x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

With Libya in stalemate, efforts to find diplomatic resolution intensify

Amid suggestions that Colonel Qaddafi is now considering stepping aside, major western countries are conceding that military force alone is not expected to resolve the conflict.

WASHINGTON // As the stalemate in Libya continues four months into the Nato military operation over the country, efforts to find a diplomatic resolution have intensified, with major western countries conceding that military force alone is not expected to resolve the conflict.

Yet the battlefield stand-off is unlikely to end at the negotiating table unless those who oppose Colonel Muammar Qaddafi agree about what to do with the Libyan leader if he is toppled, experts have said.

France and Russia have launched mediation attempts and the UN's special envoy to Libya, Abdelilah Al Khatib, has been urging the Libyan government and the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) to negotiate a political solution.

On Friday, the Contact Group on Libya meets in Istanbul to discuss the status of the fighting and mediation attempts. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, is due to attend. The State Department would not discuss French reports of progress in mediation attempts ahead of that meeting.

At a press briefing on Tuesday, Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokesperson, said only that there have been "contradictory" reports about mediation attempts before, and it was not clear who those claiming to speak on behalf of Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, really were.

Nevertheless on Wednesday, Barack Obama, the US president, met Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister in Washington and said the US administration would "support negotiations that lead to a democratic transition in Libya as long as Qaddafi steps aside".

Russia abstained from the UN vote that ultimately triggered the Nato intervention over Libya. Russia has also supplied arms to Libya in the past and might be in a better position to mediate with Qaddafi loyalists than the French, who aggressively supported UN Security Council Resolution 1973.

It is the French, however, who have claimed in recent days that their mediation efforts suggest that Colonel Qaddafi is now considering stepping aside. On Tuesday, Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, told a French radio station that the Libyan government had sent envoys to several countries who said Colonel Qaddafi was "ready to go".

On the same day, Francois Fillon, the French prime minister, told the national assembly that a "political solution is taking shape", as the French parliament approved an extension of France's role in the Nato operation. Much will depend on what shape such a political solution takes. The NTC has so far rejected direct negotiations with Colonel Qaddafi or members of his regime, but positions may be softening.

On Wednesday, Ali Aujaly, the former Libyan ambassador to Washington and now the representative of the NTC in the US, said as long as there was no role for Colonel Qaddafi or his immediate family, in particular his son, Saif Al Islam Al Qaddafi, the NTC would be willing to listen to mediation efforts.

"If Qaddafi is willing to leave, if he and his family is willing to leave, then I think the Libyan people is prepared to compromise," Mr Aujaly said in a phone interview from Canada. "It is important that we find an end to this."

The intensifying diplomacy comes as the military effort remains deadlocked. Apart from the odd advance here and there, the Libyan rebels are ensconced mostly in the east, separated by a desert from Colonel Qaddafi's forces around Tripoli in the west.

Any rebel attempts to move toward Tripoli have so far been thwarted by the Libyan army, which still appears capable of exercising significant force. Moreover, an all-out assault on Tripoli could lead to significant civilian casualties, an eventuality Nato would want to avoid given that its mandate is to protect Libyan civilians.

Colonel Qaddafi has also let it be known, through Mikhail Margelov, Russia's Africa envoy, that he was prepared to destroy Tripoli should the rebels occupy the capital city.

With Leon Panetta, the newly appointed US secretary of defence, warning this week that Nato forces could be exhausted in three months, there is urgent logic to pursuing a negotiated solution, said Marina Ottaway, head of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank.

"The danger in Libya is that the conflict could go on for a really long time. If negotiations can help speed up a resolution of the conflict, they should be welcomed."

For such negotiations to be successful, however, Ms Ottaway said, western countries would have to accede to the wishes of Libyans, in particular the position of the NTC.

"That is something that cannot be compromised on, because the NTC is not going to compromise on it. It may be willing to compromise on Qaddafi remaining in the country and not be turned over to the ICC."

Colonel Qaddafi has yet to personally suggest that he would be willing to relinquish control, notwithstanding the French perception of their interlocutors' messages. And as long as there is no clear sense of the Libyan leader's motives, Nato will ramp up its aerial campaign and go for the "home run shot", said Bayless Parsley of STRATFOR, a Texas-based global intelligence company.

"From a military standpoint, [Nato countries] are realising that at this point, it is going to take a stroke of luck to kill Qaddafi."

In tandem, and with the limitations of aerial campaigns very much in mind, mediation efforts, whether to "hive off" Qaddafi loyalists or to find a political solution, will continue to intensify, Mr Parsley said.