That was the question that a panel of experts organized by the Middle East Institute endeavored to answer as Barack Obama was delivering his landmark Middle East speech Thursday. Panelists, including Paul Pillar, Jeffrey White, and U.S. Representative of the Transitional National Council of Libya and former Libyan ambassador to the U.S. Ali Suleiman Aujali, discussed the progress of Libya’s civil war to date and the challenges that must be overcome if it is to be brought to a peaceful and desirable resolution.
In Mr. White’s presentation, he outlined four possible outcomes to the civil war. They are:
- The forces of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime steadily weaken and eventually dissolve, leading to victory for the rebels. This process would take several more weeks if not months.
- The regime collapses suddenly and without warning, causing an immediate rebel victory.
- The war becomes a true stalemate. In this outcome, any peace would likely involve a partition of the country along East-West geographic lines.
- The regime makes a comeback, gaining a military advantage and ultimately crushing the rebellion.
While they differed on the probability and desirability of each of these outcomes, the panelists agreed on its basic framework. There was universal agreement that outcome 2 would be ideal. Mr. White argued that this result could have been achieved with a more robust initial military intervention by NATO, but this opportunity has been squandered by allowing Gaddafi’s forces to adapt to NATO airstrikes. A swift collapse remains possible, particularly through increased efforts to encourage members of the regime to abandon Gaddafi, as former Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa did in March.
Outcome 1 is more likely, however. According to Mr. White, the rebels are winning a war of attrition against the regime, as they are steadily becoming a more cohesive fighting force while the regime has reached the limit of its ability to further adapt. Though an eventual rebel victory seems much more likely than a Gaddafi triumph (outcome 4), it would require an extended civil war and would lead to many more lives being lost. For this reason, Mr. Pillar argued that if the U.S.’s primary goal is a humanitarian one, as it and the UN Security Council’s resolution have stated, then outcome 3 would be preferable to 1. Ending the war quickly through a peace settlement with the regime would only be possible if the condition that Gaddafi resign before negotiations take place were removed. Thus, it might be necessary to leave Gaddafi in power in order to save the most lives, even if this results in a fractured Libyan state. Mr. White looked much less favorably on outcome 3, pointing out that such a partition would only lead to further conflict in the future.
Arriving late to the panel after attending President Obama’s speech was Mr. Aujali, easily the most optimistic of the three speakers. He stated definitively that the civil war would end in a rebel victory of some kind, and made a case for the continued American support of the Transitional National Council. Mr. Aujali implored the U.S. to help expedite the fall of the regime by giving the TNC access to frozen Libyan funds, training the rebel forces and providing humanitarian assistance to Libyans in need.
The U.S. has already committed to supporting the rebels, and debates about whether the initial NATO intervention was executed correctly or should have happened at all are now moot. Yet there are still essential questions that the U.S. must now answer in shaping the future of its Libya policy. How important is it for there to be an outright rebel victory? What means is NATO willing and able to use to see this outcome achieved? How long will the U.S. continue to intervene in Libya if it appears that the war is approaching a stalemate?
We welcome your comments on these questions and the Libya situation overall.