As foreign envoys converge on Istanbul to discuss yet again how to get rid of Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator is living up to his reputation for cunning by hanging on longer than any of them had predicted.
For all the early talk of days, not weeks to the endgame, Qaddafi has survived four months of NATO bombings and confounded diplomats with his mixture of bluffs and threats. It’s the same bag of tricks he has used to keep more than 100 tribes under control since taking power in a military coup in 1969.
“The man is a fox,” said Karim Mezran, a Libyan exile and a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy. “He’s adept at running rings around his enemies. He’s done it for decades and he’s doing it again.”
By flitting between conciliatory overtures and threats, the Libyan ruler has kept anti-Qaddafi allies guessing whether he will accept exile in Libya or abroad, or if nothing short of his capture or assassination will end the conflict. In the latest aggressive posturing, Russia’s envoy to the country, Mikhail Margelov, told the Izvestiya newspaper that Qaddafi may “blow up” Tripoli if rebels seize the city.
Qaddafi’s foes have underestimated his resilience and while his eventual ouster may be inevitable, he could hang on for months even amid fuel shortages, according to Mezran.
The future of the North African nation without Qaddafi and how to fund and arm the impoverished rebels trying to end his four-decade rule has been at the crux of the past four monthly meetings of the 22-nation Libya Contact Group. The Turks host the latest round tomorrow in Istanbul.
Since the last meeting in Abu Dhabi, Turkey has become the 26th nation to recognize the rebels’ Benghazi-based National Transitional Council. The U.S. isn’t one of them. Legislation to give rebels access to frozen Libyan assets is stalled in the U.S. Senate, adding to the prospect that the rebels will run out of cash to buy food and supplies.
“Qaddafi is brilliant,” Jason Pack, a researcher on Libya at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, said in an interview yesterday. “Despite the fact that people are deserting him, that Tripoli residents are running out of fuel and food, he has stayed on and is playing factions against each other. He is a great political operator.”
Defying the Odds
French officials, who had pushed hardest for military action, predicted on March 25 that there would be a quick end to the conflict. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said then that “military action will be counted in days and in weeks.”
Instead, Qaddafi has defied the odds and prolonged an armed conflict. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said he will present his colleagues at the Turkey meeting with a “political plan” for a “negotiated end.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told journalists yesterday that Qaddafi’s camp has sent “contradictory” signals.
“Tens, hundreds or thousands of Libyans might die in Europe,” Qaddafi said on July 8, according to a recording of his speech that was aired on Al Arabiya television. “We will raid their houses, women and children, like they raided us, and I told you an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
Three days later, his son, Saif al-Islam, who last month approached the rebels to negotiate an exit from power for his father, told Algerian newspaper El-Khabar that the regime was in talks with France.
Go or Stay?
For the first time, allies and rebels may be prepared to grant his wish to live out his retirement on home soil on condition he lay down his arms and give up power. The head of the rebels, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, told Reuters last week that Qaddafi may be allowed to stay in the country if he resigns and there is international supervision of his movements.
Still, on July 4, Jalil said in an e-mailed statement there was no possibility for Qaddafi to remain in Libya.
Such reversals of positions and contrasting statements have proliferated since the June 27 indictment of Qaddafi on charges of crimes against humanity, a move that seemed to leave the dictator almost out of options.
As the civil war heads into its fifth month and Europeans are drawn to other urgent concerns, the distractions may give Qaddafi added time to play his hand.
One event likely to pull attention from the envoys’ meeting is the anticipated emergency summit of their leaders on a debt crisis now ensnaring Italy, the former colonial power in Libya. Additionally, Italy’s Chamber of Deputies will hold the final vote on the government’s 40 billion-euro ($57 billion) deficit- reduction plan tomorrow, when the contact group meets.