US President Barack Obama Friday, March 18, laid down an ultimatum for Muammar Qaddafi to comply with or else face "military consequences," the key condition being the withdrawal of Libyan troops from Misrata and Zawiya west of Tripoli and Ajdabiya to the east – the last being tantamount to lifting the siege on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Obama spoke 24 hours after the UN Security Council called for an immediate ceasefire in Libya, approved a no-fly zone and authorized "all necessary measures to protect civilians."
While Obama's demands appeared to cancel out the gains made by Qaddafi's forces in recent weeks, debkafile's military sources note that he set no deadline for these withdrawals. Nor did he specify that the towns in question must revert to rebel control. Most of all, he did not demand Qaddafi's departure outright, although he stressed that the Libyan ruler had lost the confidence of his people.
The set of conditions which the US president called non-negotiable would in fact restore the standoff between Qaddafi's army and the rebels which preceded the current offensive, giving Washington breathing space to decide on its next steps. He made it clear that the Europeans and Arabs must take the lead in enforcing the no fly zone over Libya – not the US, which would only provide logistical and other support as needed. Over the weekend, therefore, European and Arab planes may take off from air bases in Italy, Greece and Cyprus and fly over Libya.
debkafile reported earlier Friday, March 18: Hours after UN Security Council approval Thursday night, March 17, of no-fly zone over Libya and "all necessary measures to protect civilians," military action against Muammar Qaddafi is up in the air. Although the air forces of at least five nations were standing by for its passage, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
said Friday that "it is not at all clear" what military action is to be taken against the Qaddafi regime.
The final result of resolution must be Qaddafi's departure, she said although this is not mentioned in the UN motion.
debkafile's Washington sources explain the delay by the Obama administration's decision to let the Europeans, primarily Britain and France, take the lead, on the assumption that they will turn to the United States for support.. Only then will any real military operation begin – if the administration so decides. For now, not a single American, European or Arab warplane has taken to the skies. More than a month after Qaddafi began suppressing the uprising against him, it is becoming clear that, notwithstanding the war rhetoric leading up to the UN resolution, no real force was ready to implement it.
President Barack Obama is meanwhile preparing to set out on a Latin American tour. A multinational conference in Libya has been called for Saturday by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to decide what to do next and Pentagon spokesmen have said that preparations for action against Libya continue, but will not take concrete form before early next week. In fact, the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier, supposed to have spearheaded an aerial-naval operation against Libya, was reported Friday distancing itself from Mediterranean waters and heading for the Gulf of Aden.
This abrupt change in Washington's posture on Libya is explained by debkafile's US and European sources on two grounds:
1. The rebels fighting Qaddafi do not exactly fit the description of freedom-fighters and democracy seekers described in Western circles. The information in Washington is that they are made up of a mishmash of politically irresponsible, squabbling bands which spend more time cashing in on the conflict than fighting it. The Obama administration is reluctant to underpin its Libya policy in this type of opposition.
2. The US failed to mobilize Egypt for a joint campaign against the Qaddafi regime. With the Saudi king sharply opposed to US policy in the Middle East, the administration is reluctant to go forward against Libya without the participation of the two most important Arab nations, with only the UAE and Qatar on board.
Therefore no military action is expected in the immediate term. The arena is left to Qaddafi and it cost him nothing to announce smoothly in Tripoli Friday, March 18, that he fully accepts UN Security Council Resolution 1973 and its initial clause calling for an immediate ceasefire and halt in hostilities in order to protect civilian lives.