Washington's acknowledgement early Tuesday morning, July 19, of the first direct contact with Muammar Qaddafi's regime since the coalition went to war against him five months ago gave the official stamp to DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that the Libyan conflict had reached its closing stage – bar the diplomatic wrangling and backslidings still to come.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 500 of July 15: Obama, Medvedev and Merkel Set Out to Cut Short Libyan War, Remove Assad).
It would be a mistake to imagine that tomorrow morning, Qaddafi's troops and Libyan rebels will stop fighting each other on the ground, or that NATO will suddenly end its air strikes in their support. Like most violent conflicts, this one too will wind down in stages, most likely interrupted by flare-ups that eventually peter out. But closure hove in sight from the moment on Wednesday, July 13 that US President Barack Obama decided the conflict must end. The next day, he phoned Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to report his decision and granted permission for Special Russian Presidential envoy Mikhail Margelov to mediate the dispute.
(This issue sketches the super-diplomat's background in a separate item)
Barring the unexpected, such as Col. Qaddafi's untimely death by assassination or a direct NATO hit, the Obama script will stand because it is dictated by the unembellished results of the five-month contest: The Libyan ruler and his sons have won; the rebels and their US and NATO backers have lost.
The reluctant US diplomats
Washington adopted a harsh tone for its admission of first face-to-face contact with Qaddafi representatives to convey its reluctance to go through with it: Three senior US diplomats, including Jeffrey D. Feltman, the top State Department official in charge of Middle East policy, were described as meeting four senior Libyan diplomats in Tunisia solely "to deliver a clear and firm message that the only way to move forward is for Qaddafi to step down."
The statement went on to affirm: "This was not a negotiation. It was the delivery of a message. We have no plans to meet again, because the message has been delivered."
The message was clearly couched in tough language, our Washington sources stress, to save face and cover America's Libya failure. The meeting, say intelligence sources, was instigated by Qaddafi. He warned the US through Moscow that without direct contact between his representatives and US officials, diplomatic movement towards ending the war would stop right there..
The White House had to agree or give up the diplomatic track.
US officials therefore sat down with Qaddafi's representatives in Tunisia Saturday, July 16, just as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced to the Libya Contact Group meeting in Istanbul that her government had recognized Libya's rebel National Transitional Council (TNC). But she added a key caveat – "until a fully representational interim government can be established."
The representatives of NATO, the UN, the Arab League and members of the Africa Union, took note that, unlike some of those present, Clinton had virtually withheld legitimacy from the TNC as the successor-regime, giving the leading rebel group only enough standing to face Qaddafi's government in peace talks.
Obama grants Russia a valuable diplomatic foothold
Because the Libyan ruler conducted the challenge to his rule with political and military logic and acumen, recognizing the limits of his strength and taking note of his opponents' weaknesses, it is his opponents who seek negotiations for ending the conflict. The bulk of Qaddafi's military forces remain unharmed and undefeated; his arsenal is intact; he retains control of national oil resources and the main cities and the rebels are corralled in two areas – Benghazi in the east and the Nafusa Mountains in the West.
By beating back the uprising against him, Col. Qaddafi stands out as the only Arab leader to defeat an Arab revolt, even though it was backed by direct US and NATO military intervention.
In 2003 and early 2004, US President George W. Bush acted through a third party, Britain or more precisely its external intelligence agency MI6, in the negotiations with Qaddafi to dismantle his nuclear and chemical weapons programs. He agreed in return for a US presidential commitment not to invade Libya like Iraq – a commitment which the Libyan ruler claims was violated seven years later.
Only in the final stages, when the talks had reached the question of the physical transfer of Libya's nuclear installations, did the United States step into the picture and engage the Qaddafi regime directly.
Now, too, President Obama has opted for working through a third party.
To avoid engaging Libyan leaders face to face, he has harnessed Moscow to conduct the negotiations. It is the first time in the 60 years since the outbreak of the Cold War that the United States has voluntarily opened the Middle East- African door to Russia and assigned it a critical diplomatic role in resolving issues of war and peace.
Qaddafi will step down, but plays hard ball first
This handover is much more than a "reset" of Washington-Moscow relations, as outlined in our last issue; it give provides the US with an escape route from the Middle East and its endless troubles.
The Obama administration has come to the conclusion that today's America does not command the financial and military resources for carrying the burdens of global decision-making and their consequences on its own. As will be seen in the item on Mikhail Margelov's unique role, the trouble spots Washington appears to have passed to Moscow in addition to Libya include Sudan and Syria – with the proviso that Russian moves are coordinated with the United States.
NATO's leading powers, Britain and France, with far less resources than the US, face even greater compulsions to pull in their horns in the Middle East and Africa.
Having drawn a still-wavy line on the military side of the conflict, DEBKA-Net-Weekly outlines the next part of the Libyan scenario:
1. The Qaddafi government, the US, NATO and the rebels will embark on indirect official negotiations using Moscow as their intermediary.
2. The US, NATO and the rebels will start out calling in unison for Qaddafi step down before the talks go any further. This united front will quickly disintegrate when it hits the wall of the unified Russian-Libyan position, which the Libyan diplomats laid out to the US officials the met in Tunisia: The Libyan ruler won't move out until all the negotiating parties accept that he will only relinquish power in stages that are adjusted to the steps made towards implementing the military and political accords they have reached for ending the war. Only when all the parties, including the Libyan ruler, are convinced that their opposite numbers are playing fair and upholding their commitments under those accords, will he finally step down
Zuma rejects Cameron's demand for Qaddafi's immediate exit
Visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron fell out sharply with his host, the head of the African Union, South African President Jacob Zuma, when they met In Pretoria on Tuesday, July 18.
In support of the Russian-backed position held by Qaddafi, Zuma countered Cameron's demand that Libyan ruler resign immediately. He argued that first a mechanism must be found to enforce an agreed and monitored ceasefire and allow a "debate on all the necessary issues, including the future of Qaddafi."
3. The anti-Qaddafi faction at the negotiating table will most likely to fall out with one another and form up along the same lines that split the military alliance: Washington will distance itself from the hard-line positions taken by NATO and the rebels and align itself with the positions taken by Moscow, Qaddafi and the African Union.
4. In any agreed scenario, Qaddafi's sons and the heads of his administration and military can expect to be fully integrated in future Libyan government because he has come out of the conflict with most of his cards in his pocket. Negotiations to determine what form future Libyan democracy will take (as British Prime Minister Cameron said this week: "… to allow the people of Libya to decide their own future in a democratic and united Libya) will not revolve around the number of positions awarded Qaddafi's loyalists but how many jobs (largely token) the rebels will receive.
The rebels face military defections
5. As the process moves forward some of the rebel military commanders, who negotiated secret ceasefire agreements with Qaddafi in the middle of the conflict (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 493 of May 20: Libyan Rebel Chiefs near Deal with Qaddafi behind NATO's Back), may be drop out of rebel ranks. Some may set up rule in areas they control; others go over to Qaddafi. For the main anti-Qaddafi group, the TNC, the shorter the talks the better, since its military assets will melt away the longer they go on. Even now, rebel prospects of a respectable role in a future Tripoli government are slim – unless they are able to hold on to the enclave they control around Benghazi and have it declared an international protectorate.