Break the Libya stalemate

IssueJuly / August 2011
Feature by Milan Rai , Emily Johns

As PN went to press, over three months into the NATO war on Libya, Libyan rebels said that they were expecting a new peace proposal from the regime, transmitted via a special committee of the African Union (AU), which met to discuss the conflict on 26 June.

The key issue is whether the rebels (and their British and French backers) will maintain their position that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi (and his family) must not only leave power, but leave the country, before a ceasefire and substantive negotiations.

On 22 June, Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign minister, called on the two sides in Libya to “quickly cease hostilities, and resolve the Libyan crisis through political channels.” Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister, announced in parliament that the Berlusconi government would support an immediate cessation of hostilities to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians, if supported by the AU, the Arab League, the UN and the European Union. The outgoing head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa said on the same day: “Now is the time to do whatever we can to reach a political solution. That has to start with a genuine ceasefire under international supervision.”

At the end of May, Libyan prime minister Al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi wrote to Britain, France and other governments proposing an immediate ceasefire monitored by the United Nations and the African Union, unconditional talks with rebel forces, an amnesty for all fighters, compensation for victims of the civil war and the formation of a new constitution for a “radically different” Libya. This offer was rejected out of hand by the NATO powers.

An attempt by the AU to pass a resolution at the UN security council calling for “an immediate humanitarian pause in fighting” in mid-June was similarly blocked by the western powers. Interestingly, back in April, Libya’s foreign minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi said the country could hold free elections, supervised by the UN, within six months of the conflict ending. In contrast, the vice-chair of the rebel national transitional council, Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, said at the end of May that the council might not hold elections for two years after taking control of the country. His remarks provoked protests from other rebel leaders.


Both president Nicolas Sarkozy of France and US president Barack Obama are under some political pressure to end the war soon, with electoral cycles beginning this autumn, and the British military has warned that “challenging [budgetary] decisions” (admiral Mark Stanhope, first sea lord) would be needed to continue British participation in the Libya war beyond the summer. On 23 June, the British government stated that the war had so far cost £260 million, or around £1,000 a minute.

While there has been a steady stream of defections from the Gaddafi regime, and Britain and France have escalated their military intervention, rebel forces on the ground show no signs of being able to break the military stalemate that has existed since the end of March. On 5 June, British foreign secretary William Hague refused to rule out the possibility that the war might continue into 2012.

It is generally believed that it would be politically impossible for the NATO powers to intervene more heavily to speed up Gaddafi’s fall. A poll by the Financial Times in late June found that any attempt by NATO to widen its campaign in Libya, either by bombing non-military targets or by sending in troops, would be opposed by a majority of citizens in major European states and the US. 53% of Britons and 65% of French people opposed the bombing of non-military targets such as the power supply in Tripoli.