The International Criminal Court's decision to issue arrest warrants for Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam, and his intelligence chief could complicate efforts to secure his departure. Now, if he were decide to give up, there will be fewer safe places for him to go.
But that's not how Libya's rebels see it. They're overjoyed at the latest international effort to isolate the long-time dictator, say he was always unlikely to leave his post any other way than feet first, and have been adamant that Qaddafi isn't to be negotiated with. That's a position that rebel representative Mahmoud Shammam reiterated today in Paris. "I don't think there is any place for direct or indirect contact with Qaddafi," he told reporters.
The ICC announcement touched off celebrations in Benghazi and other eastern towns that are out of the grip of the central government. Meanwhile, the rebels appeared to scored a major victory in the west, where local antigovernment militias have been enjoying a revival in recent weeks, thanks to NATO air strikes that appear to be eroding Qaddafi's ability to project force.
The Los Angeles Times' Borzou Daraghi reports from the Nafusa mountains in the west that rebels "seized control of and pillaged a massive weapons depot Tuesday morning after a short desert battle with troops loyal" to Qaddafi. Al Jazeera English's Johan Hull was also on the scene. He writes that tons of weapons were hauled away into the mountains from the site by rebels, using hundreds of cars. The booty included two Russian-made T-55 tanks. "Seems every man with wheels took part in the haul," he wrote on Twitter. "Will swell morale in the mountains and perhaps add to momentum."
The rebel victory took place just south of Zintan, which is in turn about 90 miles from Tripoli. While the rebels quickly withdrew, it shows that they're knocking at the door of Qaddafi's principal stronghold and have the ability to put pressure on the lifeblood of his crackdown – his weapons.
A month ago, the uprising in the west was in disarray, the city of Misurata a lone holdout, its neighborhoods consistently peppered with rocket and mortar fire as the local irregulars desperately hung on. Today, fighters in Misurata have pushed Qaddafi's forces out of range of most of that town, and in the Nafusa mountains the rebellion is clearly gaining steam again.
While Qaddafi is believed to have a complex network of bunkers in Tripoli, and his occasional public pronouncements have been as defiant as ever, his situation hasn't been this dire since mid-February, when a spontaneous uprising appeared set to sweep him away quickly. In that instance, he regrouped, maintained control over fighters loyal to his sons, and relentlessly bombarded rebel towns. Today, his ability to move tanks and troops through Libya's featureless desert has been reined in by NATO.
When I was in Libya in February and March, I was skeptical about the efforts of the Transitional National Council, the rebel leadership group, to work on drafting an interim Constitution and talking about what sort of government should take shape after Qaddafi fell from power. They had to win their war first, was my thought, and focusing on anything else seemed a little fanciful.
But now those efforts are gaining in urgency and importance. If and when Qaddafi's regime falls, it will be fast, and messy. Die-hard loyalists will remain armed, and the chance for score-settling by the victors can't be discounted. The machinery of Qaddafi's government has relied on torture and murder for decades, the country's institutions are rotten to the core.
Rebel leaders in Benghazi told Gert Van Langendonck last week that they're taking steps to get ready for the day after. Aware that they've been largely cut off from the western rebels, they said they would expand their group to include western figures, and also pledged not to stand for elections when the work of building a new government in Libya begins.
In an email, Gert told me that rebels in the west (he left the Nafusa mountains yesterday) are also talking about encouraging an uprising in Tripoli itself, that men there are willing and able to take the chance. In February, brutal measures were taken by Qaddafi's men to stop demonstrators from gathering outside. He turned parts of the city into a free-fire zone, where everyone who dared go outside risked a bullet for their pains.
Whether they're right or that's wishful thinking is hard to say. But Libya's war can't be characterized as a stalemate any more.