ANALYSIS-Gaddafi’s exit could still be months away

LONDON, June 1 (Reuters) – Western leaders are going out of their way to appear confident of success in Libya’s conflict, repeating again and again that Muammar Gaddafi’s days are numbered.

But while the conflict is unquestionably tilting against the Libyan leader, without a “lucky strike” that kills or incapacitates him — or an internal coup or assassination — there may be little immediate prospect of forcing him from power.

Facing war crimes charges and defections, Gaddafi and his immediate followers appear increasingly isolated, with Russia the latest major power to call for him to go as Western leaders talked tough at the Deauville Group of Eight meeting.

But the lack of any apparent exit strategy is likely to further entrench both Gaddafi and the forces ranged against him.

The coalition and rebels make it clear nothing less than his departure will bring a ceasefire, while the Libyan leader made it clear to visiting peace envoy South African President Jacob Zuma that he was not prepared to leave Libya.

“All sides have really nailed their colours to the mast and there doesn’t seem any mood for compromise,” said Alan Fraser, Middle East analyst for London-based risk consultancy AKE.

“The conflict is moving against Gaddafi, but it’s not going to be enough to make him go. We could be looking at six months at least, maybe much longer.”

 

Despite talk of deadlock, the battlefield has not been entirely static. Opposition forces have made modest gains in western Libya around the besieged Misrata enclave and in mountains towards the Tunisian border, while hoping to stir up uprisings in other towns in Gaddafi territory.

The arrival of more than a dozen French and British attack helicopters will allow the coalition to better pick out Gaddafi forces in complex urban battles, while new heavier bombs will help them against bunkers.

 

SHADES OF AFGHANISTAN?

While Western leaders have shied away from talk of targeting Gaddafi directly, most analysts suspect that is precisely what is happening. But it’s a risky process, not least because it heightens the chances of inadvertent civilian casualties.

Some analysts suspect Gaddafi loyalists are hoping the coalition may fracture and enthusiasm for further military engagement wane, perhaps opening a window for the leader and those close to him to hang on in power.

“We’re starting to see shades of the politics around Afghanistan,” said Ian Bremmer, president of political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, pointing to another long-running conflict that has sapped Western resources for a decade without much agreement on strategy or intended outcome.

“(Some) Gaddafi loyalists (will) think that if they can just hold out for three, six or 12 more months, they’ve got it made.”

Some Libyan officials clearly still feel the tide is turning against Gaddafi. Libya’s top energy official Shokri Ghanem appeared at a news conference in Rome on Wednesday to say he had left his job because of the “daily spilling of blood” in Libya.

But with Western troops seemingly off the agenda, the war on the ground could be decided as much by the battle for supplies of weapons, ammunition and particularly fuel. On that front, both sides may be struggling.

Gaddafi is gradually losing control of western border crossing points while deteriorating relations with Tunisia make obtaining supplies by land harder just as a tightening maritime blockade to make it all but impossible to import by sea.

But his forces remain largely better trained and armed than the opposition despite ongoing strikes on armoured vehicles and arms dumps.

 

TEST OF TIME

The Benghazi-based rebels are some $100 million richer after finally finding a buyer for an oil cargo first shipped from their territory more than a month ago which had been stuck in legal limbo as potential buyers worried over sanctions.

They are training new forces with help from Western liaison officers.

But having lost control of the key oil export ports of Brega and Ras Lanuf, they may have little more oil to sell — which could jeopardise fledgling deals to swap crude oil for refined fuel products.

Even if they have the cash, the arms embargo designed to starve Gaddafi technically applies to opposition areas as well.

Nevertheless, some arms supplies are getting through even to isolated rebel-held areas in the western mountains — with some of the weaponry appearing to come from Qatar according to a Reuters reporter with the rebels.

But few believe they are yet anything close to a war winning force.

“So far, the rebels don’t seem to really be trying to take territory,” said AKE’s Fraser. “Their strategy is much more to try to stir up uprisings in areas under Gaddafi’s control”

The United Nations said on Tuesday the government had told them food, fuel and medical supplies in Gaddafi territory were running dangerously low, describing the situation as a “time bomb”.

That could further promote unrest in western Libya, but it could also undermine support for the coalition if sanctions were blamed for hurting innocent civilians.

The battle for local, regional and global public opinion could prove just as important as any military confrontation.

“The United States and NATO have the capacity to maintain and even increase the pressure on Gaddafi’s regime,” said James Lindsay, senior vice president at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.

“Whether their political will to apply that pressure gets called into question depends on whether Qaddafi is dug in for the long run and how Western and Arab publics react to stories highlighting human suffering in those parts of Libya under Gaddafi’s control.”

“As is always the case in these situations, the longer the operation lasts the greater the probability that that some contributors rethink their participation.”