A stalemate on the battlefields of Libya and a political deadlock on the UN Security Council have left Western powers with a stark choice — covertly aid the rebels or leave them in the lurch.
Analysts and UN diplomats warn that if the US, Britain, France or their allies were to exploit loopholes in, or secretly circumvent, a sanctions regime they themselves engineered in February and March, it could prompt Russia or China to adopt a similar stance on the sanctions against Iran.
Russia and China, both veto-wielding permanent members of the 15-nation Security Council, have become increasingly critical of the NATO-led operation to protect civilians in OPEC member Libya, which they have suggested appears to be killing more civilians than it is intended to protect.
The Security Council’s Libya sanctions committee could move to exempt the rebels from measures intended to punish Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s government, but one envoy said the “political atmospherics have changed.” Russia and China, which reluctantly abstained on a vote to approve military action, have run out of patience and are unlikely to support any adjustments of the sanctions.
“The problem for the West is that several key players on the council now feel that the authority they granted was abused and they’re not inclined to help the West extricate itself,” David Bosco of American University in Washington said.
UN diplomats said Russia and China, which complain that NATO is going beyond its UN mandate to protect civilians and really wants “regime change” and Qaddafi’s ouster, have made clear that they would block any attempt to aid the rebels by exempting them from the UN sanctions.
Asked what options the Western powers and their allies have to help the rebels, a council diplomat said on condition of anonymity: “Covert aid. That’s really our only option now. Or hope that a political solution to the impasse emerges that will lead to Qaddafi’s departure. That would change everything.”
However, there are no signs that a political solution is in the works, and Qaddafi and his sons are refusing to step down.
There have already been suggestions that Italy and others have reached deals to arm the rebels on the pretext of helping the rebels protect civilians, which some Western envoys say would be justified under a loophole in the UN sanctions.
A Libyan rebel spokesman spoke about such a deal last week, but Italy denied it. The leader of the Libyan rebel forces later retracted that statement and suggested the spokesman had not expressed himself properly.
Some Western diplomats say that covertly flouting the UN sanctions regime would set a bad precedent that could come back to haunt Western powers as they demand stricter Chinese and Russian compliance with sanctions on Iran and North Korea.
“Our behavior should be exemplary as we think about creating precedents for the future, even if it’s more difficult for the rebels in the short term,” a diplomat said.
In theory, there is also the possibility of NATO bypassing the Security Council and deploying ground troops to help the rebels. Russia has repeatedly warned NATO against such moves, and UN envoys say it could be domestic political suicide for the leaders of France, Britain or the US to send in ground troops.
When the Security Council imposed sanctions against Qaddafi, his family and inner circle in February and military intervention to protect civilians in March, UN diplomats had hoped the rebels would swiftly topple the Libyan leader.
But nearly two months after NATO-led airstrikes on Qaddafi’s forces began, Western military might has failed to tip the balance in favor of the rag-tag rebel troops. The rebels are entrenched in the east of the country, while Qaddafi controls the west, leading to a de facto partition of Libya.
“We were hoping this thing would be over in two weeks,” a Security Council diplomat said about the March 17 vote that authorized the use of “all necessary measures” — diplomatic code for military force — to protect civilians in Libya.
“The sanctions were not intended for a divided Libya,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Another diplomat said that the Western powers had been convinced the Libya conflict could resolve itself quickly as happened in Egypt and Tunisia, where the leaders of both countries stepped down in the face of massive pressure from protesters.
Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, there was no swift ouster of Qaddafi. The Libyan conflict is now a full-blown civil war.
The US, Britain, France and their allies are now stuck with an arms embargo and sanctions against Libya’s National Oil Corp that are making it difficult for the rebels to get weapons and funds. Traders say that market participants are reluctant to touch any Libyan oil these days.
A member of the Libyan rebels’ oil and gas support group said that they are receiving cash for oil shipped from the rebel-held east via a Qatari trust fund.
However, the cash-strapped rebels continue to seek sustainable funding mechanisms given that there is little hope of the Security Council adjusting its sanctions regime anytime soon.