Analysts: Endgame for Libya uncertain

Libyan men celebrates on a destroyed tank belonging to the forces of Moammar Gadhafi in the outskirts of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Sunday, March 20, 2011. The tanks were destroyed earlier by U.S. and allied airstrikes. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
Anja Niedringhaus

With the coalition air strikes aimed at taking down Muammar Qaddafi's air defense and communications systems essentially done and the no-fly zone over Libya effectively complete, the focus of the U.S. and Allied intervention shifts to one central question: What now?

The absence of Qaddafi's air power has energized rebel forces and they have regained momentum in the country's east that was lost as Qaddafi ramped up his military response. The opposition has stabilized its presence in Benghazi and are looking to retake formerly held cities like Ajdabiya.

But what if Qaddafi were to remain in power in Tripoli while the rebels seized control of the eastern part of the country, and the result was a divided Libya? "I think most U.S. officials would call that a failure," CBS News national security correspondent David Martin noted.

Steven Clemons of the New American Foundation echoed that sentiment, telling the New York Times that "Barack Obama told Qaddafi to go; if Qaddafi doesn't go, America will look diminished in the eyes of the world." The New York Times.

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President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both said the Libyan leader must step down, but the unwillingness of the United States to own the coalition action is underscored by Defense Secretary Robert Gates' comments that the U.S. is expecting to hand over control of the military operations in a matter of days.

Obama administration officials say other tactics beyond the military operation - economic sanctions, an arms embargo, and efforts to fracture his support within Libya - will help serve the long-term goal of Qaddafi's exit.

CBS News national security analyst Juan Zarate says the U.S. is - publicly - talking of a limited mission to fulfill the objectives of the U.N. Security Council Resolution - trying to stop the violence waged by the Qaddafi regime against civilians, and a humanitarian mission for refugees from the fighting.

"So, in some ways, success in that regard would be implementation of the no-fly zone, implementation of the Security Council resolution, and stopping Qaddafi's march on Benghazi," said Zarate.

But he suggested the unspoken goal of Operation Odyssey Dawn is regime change.

"The real objective here seems to be toppling Qaddafi, though no one seems to want to talk about that, and certainly that's laying in the works here as we talk about the next steps," Zarate said.

Speaking to reporters Sunday, Secretary Gates sought to minimize the objectives of the Operation Odyssey Dawn to those explicitly set forth in the Security Council resolution: "If we start adding additional objectives, then I think we create a problem in that respect. I also think that it is unwise to set as specific goals things that you may or may not be able to achieve."

In other words, set out to topple Qaddafi, and fail.

Sunday's air strike against Qaddafi's compound in Tripoli also raised questions about whether the leader of Libya himself was targeted by Allied bombs. UNSC Resolution 1973 does not call for regime change, but that doesn't rule it out either.

Specifically, the resolution calls for "all necessary measures ... to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack."

Philippe Sands, a professor of law at University College London, told the Guardian that "all necessary measure" is broad enough to put the Libyan leader at personal risk, if Qaddafi's actions put "civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack."

British defense minister Liam Fox told BBC Radio that targeting Qaddafi specifically "would potentially be a possibility," though civilian casualties in such an attack would be difficult to avoid, and could be a boon to the Qaddafi regime's propaganda.

Navy Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, staff director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, denied that strikes are targeting the Libyan leader. "We are not going against Qaddafi," he told a Pentagon news conference.

But, he added, Qaddafi won't be safe if he happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, such as a surface-to-air missile site.

Zarate said it was clear that the "administration wants it to be short and sweet, they want to limit this mission."

But, he added, "It's not quite clear how this ends. If Qaddafi stays in power, we're likely to see a cat-and-mouse game of containment. If he's toppled in some way by the rebels or some other active force, then we've got perhaps chaos on our hands, with a transitional council that we're not really familiar with."

There have been fears raised that Qaddafi might retaliate against the west with terrorist acts, if he remains in power. "I think given the history of Qaddafi, given the fact that he was responsible for the La Belle Discotheque bombing [in Berlin] in 1986, behind the Pan Am 103 bombing, we have to take it seriously.

"I don't think he's in a position right now to start launching attacks, for example, on the U.S.," said Zarate. "But he's a cornered badger here, and if he's struggling for survival, and if he's able to negotiate a stalemate, we have to be very concerned about his capabilities."

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at and