Friday, 1 April 2011

1 April 2011

The anti-Gaddafi fighters racing backwards and forwards along Libya’s coastal highway are not going to win their war. That’s not exactly a prediction; let’s call it a working hypothesis.

And if we’re going to work with it, we’d better see where it takes us. Suppose they just keep advancing and retreating, day after day, week after week. One day, Brega and Ras Lanouf – places you’d never heard of a month ago – are in anti-Gaddafi hands; 24 hours later, they’re back in pro-Gaddafi hands.

Benghazi is the anti-Gaddafi capital; Tripoli is the pro-Gaddafi capital. Libya’s third largest city, Misrata, 200 kilometres east of Tripoli, is slowly being pulverised into the ground. I fear that when we finally see the pictures from there, it will not be pretty.

So, if the soldiers can’t produce a result, what about the politicians? The national transitional council in Benghazi would like to be regarded as the country’s post-Gaddafi government-in-waiting. But no one voted for them, we don’t even know who all the members are, and they haven’t yet been able to hold a meeting at which they were all present.

In Tripoli, the Gaddafi camp, or what’s left of it, continues to breathe defiance. Foreign minister Mousa Koussa is undoubtedly a high-level defection, but let’s not forget that the interior and justice ministers both switched sides early in the uprising, and they didn’t exactly bring Muammar Gaddafi to his knees.

(Thank you, by the way, to the listener who emailed last night, suggesting that we should ask one of my predecessors to interview the former foreign minister. That way, I could announce: “Now, John Tusa talks to Mousa Koussa.”)

Defections are always great propaganda coups; they give the impression of a regime unravelling. But they don’t necessarily bring down a regime. Rudolf Hess landed in Scotland in 1941, apparently in the hope that he could negotiate a peace agreement between Britain and Nazi Germany. Not exactly a defector, maybe, but he ended up in prison (he died there 46 years later, in 1987) and Hitler carried on regardless.

Mr Koussa is now said by British officials to be “in a fragile state” after his defection. According to a US embassy cable written two years ago, he was “the rare Libyan official who embodies a combination of intellectual acumen, operational ability and political weight.” He was a former head of intelligence, a former mentor to two of Colonel Gaddafi’s sons, and may well know the truth about exactly who ordered and carried out the Lockerbie bombing in 1988.

In other words, he’s a Big Cheese. If he’s prepared to talk to British officials, he doubtless has plenty of tales to tell. Most importantly for now, he could tell which other Gaddafi intimates are ready to switch; what Gaddafi’s own state of mind is; and what his sons are up to.

According to one Arab newspaper report this week, Saif al-Islam – the son who established such a close working relationship with the LSE – is now touting himself about as the possible leader of a transitional government to pave the way to democracy, once his father has been removed from power. He is said to have held “a number of secret meetings with officials in the French and British governments, discussing the idea of his replacing his father for a transitional period of between two to three years, in return for a comprehensive ceasefire and negotiating with the anti-Gaddafi rebels.”

There’s no sign at this stage that anyone is much interested in his proposal. But today there are reports that one of Saif’s senior aides has been in London recently to talk to British officials, amid what The Guardian calls “signs that the regime may be looking for an exit strategy.” Several other officials are also said to be ready to switch sides.

If they are, it may be that this uprising will be won not by force of arms, but by the gradual implosion of the State structure. There may come a point when there are more Gaddafi people leaving him than staying – it’s at that point that the game will be up.

But it’s as well to remember that in times of war, what we’re told is not always the unvarnished truth. Sowing doubts is as useful as dropping bombs if you want to weaken an army’s fighting spirit. The black arts of “pys ops” (pyschological operations) are, I’m sure, alive and well.

Perhaps, within the next few days, Muammar Gaddafi’s forces will collapse as more of his senior aides defect. On the other hand, as I wrote last week, we may be in for a long haul. The only thing we can say with any certainty is that no one at this stage can predict how – or when – it will end.

One last thing: I thought you’d like to know that The World Tonight has been shortlisted in the 2011 Sony Radio Awards in the Best News and Current Affairs programme category. In our quiet and under-stated way, we’re rather pleased.

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