Britain leads NATO effort to find Libya exit strategy

The British government yesterday recognized Libya's rebel government and freed up nearly $150 million in frozen assets for the rebels' use.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Libyan opposition supporters chant anti-Qaddafi slogans as they stands outside Libya's embassy in London, Wednesday, July 27. The British government says it is expelling all remaining staff from the Libyan embassy in London, as it recognizes the country's rebel National Transitional Council as the legitimate national government for Libya.

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In one swoop, Britain has recognized Libya's rebel government, expelled the remaining London diplomatic staff of the Tripoli-based regime, and freed up millions in assets that can now be funneled to the cash-strapped rebel troops.

Amid a weeks-long stalemate, diplomatic activity seems to have stepped up. This is likely partially because Ramadan begins next week, which will force NATO forces to scale down the fighting as most of Libya begins the month-long daily fast. The US and France have already recognized the rebel government.

"This decision reflects the national transitional council's increasing legitimacy, competence and success in reaching out to Libyans across the country," Foreign Secretary William Hague said Wednesday, according to the Guardian.

"Through its actions, the national transitional council has shown its commitment to a more open and democratic Libya, something that it is working to achieve in an inclusive political process. This is in stark contrast to Gaddafi, whose brutality against the Libyan people has stripped him of all legitimacy."

Tripoli condemned the UK's decision, called it "irresponsible and illegal" and vowed to contest it in the courts, Agence France-Presse reports.

The decision frees up $147 million in British assets that belong to a Libyan oil firm now under control of the National Transitional Council (NTC), according to the Guardian.

Mr. Hague also said that the British mission to Libya in Benghazi, its second largest diplomatic mission in North Africa after Cairo, will be upgraded to an embassy if the rebel government requests it.

Meanwhile, NTC leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil also said Wednesday that while the rebels had offered to allow Muammar Qaddafi to remain in the country if he stepped down, the offer had a deadline that has now passed, Reuters reports.

Hague's announcement "came against the backdrop of Britain and other NATO partners clearly revising positions and watering down demands as they seek to end a military campaign that risks dragging on indefinitely," Bruce Crumley writes in Time, describing the NATO mission a "slog." In a column the day before, Mr. Crumley says that Western nations are trying to get the international community used to the idea that despite their intervention, Qaddafi may not be going anywhere.

Indeed, it's becoming increasingly clear as the weeks rush by that battle-weary European partners in the intervention force are keener to find ways of ending the conflict and pull forces back home than they are to obtain their initial objectives of seeing Gaddafi deposed and forced abroad. The upshot is the sound of diplomatic throats being cleared ever louder to prepare public opinion for the now-probable scenario of the operation ending without Gaddafi having budged much.

Expelling the Tripoli representatives in London is a "gamble" for Hague, Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall writes. His bold statements are meant to remove widespread doubts about the wisdom of the NATO mission and convince British citizens that success in Libya is "only a matter of time."

Now Hague has gone back on the offensive, stripping Gaddafi of international legitimacy and making clear that any peace settlement in Libya must be struck, first and foremost, under the auspices and with the full agreement of the NTC, as the only credible representative of the Libyan people. Hague was saying to the military and political figures around Gaddafi: the game is up, you have no future. It's time to accept that, cut your losses, and make a deal. …

All this leaves him very exposed if things don't go according to plan, or drag on indefinitely at ever greater cost. Hague admitted indirectly that Britain and its allies have no actual control over what happens next in Libya. That is ultimately up to the Libyan people, and their collective wishes are difficult to gauge.

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