As the Libya conflict enters its third month, Whitehall is full of whispered talk of secret defections and cloak-and-dagger deals with more “reasonable” elements within the much-weakened Tripoli regime. The embattled sons of Muammar Gaddafi are looking for a way out, and may even be prepared to dump their father to save their own skins – or so the grapevine has it.
Back door deal: Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.
Security analysts and diplomatic insiders see things differently. It’s clear, they say, that after weeks of inconclusive conflict, neither side can win a military victory. Without a western ground invasion, the rebels are not strong enough to dislodge Gaddafi. So instead, Britain and the US are increasingly engaged in psychological warfare in the hope of fomenting internal dissension and regime collapse. This campaign includes disinformation about the other side’s intentions.
The revamped approach apparently scored a big success this week with the defection of Moussa Koussa, Gaddafi’s foreign minister. But two can play at this game. Gaddafi’s most prominent sons, Saif al-Islam and Mutassim, the national security adviser, were also waging their own “war of nerves”, the sources said. They appeared to be calculating that the Nato-led coalition will run out of time, split apart, and forfeit crucial Arab and domestic support.
Far from genuinely looking for a solution, the brothers’ strategy comprises unofficial “back door” offers of time-consuming talks, floating vague ideas of an “honourable” exit for their father, and impracticable suggestions that they could help form a unity government, the sources suggested.
“Psychological warfare is being waged by western governments in order to hasten the crumbling of the regime,” said Jonathan Eyal, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “The big hope for western strategy is to avoid a drift into stalemate and avoid putting boots on the ground and hope it [the regime] collapses from within.
“But they don’t have much time. So they are saying, look, the foreign minister has defected to London, there are lots of other defections, look, the [regime] structure is folding. They say this to sow confusion in Tripoli and also to reassure the media, people like yourselves, that they know what they are doing. The London conference [on Libya last Monday] delivered the same message,” Eyal said. “There is a slight element of hype. It suits western governments to fluff it up as much as possible.”
A diplomatic source with close knowledge of Libya expressed scepticism about uncorroborated suggestions that Saif, Mutassim and another Gaddafi son, Saadi, had proposed a deal in which they would stay in office but their father would give up real power.
The Guardian disclosed on Friday that one of Saif’s close aides, Mohammed Ismail, has held talks in London with government officials.
“Saif has had to do what his dad says,” the source said. “He’s had to choose between family loyalties and the need for reform and bringing Libya up to date. For the past eight or nine years, he chose reform. But blood has proved stronger.”
The idea of a national unity government including Gaddafi’s sons and members of the rebels’ national council was probably unworkable and would not satisfy the western coalition as, under that scenario, the Gaddafi clan would have survived in power. At the same time, the sons were too tainted by their close association with the regime to hope to successfully distance themselves from it at this late stage, the source added.
“It’s a pretty dire look-out for all the brothers. No one wants them. Where would they live? What sort of life would it be? We can’t just tell them to surrender and come to the UK. The law would catch up with them,” the source said.
“There are a lot of rumours being put about. A lot of material has been put in play. The fact is, they [the Nato coalition] have not had a lot of success in getting rid of Gaddafi. They don’t want to put boots on the ground. They’ve said they’re going to do it legally. But they can’t do it militarily. So they’ve found other means of proceeding.”
Psychological pressure on the regime increased significantly on Thursday when the New York Times and the Washington Post had stories, quoting unidentified US officials, claiming that Barack Obama had secretly authorised covert operations inside Libya to assist the rebels. David Cameron’s statement this week that Britain has not ruled out supplying arms to the rebels in eastern Libya also appeared to be part of the escalating war of nerves. No weapons have actually been sent.
Eyal said it was likely Gaddafi’s sons were also pursuing a form of psychological warfare by making proposals that could deflect the US and Britain from their purpose of removing Gaddafi.
“It’s plausible that feelers [about a deal] are being put out. But it’s unlikely anyone is going to like it. It would indicate a certain sense of desperation in the Gaddafi ranks,” Eyal said.
“It may also be an attempt to divide the coalition and knock out the Arab countries. The Arabs are hardly involved already. What the regime is saying to the Arab world is that there could be a reasonable deal on the table and the west won’t take it. They want to turn the conflict into the west versus the Arabs.”