The U.K. and France are banking on Libyans in the capital Tripoli to give them an exit strategy as they try to work out how to topple Muammar Qaddafi.
With the rebels advancing on Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, about 570 kilometers (355 miles) from their Benghazi base, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron are exhorting Libyan officials to undermine the regime from within.
“Ideally, everybody wants the Libyan rebels to topple Qaddafi in Tripoli,” said Florence Gaub, a North Africa expert at the NATO Defense College in Rome. “Regime change is what it’s all about, even if the UN resolution doesn’t say this.”
The push to oust Qaddafi is restricted by a United Nations mandate that limits military activity to protecting civilians. While the 28-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization said on March 27 that it was taking charge of the mission, the allies say they won’t send in ground forces, leading to speculation they want him eliminated by his own people in Tripoli, a city of 1.1 million.
“There are two options: either Qaddafi leaves the country or is killed,” said Mats Berdal, a professor in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. “And he’s not likely to leave Libya.”
The move toward Sirte, near where Qaddafi was born in 1942, follows a rebel advance along Libya’s coast that saw opposition forces recapture the oil ports of Brega and Ras Lanuf, helped by U.S.-led aerial bombardment of Qaddafi’s forces. Sirte is about 450 kilometers from Tripoli, roughly halfway from Benghazi.
“Walk away from your tanks,” Cameron said March 25. “Give up on this regime because it should be over for him and his henchmen.” Sarkozy said a day earlier that Qaddafi’s “entourage” needs to know that there’s a “way to get out.”
The allied hope is that “the noose will tighten so much around the regime that there will be defections or that actions will be taken against him from someone close to him,” Charles Gurdon, a Libya expert who is managing director of Menas Associates, a political-risk advisory group in London, said in an interview.
Allied strikes began after a UN Security Council resolution on March 17 granting military authority to the U.S. and its allies to protect Libyan civilians and population centers threatened by Qaddafi’s forces. Libya’s death toll so far may be between 6,000 and 12,000, according to a human rights group.
The war in Libya, holder of Africa’s largest crude reserves, has pushed oil prices up about 25 percent since it began last month. Oil fell for a third day yesterday as the rebels advanced, trading near the lowest in a week in New York amid speculation that territorial gains made against Qaddafi’s forces may speed up a resolution to the conflict.
With the allied strikes inflicting “meltdown,” the military “is increasingly seeing there’s nothing in this for them,” said Berdal of King’s College London.
The most likely outcome “is that the tribal chiefs decide that Qaddafi has become such a pariah that their interests are best served by kicking him out,” said Gilles Kepel, a Middle East expert at the SciencesPo Centre for International Studies and Research in Paris. “The chiefs will then have to work out how to divide the oil receipts.”
Fighting in Libya comes as unrest spreads throughout the Middle East, with deadly clashes between protesters and regime supporters in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Jordan following the ouster of oppressive regimes by popular movements in Egypt and Tunisia.
The revolutions in North Africa swept the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt from power after they were unwilling or unable to use massive military force to halt popular protests. More than 100 people were killed in Tunisia and 365 died in Egypt prior to regime change.
For Qaddafi, fighting to retain his grip on power after almost 40 years, the endgame may be approaching as soon as next month, said Gaub of the NATO Defense College.
“That there hasn’t been a coup against Qaddafi so far indicates his grip on the armed forces is still strong,” Gaub said. All the same, “It’s not a question of if Qaddafi is going to go, but when.”