UN dilemma: To back or not to back Libyan fighters

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 fighters or leave them in the lurch.nalysts and UN diplomats warn that if the United States, 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 fighters from measures intended to punish 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,” said David Bosco of American University in Washington.UN diplomats told Reuters that 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 fighters by exempting them from the UN sanctions.

Asked what options the Western powers and their allies have to help the fighters, 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.” But 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 fighters on the pretext of helping the fighters protect civilians, which some Western envoys say would be justified under a loophole in the UN sanctions.A Libyan fighters’ spokesman spoke about such a deal last week, but Italy denied it. The leader of the Libyan fighters later retracted that statement and suggested the spokesman had not expressed himself properly.Some Western diplomats argue 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 fighters in the short term,” a diplomat told Reuters.In theory, there is also the possibility of NATO bypassing the Security Council and deploying ground troops to help the fighters. 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 United States 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 fighters 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 freedom fighters. The fighters 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 told Reuters 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 United States, Britain, France and their allies are now stuck with an arms embargo and sanctions against Libya’s National Oil Corporation that are making it difficult for the fighters to get weapons and funds. Traders say that market participants are reluctant to touch any Libyan oil these days.A member of the Libyan fighters’ oil and gas support group told Reuters that they are receiving cash for oil shipped from the fighters-held east via a Qatari trust fund.But the cash-strapped fighters continue to seek sustainable funding mechanisms given that there is little hope of the Security Council adjusting its sanctions regime anytime soon. – Arabnews