Libya's rebels continue to roll up diplomatic success and are showing signs of taking the fight to Muammar Qaddafi's troops in a growing number of locations in western Libya, where Qaddafi was firmly in control when the NATO no-fly zone was imposed over the country on March 17.
While the rebels were preparing to host the German foreign minister in Benghazi today, Qaddafi was being shown on Syrian state TV playing chess with Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the Russian president of the World Chess Federation who often recounts his cordial meetings with extraterrestrials.
Unless Mr. Ilyumzhinov's friends are going to come to Qaddafi's aid, the rebels had a better day of it. Germany Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was the latest in a string of diplomats to recognize the rebels in their de facto capital. Germany declared the Transitional National Council is the "legitimate representative" of the Libyan government. Though the council is self-appointed, German recognition, following that of France and Italy, is part of an effort to bolster the group of businessmen, lawyers, and officials who defected from Qaddafi's regime as a focal point for transition if and when Qaddafi goes.
And last week, even the US inched toward recognizing the TNC. The Obama administration has been more reticent in its dealings with the rebels than many of its European partners, but last week Hillary Clinton described the group as the "legitimate interlocutors" of the Libyan people.
At the end of last week Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan strongly implied in a television interview that his country had reached out to Qaddafi and offered him safe haven somewhere if he left Libya (though that's hard to square with threats against Qaddafi for war crimes from the International Criminal Court). Turkey has had major trade ties with Qaddafi's Libya and Turkish construction companies had extensive ongoing government contracts in the country at the time of the uprising.
Qaddafi has given no public indications he'll cede power, but Turkey's steady move away from Qaddafi has burned a lot of its bridges. The regional diplomatic player with the growing business footprint has made a clear bet against him.
While the ongoing fighting is often described as a stalemate, it certainly appears the rebel footprint has expanded substantially thanks to NATO air cover. When the NATO air campaign began, the eastern city of Benghazi was the rebellion's western flank, with the besieged western town of Misurata the last real vestige of armed resistance to Qaddafi's forces in the west. His victories close to Tripoli were what emboldened him to send tank columns and rocket launchers against Benghazi – a force that was entering the city when it was devastated by NATO airstrikes.
Those attacks prevented the city from being overrun. And in the 10 weeks since, haltingly and reversibly to be sure, the rebels have spread out again. The siege of Misurata, a port town 100 miles east of Tripoli and Libya's third largest, has been largely broken after claiming more than 1,000 lives. In the past few days, rebels have pushed on Zawiyah, about 20 miles west of Tripoli.
Though the government has held on so far, losing a city to the west of Tripoli while its positions near Misurata have grown shaky, would be fairly disastrous. To the south of Tripoli, in the Nafusa Mountains, many of the towns also now appear to be in rebel hands. There's been fierce fighting there in recent days, and the true picture is hard to discern.
But the overall situation has steadily improved for the rebels in recent weeks, and eroded for Qaddafi. This is not to guarantee that he couldn't find a way to turn the situation to his advantage – the rebels, though improving, remain a poorly led militia force. But that steady progress is not a stalemate.