by his envoys and his son, Saif al Islam al Qaddafi, that he is ready for a deal.


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