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Gaddafi's Wager on International Confusion and Hesitation

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The discourse of real politique and national interest now dominates the international community's handling of Libya once it came down to deeds, rather than lip service. The Security Council resolution unanimously adopted two weeks ago was a precedent in as far as the terms of sanctions, freezing of assets and holding the regime and its main leaders accountable before the International Criminal Court (ICC). This resolution was followed by various kinds of threats and demands for Muammar Gaddafi to step down. But when the discussion began to revolve around imposing a no-fly zone -- which would necessarily require military intervention by air -- it triggered cooling down the very aspirations that had been unleashed by the celebratory political escalation, both within the Security Council and outside it. Deliberation on such important matters is logical, and both of the contradictory opinions can be defended -- the one demanding that a no-fly zone be imposed and the one opposing it.

The main lesson here is that political deliberation must mature in parallel with ascertaining capabilities and readiness for deeds before gushing out words. Such a lesson is necessary primarily for the American administration and for many other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries. The situation in Libya in the aftermath of NATO's hesitation on a no-fly zone is morally embarrassing, no matter how logical the reasons for hesitation may be. The prevailing humanitarian catastrophe requires some kind of measure particularly after the Security Council unanimously decided to involve itself in the events in Libya because it considered this to be part of its obligations as a body in charge of preserving world peace and security and preventing major human rights violations.

Security Council members have painted themselves in a corner, and any retreat will come at a high cost for the Libyans who wagered on the Security Council and its members, in particular its permanent members. It will come at a cost for the credibility of these countries and will call into question their moral and political responsibility. And if such hesitation were to lead to Gaddafi's regime scoring victories on the ground or to Libya becoming fragmented or divided, popular Arab enthusiasm for change like the peaceful change in Tunisia and Egypt will fade away, out of fear of a fate similar to the bloodshed and civil war taking place in Libya. Overthrowing regimes is one thing; obliterating stability in the region is another. Enabling the army to supervise change, as has taken place in Tunisia and in Egypt, is in itself noteworthy and deserves close examination as to where it came from and what are the consequences. What is taking place in Libya falls under the equations of tribes, clans and the army's divided loyalty in a country that has never known the meaning of state institutions. All eyes now turn to Yemen, which may be closer to the Libyan model in the progression of the Arab uprising than to that of Tunisia and Egypt. If change and reform were to fail at the Libyan milestone, such failure would have repercussions that would hinder the progression of the Arab intifada in different parts of the Arab region.

Undoubtedly, there are numerous complications. There is a battle over legitimacy between the Libyan Jamahiriya led by Muammar Gaddafi and the National Transitional Council that has established an interim government that is trying to obtain recognition from foreign governments. There are also the tasks entrusted to the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, former Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah Khatib, which will not be strictly humanitarian. The question is then: Has he been appointed to provide a political space amidst escalation? And what are the limits of the task entrusted to him and the constraints to his mandate?

And then there is the issue of the no-fly zone and potential alternative options available to the UN Security Council. Security Council members are waiting to learn the positions of the League of Arab States and the African Union, after both the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) supported imposing a no-fly zone in Libya. Both the GCC and OIC support provides the political and perhaps the financial cover. As for tangible participation in implementing the no-fly zone, it will be necessarily led by NATO even if it includes some form of participation from GCC countries or from neighboring countries such as Egypt. It is most likely that the position of the League of Arab States (Saturday) will follow the GCC regardless of the objection of two countries to the idea of the no-fly zone, namely Syria and Algeria. Syria has in the past entered as a direct party to military operations under American leadership in Iraq in the early 1990s; justifying its position will therefore not be easy.

Perhaps it will decide not to publicly declare its opposition so as not to appear as if it were siding with a regime that is repressing its people and confronting their revolution with air strikes. As for Algeria, it fears the repercussions the developments in the Libyan arena could have on Algeria, and it might favor the failure of the uprising. African nations are also very important, especially as there are some African countries that are still loyal to Muammar Gaddafi who embraced and helped them. Other countries are exporting mercenaries to Libya to help him retain power. The Security Council considers the African position to be of the utmost importance, yet it also wants deeds, and not just words. It wants the African countries that are exporting the mercenaries to stop doing so immediately. It also wants the Arabs to effectively participate in establishing a no-fly zone, in terms of cost, planes and soldiers. It wants the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which is headed by Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, to convince Turkey to stop being hesitant and to play its role within NATO.

