What Is the Least Destructive Way Out of Libya?

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Libyan rebels pray at the western gate of Ajdabiya on April 15, 2011. Odd Andersen / AFP-Getty Images

Reminiscent of World War II, when German and British forces battled each other in the Cyrenaican desert and coastal plains of Libya, forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi and the country’s rebels have kept fighting over Ajdabiya, Ras Lanuf, and a string of small towns and hamlets along the country’s seashore. Despite the international coalition’s intervention on the side of the rebels, a stalemate has been reached. Gaddafi’s troops may be able to retake some territory in eastern Libya but are unlikely to reconquer it in its entirety. And the rebels, whose fortunes were dramatically reversed by the intervention of coalition forces in late March, seem incapable of pressing their initial momentum any further without additional (and more intense) international support.

There is an unobserved development in Libya, however, that augurs more ominously for the future of the country: the international coalition, which entered the fray on the side of the rebels, has now effectively become the arbiter over whether Libya slides into a full-scale civil war. By its support of the rebels’ cause and its willingness to help them press forward into the western part of the country, the coalition will determine whether the conflict turns into a war of attrition, and possibly a civil war, or whether the country remains divided between the two sides, raising the possibility of a full-fledged, permanent division later on.

As NEWSWEEK goes to press, there remain four scenarios in which the war in Libya could be settled, all of which—not surprising in light of Libya’s tortured history since the Gaddafi coup in 1969—contain difficulties for the future of the country.

The first involves a more intense support for the ability of the rebels, aided by NATO power, to steadily move westward and unify the country by overpowering the province of Tripolitania and replacing the Gaddafi regime. In light of the checkered history (of very long standing) between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (where the rebel movement is now located), this scenario would open old wounds. When the Kingdom of Libya was created in 1951, Tripolitania resentfully agreed to be pushed together by the Great Powers into a single political entity ruled by a monarchy with its roots in Cyrenaica. The resentment within Tripolitania, where support for Gaddafi has traditionally been the strongest, would be enormous if once more a government were foisted upon it either by a Cyrenaican-led rebel movement or through the support of the international community—a likely possibility under this scenario.

A second scenario would be to simply allow Libya to separate into two smaller states, focused around Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east. This would, however, leave Gaddafi in control of part of the country—obviously not an ideal solution in light of the possibilities it would afford him to attempt the subversion and destabilization of Cyrenaica, or to engage in a number of similarly destabilizing ventures in the region and beyond. In addition, this scenario would require a commitment from the international coalition to protect Cyrenaica—certainly not a prospect either the United States or the European Union would be enamored of.

A third possible scenario involves a somewhat patient process of gradually undermining the credibility and prospects of the Gaddafi regime over time. This means systematically undercutting the regime’s traditional methods of using patronage for its survival as international sanctions take hold and Gaddafi’s financial resources are depleted, and hoping that eventually internal desertions and perhaps a palace coup would take place within the inner circles of the regime.

As individuals around Gaddafi and his remaining supporters start to make calculations, much will hinge on the perception of his staying power. The language he has used still resonates with his supporters and should not be dismissed cavalierly. Whether it will resonate strongly enough when challenged by the everyday difficulties of living in a country that is isolated, and unable to sell its oil or eventually to provide the necessities of daily life, remains unknown. But if the growing discontent during the sanctions Libya endured in the 1980s and ’90s are any indication, the regime will need to provide safety valves it may no longer possess in light of its current isolation.

Encouraging desertions, like that of Moussa Koussa, the country’s former foreign minister and intelligence chief, are part and parcel of a psychological war to convince supporters of the regime that in the long run they are on the wrong side of history, something Hillary Clinton has been repeating on a number of occasions.

The final scenario is one that may prove the least attractive for many Libyans, but more attractive to the many parties now involved in the conflict. It is perhaps also the most promising for the future of the country, and would certainly minimize the dislocations and potential infighting some of the other scenarios entail. It consists essentially of a diplomatic compromise whereby Gaddafi (and his family and closest confidants) would depart into exile. The range of countries willing to accept this sordid entourage would be tiny, made even smaller by the fact that the Libyan leader would undoubtedly try to find asylum in a country that does not recognize the authority of the International Criminal Court.

Although many would undoubtedly consider this a repugnant solution to the Libyan conflict, it would serve to keep the country unified without exacerbating differences between its two most powerful provinces. It would put a halt to further destruction of the country’s economy and oil infrastructure, and offer a better possibility of psychological closure for all Libyan citizens than the other scenarios. Libyans would still face the daunting task of creating a new government, designing new arrangements that will allow the different provinces and groups within the country to work together in a post-Gaddafi world and to embark on a process of state building that will be monumentally difficult. But they would do so knowing they have avoided a protracted civil war, with all its deep and lasting wounds.

A stalemate in Libya is neither in the interest of its citizens nor in the interest of the international community. There are a number of other pressing matters that may seem peripheral to the struggle in Libya but that are undoubtedly on the minds of the West (and the Europeans, in particular). One is oil. On April 8, prices for crude oil for May deliveries jumped to $112.79 a barrel, sparked in part by a perception that Libyan oil production has been jeopardized for months if not years—and that some of the fields may never be brought back into production if severely damaged. Lacking a technical assessment of the damage already done to Libyan fields, the uncertainty pushed prices higher, as did Europe’s fear about finding adequate high-quality, low-sulfur oil that its refineries can handle.

We should realize that Libya’s survival and its reconstruction as a unified country will depend not only on how its own citizens deal with the ongoing conflict but also on the careful planning and assistance of outside powers. In getting beyond the current stalemate, the international community must think hard about the scenarios it can pursue—and then resolutely move forward with one.

Vandewalle, a professor at Dartmouth College, is author of A History of Modern Libya, published by Cambridge University Press.