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As Libyan crisis deepens, West's role must grow

As Libyan rebels continue to make gains, it may be tempting to predict an opposition triumph. But even amid a westward march, the endgame in Libya is far from settled.

After weeks of back and forth fighting, Libya's rebels are making gains. On Monday, reports that opposition forces were knocking on Col Muammar Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte brought a wave of speculation that victory for the opposition, if not imminent, was at least within reach.

It may be tempting to predict an opposition triumph. But even amid a westward march, the endgame in Libya is far from settled. As Col Qaddafi remains defiant, and coalition forces bicker, the odds increase that a dangerous stalemate is on the horizon.

Libya's erratic ruler has so far been unable to make good on vows to quell the uprising. Ensuring he never does will take more than determined rebel fighters. While a bloodbath in Benghazi has been averted, only a sustained campaign of international support can stem a cycle of stagnation and civil war.

The US President, Barack Obama, has attempted to convince his public of this, with mixed success. While Mr Obama has for nearly a month maintained that the Libyan leader must go, he has so far offered little by way of explanation as to how that might happen.

Critics - and there are many - do have valid concerns. The execution and objectives of the no-fly mission have been vague from the start.

Perhaps even more damaging is the lack of international consensus. Russian officials on Monday warned that current operations go beyond the UN Security Council resolution authorising force to protect civilians. Turkey, meanwhile, has called for a meditated solution to the crisis in order to avoid a "second Iraq" or "another Afghanistan". Even Nato's chief has vowed to scale back expectations by remaining "impartial" to the outcome.

Such tact would be easier if Col Qaddafi was ready to listen to reason. So far, though, he has shown no public willingness for dialogue. But Libya, long held hostage to the violent and unpredictable whims of its dictator, needs more than talk to see this crisis to conclusion.

On Sunday, Robert Gates, the US Secretary of Defence, said stability in Libya is not vital to American interests. This may be true. But as Libyan rebels continue to make gains, their fate is increasingly in foreign hands. A more aggressive military strategy may not be what the international community had in mind when it chose to get involved. The longer Col Qaddafi stays put, however, this is a question that will be strenuously debated.

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