To break stalemate, Libya's rebels have to negotiate

As the Libyan fighting drags on, bloodily but inconclusively, it is time to consider finding a negotiated peace, unpalatable though that may seem.

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Peace, wrote CS Lewis, is sometimes sinful. The war for the rule of Libya is now in its fourth month and shows no sign of ending. Of all the Arab Spring uprisings, it is the one that has turned the most brutal so far. So much blood has been spilt that those opposing the army of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi are unlikely to ever want to compromise. Yet it may be time for the rebels to take a hard road and, for the sake of the country, contemplate a sinful peace. It may be time to offer Col Qaddafi and his family a genuine way out.

Libya is in a civil war, one that seems only resolvable by a shock: the assassination of Col Qaddafi, a serious escalation by Nato forces or a surprise attack by the rebels or Qaddafi loyalists. Absent that, the war in Libya could run for months.

Col Qaddafi is not winning, but he is not losing either. Nato air strikes have significantly degraded the command and control structure of the Libyan army, but not enough to make the regime implode. High-level defections have occurred, but the core leadership is intact. Col Qaddafi can still bring tens of thousands of his supporters out on the streets, as he did on Friday.

Attacked from the air and from the land, Col Qaddafi has refused to surrender and the rebels and Nato cannot make him submit. A new strategy is needed.

The best would involve some form of surrender, even if a negotiated one.

This week, the rebels suggested that Col Qaddafi could live out his retirement in Libya: "If he desires to stay in Libya," said Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the rebel's political council. "We will determine the place and it will be under international supervision." This sounds like house arrest and is unlikely to be a scenario a ruler like Col Qaddafi would accept.

Col Qaddafi's son Saif Al Islam has warned that Nato would not win and dismissed the suggestion his father might leave the country. "To tell my father to leave the country, it's a joke," he said. "We will never surrender."

Yet at the same time, Col Qaddafi has shown a willingness to negotiate (if, perhaps, insincerely); Saif Qaddafi has suggested that a ceasefire, a new constitution and elections could all be negotiated.

There is a possible way forward and - as awful, as unpalatable, as difficult as that option might be - the rebels should take it, even if it means some elements of the regime remained for a transitional period.

Of course, from the rebels perspective, there is no appetite to offer Col Qaddafi a compromise. Why should they? He has shelled cities and tortured civilians. If he were in a position to do so, he would have continued. Both sides in this battle still think they can win somehow and are not inclined to compromise. Both see a political settlement as a defeat. The trouble for the rebels is that Col Qaddafi has no good way out - and no one is offering him one.

Even the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court is problematic. It should not be: dictators and governments that support them should know that they will end up in court eventually. But the ICC also accuses both Saif Qaddafi and his brother-in-law, the intelligence chief, two regime figures who might conceivably have led Col Qaddafi to surrender. They have been given powerful reasons to fight to the end.

This isn't an easy argument to make and it deserves careful consideration. But the focus needs to be on how best to safeguard Libyan civilians, how to secure the integrity of the country and how to rapidly create a functioning government and stable economy.

All of these things are being held back by the stalemate and the longer it goes on, the harder the final tasks will be and the greater the death toll. Daily life for millions of Libyans has been disrupted; many have fled and more may attempt to. This situation is unsustainable.

Time is on Col Qaddafi's side, although it doesn't appear that way at first glance. But given that the rebels and their supporters have declared that Col Qaddafi has to leave, he only has to cling on to power to win. Every day he stays in power, the perceived weakness of the rebels increases, hindering those in the army and among Col Qaddafi's political supporters who might be thinking of defecting. The suggestion that the rebels might not win makes many wary of losing everything - because the retribution the dictator or his loyalists would wreak on those defectors would be horrific.

Worse, the European and American publics and politicians are getting tired. America is wavering in its appetite for war. Europe's states seem unclear what the final outcome should be. For all the talk of Col Qaddafi as unstable, his raw political calculation has kept him in power for decades. That calculation must now be that he can still survive this conflict, even if Libya is split between east and west and his regime faces international isolation.

The rebels have to offer something to change that calculation. Thus far, they have tried to force the perception that Col Qaddafi's time in power is numbered, but they have not offered him any plausible way out. For the moment his options are to remain in Libya under house arrest, sit in a jail cell in The Hague or fight to the end and count on the political or military situation changing.

There are no good options in Libya. Even a decapitation of the regime might not end the stalemate - there are still many Libyans, perhaps millions, who support Col Qaddafi. For the rebels and for Nato, it may seem unthinkable to negotiate. But a sinful peace may be better than a war without end.