U.S. officials: A rebel victory is now the least likely way that Qaddafi will leave power

Well … yes, we’ve known that for awhile now, haven’t we? If you read the LA Times story in Headlines this morning about rebel morale starting to crumble (“Kadafi is too strong for us, with too many heavy weapons”), you’d know how unlikely a march to Tripoli has become. Anyway, the bad news: Our strategy now seems to be aimed at achieving … a stalemate, essentially. By our own admission, the rebels probably can’t knock Qaddafi out even with NATO air support targeting the regime’s armor and artillery. So instead of taking him down, the plan appears to be to convince him and his inner circle that they’ll never regain total control over the country and therefore might as well give up. The best they can hope for is a fluid stalemate, with NATO protecting Benghazi from the air while towns like Misurata and Ras Lanuf and Ajdabiya change hands periodically. Meanwhile, regime officials will live in fear of being killed by airstrikes and sanctions will cut them off from their oil riches. That’s no way to exist when you’re used to absolute power. So why not quit? What fun is an endless stalemate? That’s our strategy.

The good news: David Brooks will have you know that Reinhold Niebuhr very much would have approved of this mission. So we’ve got that going for us.

Though the TV images of rebels are understandably what the media has been focused on, US government officials tell ABC News that a military victory by the rebels is the least likely of three paths to Gadhafi stepping down.

The first and probably the most likely path would be is Gadhafi stepping down on his own, officials say, brought into exile with promises of immunity from prosecution, access to funds, a potentially cushy life. It would be politically difficult for the Obama adminstration to be part of such a deal, but Obama administration officials haven’t ruled out the possibility of a “soft landing” for Gadhafi…

Officials say there are more indications this week that Gahdafi’s inner circle is “rattled and skittish,” as one official put it…

This leads us to the second most likely path of Gadhafi’s exit – his being removed – by those around him, jailed, shoved into a plane, carried out on his feet or in a bag.

The Telegraph’s already got a list of officials who are expected to defect soon, so yeah, collapsing the regime by slowly removing its support beams is possible. Qaddafi himself is allegedly a “wreck,” according to recent defector Musa Kusa, although who knows if that’s true or just something he’s telling his new British custodians. One question, though: If things inside Qaddafiland are really so fragile, why didn’t they accept the rebels’ offer of a conditional ceasefire this morning? The regime could have used that as a breather to take stock of its remaining inner circle, resupply itself with mercenaries, and maybe cool things off to the point where NATO starts to slow down operations and becomes reluctant to dive back in. The rebels would be training in the meantime, but they’re not going to learn anything in a month or two that will thwart the next Qaddafi offensive. Instead, the regime responded this way:

“They are asking us to withdraw from our own cities and open our cities to people, who are holding up arms, who are tribal, violent, no unified leadership, al Qaeda links, and no one knows who they are. If this is not mad, then I don’t know what it is,” he said. “We will not leave our cities. We will not stop protecting our civilians.”

Ibrahim added that the Libyan government is ready for peace.

Sources close to Gadhafi told CNN that political solutions are still possible but that the Libyan leader would relinquish power only to others within his inner circle

Any transition, they said, would involve Gadhafi’s second son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, and for such a transition to take place there would first have to be an end to the fighting.

Needless to say, Qaddafi handing off to Qaddafi Jr isn’t a sustainable solution. You might be able to avoid an insurgency by one side or the other if some sort of unity government featuring regime underlings and rebel leaders was put in place, but after 42 years of totalitarian rule by one Qaddafi, there’s simply no way Libyans are going to risk power in the hands of another. And at the rate we’re going with defections of top officials, we may end up with a scenario where there’s no one left inside the regime to join that government except guys named “Qaddafi.” Which leaves us … where, exactly?

Update: Like I was saying:

Gaddafi’s son Saif has made ‘repeated’ attempts to reach out to British and Italian intelligence officers, it was claimed yesterday.

The moves have raised hopes he is considering betraying his father.

British officials and MI6 officers say they have held ‘several’ conversations with close allies of Gaddafi’s heir over the past three weeks – and have indicated they are prepared to offer the family an exit route.

They sent the stark message that Saif can play no role in the future of Libya.

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