By William Maclean
LONDON (Reuters) - More battlefield gains in rural areas will help raise flagging morale among Libyan rebels impatient for victory but won't shift the military balance decisively against Muammar Gaddafi soon.
Without more outside help, such advances are unlikely to inflict the sort of pressure that would compel him to negotiate a peace settlement in good faith or set off an uprising by rebel sympathizers in the capital Tripoli, Western analysts say.
On Wednesday rebel fighters seized al-Qawalish, a village south of the Libyan capital, and another group advanced toward Tripoli from the east in the biggest push in weeks toward Gaddafi's main stronghold.
The capture of al-Qawalish is important not only for rebel momentum and battlefield morale, but because beyond it lies the larger town of Gharyan which controls the main highway to the capital. Gharyan has came under attack in recent days from NATO warplanes.
While real enough, such gains are too gradual to give decisive momentum to opposition forces in a situation where Gaddafi still holds the capital, has better armed land forces than his foes, still has lots of money and confronts an alliance suffering internal strains over the war , experts say.
That being the case, there is little to erode Gaddafi's apparent belief that he has time to sow discord among his foes.
"There's been a bit of progress by the rebels and things have slightly deteriorated in Tripoli, but the degree of both achievements ... seems not to be massive," said Benjamin Barry, a land warfare specialist at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
"So in terms of how much longer the regime can last, it is anyone's guess."
On the diplomatic front, Gaddafi appeared to suffer a setback on Thursday when China's Foreign Ministry said a Chinese diplomat met with leaders of Libya's rebel National Transitional Council at their base in Benghazi, building deeper relationships with rebels seeking to oust the Libyan leader.
REBELS HIGHLY DEPENDENT
Jon Marks, chairman of Cross Border Information, a consultancy, said there were increasing signs of an endgame in Libya, but a turning point had not yet been reached.
"You have a rebellion in the Jebel Nafusa (mountains southwest of Tripoli) which may not be the ultimate game changer that some people have tried to talk up, but it's definitely an element that's added to the stranglehold on Gaddafi, and the Western strategist planners are aware of that."
"But the critical question remains, is Gaddafi really going to go in a negotiated end on any terms that would be acceptable for his opponents or indeed the international community, and quite frankly that would defy belief."
A June 29 note by the Eurasia consultancy said while the military balance had slowly shifted toward the rebels, disorganization and rifts would continue to hurt their effort, and they were highly dependent on the pace of NATO air strikes.
Other experts say the campaign's progress was been slow because NATO's effort, spearheaded by France and Britain, has had inadequate support from European member countries.
Former NATO Secretary-General George Robertson was quoted by Foreign Policy magazine as saying that the campaign in Libya was "taking longer to achieve than it should."
"I think the European allies -- especially those that are doing nothing at the moment -- need to do more," says Robertson.
NO BOOTS ON THE GROUND
Barry, of IISS, said the "one thing that could change the game is significantly better coordination of rebel forces on the ground with NATO's firepower in the air."
However that would only be achieved by NATO being prepared to deploy limited numbers of boots on the ground as forward air controllers, or have Muslim allies deploy their own.
In Brussels, a NATO official told Reuters there was no discussion or any indication that any of the allies or partners are interested in exploring putting ground troops in Libya.
"That has not stopped us from striking targets with great accuracy repeatedly ... there have been days when we have struck dozens of fighting units and stationary targets, so it's not hampering us from doing what we are supposed to be doing," he said.
Gaddafi is widely seen as lacking adequate fuel supplies. But Barry said that while this was generally very important it might not be critical in some areas.
"What his heavy metal (armor) is doing is hiding in urban areas and taking pot shots at the rebels and stopping them advancing. You don't necessary need a lot of fuel for that ... It's not as if he is trying to send armored brigades across the country."
Some analysts say Gaddafi, indicted by the world court at The Hague, would be willing to quit in return for the right to live in Libya, have immunity from prosecution and have one of his sons given an official position in a post-war government.
But many suspect this apparent offer is insincere and is more likely an attempt to play for time. Rebel officials have ruled out any role for him or his family after the war.
Saad Djebbar, a former legal advisor to the Libyan government, said that when Gaddafi said he was ready to negotiate, it did not mean he was ready to leave power.
"I don't trust him until I see him dead and buried. Gaddafi is a manipulator of the first degree and he will do everything to stay in power," he said.
"It will be a big error of judgment if you bank on any deal which would allow any of his family or direct cronies to keep any position of power. They have to be defeated, and defeated to the point where they can choose only to leave or be killed."
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)