The Security Council should also want to look into how to monitor and hold accountable western countries that have strong relations with Libya, such as Italy, as well as their corporations. After imposing the asset freeze, if it is serious about implementing its sanctions, the Security Council should act, and quickly. The concerned and capable countries must make use of everything in their power to secure the implementation of the ban on exporting or smuggling weapons to the Libyan regime. Furthermore, if those countries are really serious about their threats and that the Libyan leader must go -- as US President Barack Obama said -- they must impose a no-fly zone. But this is what neither the military establishment nor the political establishment wants because of what it would involve in terms of a direct American role in military operations inside Libya. Even arming the Libyan revolutionaries gives rise to reservations in remembrance of what the United States did in Afghanistan when it armed the revolutionaries and gave them Stinger missiles. Namely, that this led to arming the Mujahideen and the Taliban and to the disappearance of those anti-aircraft missiles. Even in the absence of available options, talk of the possibility of activating such options may have prompted Gaddafi want to send out envoys to various Arab and Western capitals with the aim of preventing the formation of an alliance that would take such measures. It might be said that talk of imposing a no-fly zone and verbal escalation against the regime is good because it has led the leadership in Tripoli to think of solutions in order to get out of its predicament. Yet this has not deterred it from military escalation and airstrikes against the revolutionaries and against oil facilities and civilian sites alike.

Perhaps establishing a no-fly zone through a UN resolution or as a result of the coalition of a few countries will also not deter Gaddafi's regime from intensifying ground operations against the revolutionaries who are exhausted and fragmented without a clear leadership. And perhaps it would be useful to think of the options that lie between doing nothing and military intervention through imposing a no-fly zone such as strengthening sanctions and broadening the list of those who have been banned from travel or have had their assets frozen, monitoring the implementation of the arms ban to the regime, as well as imposing a "vital and active humanitarian corridor." All of this does not exempt the Security Council from the necessity of making a decision regarding its Resolution number 1970 which in effect condemns the regime and launches a procedure to prosecute those in charge of it -- effectively a decision to remove the regime.

Some Security Council members challenge this logic, pointing to the fact that Security Council members have collectively paid a visit to Sudan and met with leaders of the regime headed by Omar Al-Bashir- the man object of condemnation by the Council and charged of committing war crimes against humanity by the ICC. That is to say, the man legally wanted by an international court mandated by the Security Council to hold him accountable is the same man whose regime received a delegation of all Security Council members and met with praise for his support of the referendum that initiated the secession of South Sudan. In other words, the Security Council has ducked in the past, and it may be ready to duck again. Atrocities were committed in Sudan and are committed in Libya though in a different framework. It is unclear whether such a framework is that of a civil war or of an armed revolution against a regime. What matters is that the regime in Sudan is still in power, with what is nearly the blessing of the international community, as the visit of Security Council members has proven. As for the regime in Libya, perhaps it might be lured by Sudan's example of the "carrot" and the concession table and the insinuation that if it ceases its bloody use of force, the Security Council might reconsider its resolution.

Logically, it seems too late for the Libyan regime after international consensus has taken shape against Gaddafi and the way he has dealt with the Libyan uprising. Realistically, and in the name of political realism, there are perhaps indications of international backtracking, in light of the unwillingness -- especially on the part of the Americans and Europeans -- to enter as party to the Libyan war. Such retreat and hesitation should not signify an open mandate for the Libyan regime to strike violently against the people. Confusion or meandering the political and electoral considerations -- as well as military considerations -- is aggravated by the American people's allergy to American military intervention anywhere and for any reason. That is perhaps exactly what Gaddafi is wagering on. Those advising and counseling him are prompting him to bet and wager on American and European weakness and confusion. Yet they know that if the humanitarian tragedy and the violations continue, the international community cannot be silent about it, no matter what.

Abdul Ilah Khatib's task will not be an easy one, yet it might prove a useful tool for all actors concerned in order to define the margins of understandings or bargains. Perhaps his arrival to New York in the midst of negotiations among Security Council members over a draft resolution to impose a no-fly zone, and his holding talks with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Security Council members, will provide some time to catch one's breath in New York and in the world capitals concerned. Yet the fear of all fears is for such a period of time to unintentionally send the wrong message into the minds of the leaders of Gaddafi's regime: that this is a license to continue to bomb -- either in a wager on the international community's procrastination or to preempt a no-fly zone which long time will pass before it is imposed.