It is obvious by now that the rebels cannot defeat Gaddafi’s forces. Replacing the dictatorship with a more representative government remains the best strategy for protecting civilians and advancing democracy, but that goal will not be achieved by a ragtag rebellion and limited international air support.
Coalition air strikes have had some success so far in preventing civilian massacres and providing cover for resistance forces. But the operations themselves have taken Libyan lives, and supporting the insurgents has become more difficult as Gaddafi’s defenders have shed uniforms and military vehicles. The further utility of military force is questionable.
The U.S. and NATO should pursue diplomatic options. Two of Gaddafi’s sons recently proposed a negotiated transition in which their father steps down in favor of a constitutional democracy. Most observers dismissed the offer, but it may provide an opening that could be exploited by creative diplomacy. An offer to suspend NATO-led air operations could provide powerful leverage for negotiation to gain real concessions.
The immediate goal of diplomacy should be to obtain a ceasefire and an end to the shelling of Misurata and other cities. Gaddafi has brushed aside the ceasefire offer of rebel groups, but if NATO and the Security Council were to offer a suspicion of air operations and partial lifting of sanctions, this might be persuasive. The offer would be linked to guarantees of non-retaliation and protection of civilians. The negotiations also would seek guarantees of the senior Gaddafi’s departure and a timeline for the promised transition to representative rule. The United States could offer to unfreeze a portion of Libya’s assets as a further incentive for concessions from Tripoli.
The African Union is in the best position to negotiate with Gaddafi and should be asked to serve as an intermediary for the Security Council in seeking a ceasefire and mutual stand-down of all military forces and militias. The negotiations could include the proposal to introduce an international observation force, drawn from Muslim countries, which would have a non-combat mission under UN authority to monitor the demobilization of combatants and ensure the safety of civilians.
If possible the agreement should include assurances of the right of Libyans to assemble peacefully. It might also include Libyan consent for establishing humanitarian corridors for the delivery of relief and reconstruction aid.
With military stalemate on the ground, the time is ripe to pursue diplomatic options for ending armed violence and beginning a process of political change.