* Defections, bombing, sanctions bleed support from leader
* But ICC warrant, pariah status leave him few options
* Amid military stalemate, NATO likely to up action
By Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent
LONDON, May 19 (Reuters) - Beset by apparent defections, perhaps personally targeted by NATO and indicted for war crimes, Muammar Gaddafi is finding Libya’s war turning against him — but with nowhere obvious to go he may hang on regardless.
The International Criminal Court indictment of Gaddafi, his eldest son Saif al-Islam and spy chief Abdullah al-Senussi looks to have further deepened the Libyan leader’s diplomatic and political isolation, but may also make it harder for him and his close supporters to quit.
There are signs of diplomatic activity, which could be taken forward when G8 powers meet later this month, but analysts see NATO pressing ahead with its bombing campaign and thereby strengthening the rebels on the battlefield. But in any case, no quick end is seen.
While Libya’s opposition have made some small tactical gains particularly around the besieged town of Misrata, the broader conflict seems largely deadlocked. Russia has offered to mediate, but for now few believe the rebels or NATO would be willing to agree a ceasefire without Gaddafi’s exit.
Barring an internal coup or Gaddafi’s death in an air strike, most analysts believe the conflict could last months or longer with all combatants — Gaddafi, rebels and NATO powers — hoping the balance will slowly tip their way.
“There are indications that the coalition has targeted Gaddafi, although they cannot admit that,” said Henry Smith, Libya analyst for London-based consultancy Control Risks.
“If they were to succeed, it might prompt a change to the pattern of the conflict ... Otherwise, it is still likely to be long and drawn out. There is little incentive at the moment for either side, particularly the opposition, to go for a negotiated settlement.”
There are signs of a slow bleeding of support from Gaddafi, both of low-level and higher ranking officials. This week, the rebels and a Tunisian security source said oil chief Shokri Ghanem had become the highest ranking officials to flee since foreign minister Moussa Koussa defected to Britain.
Libyan officials denied Ghanem had defected, saying he was still in his job and that if he had left the country he would be returning. They — along with Tunisian authorities — also denied reports Gaddafi’s wife and daughter had fled to Tunisia.
Analysts said it was impossible to know the truth of what had happened, but that if immediate members of Gaddafi’s family had fled it might be that they were seeking safe haven with his blessing to avoid air strikes. Libya says Gaddafi’s youngest son and granddaughter were recently killed by NATO bombs.
Further defections of military leaders or family members would weaken Gaddafi, particularly if commanders on the eastern front surrendered allowing a swift rebel advance.
“The defection of Shokri Ghanem is a blow,” said Alan Fraser, regional analyst for risk consultancy AKE. “However, it is not likely to change (Gaddafi’s) outlook. He will hang on as long as possible, with few other options at his disposal. It appears that only a very attractive offer — for example some sort of sanctuary inside or outside of Libya, free from prosecution, would persuade him to cede power.”
Gaddafi had few foreign safe haven options even before the ICC warrant. Some analysts have long suggested Venezuela or Zimbabwe as potential new homes for him. Russia could conceivably be another option, but most analysts suspect Moscow’s offer of mediation is more about trying to build regional influence than anything else.
If there were to be a major diplomatic push to end the conflict, it might happen at the G8 meeting due to be held at the end of May in France. President Nicolas Sarkozy has tried to use the conflict to paint himself as a global leader, almost certainly with an eye to presidential elections next year.
But most analysts say a more likely coalition strategy is to keep up strikes, try to gradually build the capabilities of the rebels and hope shortages, defections and growing shortages in Gaddafi’s territory produce discontent.
Worsening relations with Tunisia — which this week threatened to refer Libya to the UN Security Council over cross-border shelling — could make it harder for Gaddafi to bring in supplies. Both rebels and government sit on top of large oil reserves but both need refined products such as gasoline.
Research by Reuters energy and shipping reporters showed a Libyan-flagged tanker likely carrying gasoline headed for the government-control western Libyan port of Zawiyah. The shipment would not strictly speaking breach sanctions, experts said, because the shipping firm that owns it is not covered by the sanctions list that proscribes dealings with Libya’s national oil company. [ID:nLDE74H1S0]
Libya’s sovereign wealth fund and billions in assets linked to the Gaddafi family have been frozen under UN sanctions, but experts say the Libyan leader likely has further funds hidden away that will not have been blocked.
Eastern rebels have also been importing gasoline — and, many analysts suspect, weaponry — but have struggled to realise hopes of earning millions through their own oil exports.
Energy sources say it has proved almost impossible to find buyers, with most worried any purchase would breach sanctions intended to stop Gaddafi but which legally are seen to apply to rebel-help eastern Libya as well. [ID:nLDE74F1N7]
Western powers in particular are seen keen to tweak the sanctions regime to increase pressure on Gaddafi and create a special fund to transfer cash to the rebels. But even long-term supporters of military intervention talk down prospects for a swift end to the war.
More military action, they say, is more likely than a deal.
“None of this will come easily or quickly — Gaddafi is old school and has been preparing for a fight all his life,” said Daniel Korski, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “(But) it is looking more likely that the conflict will last months not years.”
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