NATO may have gotten the best news it’s had in a long while from Libya — or more accurately, Tunisia. Moammar Gaddafi’s oil minister, Shokri Ghanem, has apparently fled the country and may have defected to the rebels. Ghanem traveled to Tunisia on “personal business” and is apparently not taking Gaddafi’s phone calls any longer:
Reports that a top official in the government of Moammar Gaddafi has defected gained strength here Tuesday, as a spokesman for the Libyan government said the regime has been unable to make contact with the man.
Shokri Ghanem, Libya’s top oil official, left Libya on Monday to go to Tunisia on “official business,” said Moussa Ibrahim, spokesman for the Libyan government. Ibrahim told The Washington Post that Libya had not been able to reach Ghanem since Monday night. …
Neji Zairi, a spokesman for the Tunisian Interior Ministry, said Ghanem had entered Tunisia on Saturday with his family on a personal visit, according to registration information at the Ras Jdir border control post. Zairi said that Ghanem had left the Tunisian resort area of Djerba on Tuesday morning but that he did not know his precise whereabouts.
“He’s still in Tunisia,” Zairi said. “I don’t know what he’s doing.”
Ghanem’s defection, if confirmed, would be the highest-profile departure from Gaddafi’s embattled government since Musa Kusa, the foreign minister, sought safe haven in London at the end of March.
Leaked cables from the US State Department discussed the possibility of a challenge to Gaddafi from Ghanem long before the rebellion started. Going into exile may not be the best way to accomplish that now, but if Ghanem joins the rebels, it will give them more legitimacy, if not more firepower. As the conflict’s stalemate slowly trudges along, any advantage or disadvantage to either side has a disproportionate impact on recruitment and resolve.
But make no mistake — the Libyan civil war has turned into a stalemate despite Western intervention, or more likely because of it. McClatchy reports that NATO expects the stalemate to continue for a long time, too:
Two months and nearly 7,000 air sorties later, the international military campaign has stopped a potentially devastating massacre in Benghazi, allowed humanitarian aid into besieged civilian areas and helped the rebels keep their hold on eastern Libya.
But Gadhafi, hunkered down in his heavily fortified bastion in the western capital, Tripoli, betrays no sign of ceding power. His loyalists, though weakened, continue to bombard the opposition’s scattered outposts in the west.
When the United States and its European and Arab allies launched the air war, President Barack Obama said that U.S. forces would carry out “a limited military action … to protect Libyan civilians.” Today that military effort continues under NATO command, but with no coalition nation willing to commit ground forces or substantially more firepower, there’s no clear end in sight.
This kind of stalemate favors the side with the stronger military, both in terms of waging siege warfare and in resolve:
The rebel’s ad hoc ranks of civilians and army defectors have tenuous supply lines, minimal contact with Benghazi and, their commanders acknowledge, little hope of advancing on Tripoli. …
There are faint signs that Gadhafi’s grip on Tripoli could weaken. This week, prosecutors of the International Criminal Court asked judges to issue arrest warrants for Gadhafi, his son and brother-in-law, while the chief of the British armed forces called for NATO members to expand the range of bombing targets to include Gadhafi’s infrastructure, not just military targets.
Rebels have appealed to the US to unfreeze Libyan funds to allow them access to the money. So far, the US has been reluctant to do so, perhaps because even now no one seems sure what the rebels represent. Are they a freedom-loving force looking to install a representative democracy in Libya in a similar manner to Tunisia, or are they Islamists who want to install a regime hostile to the West? They could even be monarchists; some in Tripoli have hauled out the old royal flag as a protest against the regime.
NATO seems equally unsure even now of its mission in Libya. They still claim that the intervention is to protect civilians, but targeting infrastructure in Tripoli would certainly mean more collateral deaths of civilians in the capital. That target selection makes sense for pressing regime change, which goes beyond the UN mandate and which everyone still insists is not the mission. Until everyone understands what the stakes and objectives in this effort are, it’s not going to make any progress one way or the other, and we’ll still be talking about a stalemated civil war in 2012.