Since April began, the United States has tapered off its military lead-role in the war on Muammar Qaddafi. The halting of significant strikes has left a void which other coalition members have been unable to fill. From Saturday April 2, Tomahawk missile strikes against Libyan military targets ceased as the nuclear-powered submarine USS Providence and its escort of missile destroyers headed out of coastal waters. Only four US warships are left of the fleet of 12 which were deployed in the Gulf of Sidra at the campaign's peak in the latter half of March. And two days later, on Monday April 4, the US A10-Thunderbolt and AC-130 aircraft also disappeared from Libyan airspace. The heavy bombardments of Qaddafi's forces were over.
This American withdrawal signaled the rapid unraveling of the coalition at already loose seams.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that Monday, France and Qatar announced their planes no longer stood at the disposal of the fledgling NATO air coordination headquarters, just 72 hours after it took over from the Americans in Libya. It now appears that France, the second biggest military player after the US, is keeping tight control over its Mediterranean-based military strength including aircraft and refusing to place it under NATO command.
Another message reaching the new NATO HQ was Qatar's decision to pull its bombers out of the no-fly zone and air offensive against Libyan forces. The reason: After the US withdrawal, none of the remaining coalition members, primarily the British Royal Air Force, were capable of defending its aircraft against potential counter-attack by Qaddafi's sophisticated Dassault Mirage F1 fighter and assault planes, products of the French aviation industry. The Qataris shrank from a surprise Libyan air force attack to down coalition warplanes.
British step up attacks while scaling back military operations
To make a show of keeping up the British end after the French and Qatari exodus, Prime Minister David Cameron paid a visit to RAF pilots stationed in Italy Monday, April 4 and announced that four more Tornado GR4 ground attack planes would be attached to the Gioia Del Cole air base.
Senior British military sources remarked there were still "a large number of bad guys" for NATO warplanes to attack. Clearly, the campaign against Muammar Qaddafi was not going as well as London had hoped.
But the flight of its coalition partners was not lost on London.
Our military sources disclose that without informing them, Cameron used his Italian visit to quietly instruct British submarines posted opposite Libya to discontinue their Tomahawk missile fire on Libyan military targets. This week, therefore, the UK joined the movement for scaling back coalition firepower in support of the rebel campaign against Qaddafi.
To camouflage the negative impact of the American departure on the effectiveness of the no-fly zone and strikes on Qaddafi's forces, NATO and the UK turned to bombing what they called "Qaddafi's military supply lines."
Qaddafi was meanwhile enabled to concentrate his strength on keeping the rebels on the run in Brega and Misrata. He then blocked NATO attempts to degrade his firepower further by shifting tactics, as, Brig. Gen. Marc van Uhm, a senior NATO military planner, admitted: Qaddafi's commanders had turned to using light vehicles and trucks as transports arming them with heavy guns, while keeping his tanks and heavy weapons hidden out of sight: "We try to identify where those heavy assets are, because we have seen they have chosen to hide themselves into urban areas to prevent being targeted," said the NATO planner.
Rebels left in the lurch?
By Tuesday night, the Libyan rebels ran out of patience with the dwindling operational support from their Western allies. For the first time, they staged a public protest in Brega and Benghazi, accusing NATO of "acting too slowly."
Wednesday, April 6, rebel commander, Gen. Abdul Fattah Younis went on television to accuse NATO of standing idly by while pro-Qaddafi forces kill people in Misrata west of Tripoli.
In an angry statement, the general, Libyan interior minister before he defected to the rebels in February, said the Western alliance could have already lifted the siege of Misrata, the only sizeable town in western Libya still under rebel control.
"If Nato should wait another week, there will be no more Misrata," he added. "You will not find anyone."
"Misrata is our number one priority," NATO deputy spokeswoman Carmen Romero hastily replied.
London responded by sending British warplanes into action early Thursday, April 7 to bomb a Libyan oil pipeline for the first time – hours after the Tripoli government blocked off a major oil store from which the rebels had hoped to raise $100 million for their uprising.
The British air strike, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources said, was a solo gesture. The UK is being forced to quietly scale back its military intervention in Libya by inadequate firepower and an economy deep in hock. Yet the Cameron government stands by its insistence on bombing Qaddafi out of office.
By now, the rebels are left without financial resources, equipped with weapons they don't know how to use and no tactical experience for contending with Qaddafi's professional army. One observer describes them as shooting at retreating forces and running out of ammunition. All they can do is "play a game with Qaddafi's forces – they advance during the day and give up all their gains at night when they retreat."
Qaddafi offers a six-point peace proposal
The war in Libya has therefore entered a military blind alley, which this week left the Libyan ruler with enough cards to push diplomacy.
He first sent Deputy Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi to Athens, Ankara and Valetta with messages, after which he promoted him Wednesday to full foreign minister in place of Mousa Kousa, who defected to London.
Qaddafi then sent a message to President Barack Obama, whose contents according to US officials included a plea to stop NATO attacks on Libya.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented drily: "Qaddafi knows what he has to do."
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that the message he sent to the Greek, Turkish and Maltese prime ministers consisted of a six-point peace plan revealed here for the first time:
1. The declaration of an immediate ceasefire by NATO, Qaddafi and the rebel forces;
2. The establishment of a provisional administrative council to act as Libya's legal government with representatives of Qaddafi and the Benghazi-based rebels aboard.
3. This council will be responsible for amending the Libyan constitution to allow for the introduction of parliamentary rule.
4. Libya will hold parliamentary elections six months after the provisional council is established.
5. Qaddafi himself will not stand for any future political, military or party posts in Libya.
6. NATO will pledge to never again to attack Libya.
Athens and Ankara versus London and Rome
The Greek and Turkish Prime Ministers George Papandreou and Tayyip Recep Erdogan referred the proposal to Washington, London, Paris and NATO in Brussels, after being favorably impressed that it was a good initial starting-point for negotiations to end the Libyan war, our sources report.
Both discussed it at length with Obeidi Monday night.
But the British premier, who has invested his personal reputation in Qaddafi's forcible removal, will regard the Libyan ruler's survival in a position to negotiate terms as a fiasco for his first foreign venture – and a costly one at that in political terms. He therefore rejected Qaddafi's blueprint flat. Before any negotiations can take place, the Libyan ruler must leave the country, Cameron said.
Italy, too, was against acceptance. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Rome had nixed the plan on the basis of Athens' opinion that the Libyan proposal was unsatisfactory.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report that Frattini deliberately misrepresented the Greek prime minister's position because Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi joined Cameron in going after a solution that would partition Libya between the western sector of Tripolitania under the Qaddafi regime and rebel-ruled Cyrenaica in the east.
They are all waiting to see which way the wind blows from Washington for a decision on the point at which to launch the diplomatic process for ending the intractable Libyan affair.