Death, Prison or Exile: Gaddafi Is Out of Options

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Ivan Sekretarev / AP Photo

A portrait of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is placed behind a window as people from several African countries gather at his compound, a regular target of NATO air strikes, in the Libyan capital of Tripoli on May 30, 2011

Muammar Gaddafi's options for a peaceful exit may have finally run out. For the second time in seven weeks, South African President Jacob Zuma on Monday failed to persuade the Libyan leader to abandon his 42-year rule. Gaddafi's refusal to heed the advice of longtime friends in the African Union (AU) raises the likelihood that his reign will end either with his indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague or with his death in a NATO air strike.

Zuma had previously visited Tripoli on April 10, failing on that occasion to persuade Gaddafi to accept an AU-brokered cease-fire deal. Seven weeks later, Gaddafi's ability to dictate his terms has been hugely diminished, if not entirely smashed. Gone is the cocky, belligerent leader, whose thumping speeches were a regular feature for months on state-run Libya Television; his speech last February promising to smoke out the rebels "street by street" now seems like a relic from the past. Libyan officials announced last week that they wanted to discuss a cease-fire deal with rebels and a transition to democracy — but insisted that Gaddafi remain until a new government is in place, a nonstarter for NATO officials and Libyan opposition leaders.

To both the opposition and the NATO coalition, Gaddafi's dictatorship is in terminal decline. British intelligence officials told Prime Minister David Cameron's aides last week that the Libyan leader appeared to be moving at night between different buildings, hiding in hospitals, in an attempt to avoid NATO air strikes as well as enemies within his own ranks. "There is a picture building up of this man who is very paranoid and a regime that is increasingly feeling under pressure and beginning to fracture," an unnamed British diplomat told the Guardian.

Still, paranoia alone might not be enough to push Gaddafi out. On the contrary, cornered and hunted, with the humiliation of a war-crimes trial appearing to be the only scenario that would follow surrender, Gaddafi might opt instead to die in battle, believing in his own myth and the notion that history will ultimately judge him as a man who fought to the bitter end against Western powers, say Libya watchers. "In his current state of mind, it would probably be his choice to die fighting," says a Western business consultant with long Libya experience, who did not want to be named.

Gaddafi's military, although pummeled by NATO bombs, has lasted far longer than Western officials expected in March, when they launched their military campaign to save the rebels from slaughter. At the time, NATO strategists had expected Gaddafi's forces to crumble quickly under their vastly superior firepower. But Gaddafi has survived by maintaining his grip, however tenuous, on Libya's political and economic powerhouse, Tripoli. Capturing the city remains the biggest hurdle facing the rebels.

Although Gaddafi clings to power, NATO strikes are believed to have crippled his ability to plan any serious military maneuvers — commanders no longer use mobile telephones, and roads are too dangerous to travel on, making communication by courier difficult. That, says Richard Dalton, the former British ambassador to Libya and associate fellow at the London think tank Chatham House, may leave Gaddafi little ability to exercise any day-to-day management over his forces — a deeply disturbing situation for a man who for decades commanded absolute authority over civilians and military alike. "Gaddafi is finding it more and more difficult to maintain communication with his military," he says. "If NATO has succeeded in taking down secure military communications, that would also increase his exposure."

Having concluded that Gaddafi is on the run, the coalition has upped its rhetoric during the past week, perhaps attempting to deepen the Libyan leader's anxiety. And the longer NATO's campaign persists, the less the motivation the rebels have to cut any deal with a dictator whose strength is steadily eroding. Britain and France have recently moved attack helicopters into places off the Libyan coast, ready to support rebels in close combat against Gaddafi's forces. And British officials say they are considering sending so-called "bunker-buster" weapons, capable of destroying underground shelters in which Gaddafi and his family might be hiding.

On Monday NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Gaddafi was "increasingly isolated" with "those closest to him departing, defecting or deserting." Russian President Dmitri Medvedev last Friday broke with his country's opposition to NATO's pursuit of regime change in Libya, stating that it was time for the Libyan leader to go. Five Libyan generals who fled to Italy last weekend have appealed to their colleagues to abandon their posts. "The days of Gaddafi are truly finito," General Abdurrahman Shalgam told reporters in Rome on Monday. And on Tuesday, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in Benghazi, the Libyan rebel stronghold, that "Gaddafi's regime is over," and "he has to leave the country."

With Gaddafi's regime mortally wounded, the question now is how his rule will end. In an effort to end the conflict quickly by offering the Libyan leader alternatives to a war-crimes trial or death on the battlefield, Zuma is believed to have urged Gaddafi to accept immediate exile. "Zuma would have said, go quietly, and you could stay alive. If you don't then it will get a lot tougher in the next few weeks," says Patrick Smith, editor of the specialist newsletter Africa Confidential. Since the ICC prosecutor has sought indictments for Gaddafi and his sons, the family would need to leave Libya for a country that has not signed the ICC agreement. One option could be neighboring Mali, where Gaddafi enjoys strong support among some tribal leaders, and which he and his family could reach overland — avoiding the possibility of being shot down by NATO jets as they flee. "Mali would be extremely safe," Smith says.

Exile for Gaddafi would not satisfy many rebel leaders, who want to see him and his sons tried for having ordered troops to open fire on unarmed protesters in eastern Libya in mid-February, before the demonstrators took up weapons. Both British Prime Minister Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have also called for an international trial for Gaddafi. But Smith believes that given NATO's eagerness to end the war soon, Western leaders might opt for a quiet end to Gaddafi's rule. "My understanding is that they would be delighted if he did a duck," Smith says. "What are NATO's ambitions? To get him out of there, wind it all down and get on to the next chapter." Unless, of course, Gaddafi decides to aim for a place in history as a martyr.