Libya’s warring sides opened a new and critical front in the deepening conflict there. Muammar Qaddafi and rebels trying to oust him sent envoys to European capitals to sway the debate over potential international military involvement in Libya, a day ahead of a European Union summit that could well determine the future of the crisis.
The Provisional Transitional National Council based in the eastern city of Benghazi scored first on Thursday with the official French recognition of the rebel movement as the rightful Libyan regime. Simultaneously, France and the UK also unsuccessfully pressed their allies in NATO to support a no-fly zone.
A Spanish official also met with rebels in Bengazi, according to anonymous government sources quoted in local media. And Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero refused to take a call from Mr. Qaddafi Wednesday.
Qaddafi’s envoys, however, were welcomed in Portugal, Malta, and Greece, reportedly with previous knowledge of EU officials. All three countries have close relations with Tripoli. Portugal, who hosted the Libyan emissary Wednesday night, also heads the United Nation’s Security Council sanctions committee.
Europe divided over Libya
And while all agree leaving diplomatic channels open is vital to any peaceful resolution, Europe remains too divided to make any decisive moves on Libya. While France and the UK advocate action, the majority of nations, including Germany and Spain, want Qaddafi out but are more wary of moving too fast. A smaller group with closer ties to Libya, led by Italy, is stalling.
But many security analysts and officials say it's up to Europe to lead the international effort to deal with the Libyan crisis since it has the most at stake. The US is much less exposed and is militarily strained by deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Timing is crucial as forces loyal to the embattled Libyan leader appear to be swiftly retaking the military momentum. And Friday’s EU summit in Brussels will either result empty words that embolden Qaddafi or in a roadmap to build a broader international coalition to hold him off.
“Europe is divided and stretched. There is quite the confusion,” says José Ignacio Torreblanca, senior policy fellow in the European Council on Foreign Relations and office head in Madrid. “Many are serious about reorienting policy, and others are still disoriented.”
For now though, the EU is “paralyzed,” he says. “Libya has been smart the past few years building relations. Italy and Malta depend on Libya. Malta is the Libyan Trojan Horse of the EU. And Portugal is a mediator,” says Mr. Torreblanca.
The unilateral French decision to recognize the rebel government pins Qaddafi in an all-or-nothing scenario that could backfire. “He knows that with this we have passed a point of no return,” referring to the lack of legitimacy that the Libyan leader would face even if he holds on to power. “But it puts other EU member states that haven’t recognized the rebels in a bind,” Torreblanca said. “It’s very hard to keep both sides.”
“The danger is that differences between EU member states are being played out in public,” says Richard Youngs, director of the Madrid-based think tank International Relations and Dialogue Foundation and an expert in EU-North African relations. He described the French decision as “precipitous.”
“These are delicate question that need far better consultation, and not governments making national policies on the hoof," he says.
Little appetite for no-fly zone
NATO defense ministers remain cautious on Libya. In the meeting in Brussels, countries decided to move more warships to monitor Libya’s coast, but cold feet remain on implementing a no-fly zone.
"We considered ... initial options regarding a possible no-fly zone in case NATO were to receive a clear UN mandate; ministers agreed that further planning will be required," Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said following the meeting, according to Reuters.
Europe’s big powers have 1,700 fighter jets that could be deployed against Libya, according to Torreblanca.
But NATO powers agree that a broad international consensus must precede any military operation, which would be risky and not necessarily effective in containing Qaddafi. Middle Eastern states would need to support it, along with NATO member Turkey, which remains unconvinced.
“We saw over last 10 days that there is little appetite to implement no-fly zone,” Mr. Youngs said. As Qaddafi reasserts his control though, the pro-democracy window could close, not just in Libya, but elsewhere in the region. “It could sap momentum of reform. It would be worrying that the lesson to deal with pro democracy reform is to clamp down brutally.”
For Torreblanca though, Qaddafi’s military success could translate into his downfall. “A military victory is his diplomatic defeat. As he takes the initiative, diplomacy against him is invigorated. The more it appears he’s rebuilding his forces, the stronger the international coalition will get.”
The French decision to recognize rebels could be a catalyst.
If other countries join France, which Torreblanca expects, momentum could build to allow rebel leaders to directly request a no-fly zone, which would make it a lot easier for NATO and the Security Council. “If Benghazi authorities get more recognition, and they request the no-fly zone directly, then China and Russia will have to abstain,” Torreblanca said.
“Qaddafi has the force, not the reason,” he added. “But if nothing happens, force could win.”