Since the middle of June, Berber rebels based in western Libya's Nafusa Mountain region have launched what is arguably the most successful and sustained rebel offensive action since NATO intervened last March. Berber fighters have secured a supply route from Tunisia and now hold positions south of Moammar Gadhafi's military and political bastion in Libya's capital, Tripoli. So far they have managed to retain their territorial gains.
The war was supposed to be short, NATO air power was supposed to be decisive, and Gadhafi was supposed to skedaddle. Instead, the battlefield stalemated and a war of military, political and financial attrition began.
The Berber's recent success, however, has exposed Gadhafi's increasing military fragility, and we are beginning to see political effects. Despite the secret police patrolling their neighborhoods, more Tripolitanians are openly expressing support for the rebels and disdain for Gadhafi. Open dissent signals decreasing fear among the people.
At the moment, a revolutionary uprising within the city seems far-fetched -- but Gadhafi's garrison troops must remain alert.
Berber fighters asked for weapons and ammunition two months ago. There were rumors of covert arms supplies to rebel forces in eastern Libya, but officially NATO was defending vulnerable Libyan civilians, not supplying guns.
Last week, however, France announced that it has supplied the Berbers with weapons. Gadhafi knows the public announcement could encourage a revolt in Tripoli. He responded by threatening to attack European targets. He has done that before, in the form of sponsored terror attacks, so the threat cannot be dismissed. However, the man who vowed to fight to the death now sounds shrill and rattled.
Fragile and rattled dictators tend to die or flee. Though his fall and exit may not be imminent, it is increasingly likely.
Diplomatic signals from several non-NATO nations reflect this opinion. China recently called the rebel Transitional National Council an "important partner" in a determining Libya's future. Rumors, traced to Russian media, suggested Gadhafi was considering ceding power. That may or may not indicate the Kremlin's druthers, but Gadhafi cannot be sure.
When NATO entered the conflict, diplomats and U.N. officials began discussing the question of how to reinvent Libya in the post-Gadhafi era and establish a precedent for removing a rogue dictator without fighting an extended civil war.
Hatred of Gadhafi -- and little else -- united the Libyan rebels. Differing geographic, ethnic, tribal and economic interests split the rebels into potentially adversarial factions.
Successfully reinventing Libya requires bridging these divisions. Iraq provides an immediate example of the difficulties. Libya, however, has advantages Iraq did not. Tunisia and Egypt, Libya's most important neighbors, are focused on transitioning from dictatorial regimes to parliamentary governments while bridging their own internal divisions. They have direct political and security interests in helping Libya make the same transition. Libya does not have an Iran on its border -- a radical dictatorship relentlessly promoting factional violence in order to destabilize Iraq's emerging democracy.
Diplomats and intelligence agencies are trying to sort out factional demands. In late May, Turkey sponsored discussions with a key Libyan tribal group. The group insisted that Gadhafi and his family had to be removed from power and denied any influence in a future Libyan government. The new government must also hold Gadhafi loyalists accountable for their violent attacks on civilians.
A broad national reconciliation process in Libya, backed by NATO, Tunisia and Egypt, would provide a political and judicial vehicle for meeting these legitimate revolutionary demands and thwart the violent revenge attacks that often follow a dictator's fall and then spiral into further civil war. Internationally sponsored courts holding investigations and trials in Libya would serve as an emotionally cathartic and politically instructive experience for the Libyan rebels. They would be a first step toward creating a democratic judicial system in Libya. The reconciliation process would also address the issue of fair distribution of oil revenues.
Libyan reconciliation has an ethnic dimension. Gadhafi scourged the Berbers. New Libya must guarantee Berber cultural rights and a degree of political autonomy. NATO and the U.N. must be prepared to back legitimate Berber political demands.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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