The Libya stalemate: can it be broken?

Explosions over Libya. AAP

After five months of conflict in Libya, the Gaddafi regime remains in power in Tripoli despite the rebel campaign and NATO airstrikes.

Recent days have seen serious developments in the country. Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saif-Al-Islam has suggested the regime may ally with Islamist forces and turn the country into a fundamentalist Muslim state.

At the same, fractures have developed between the rebel forces.

The Conversation spoke with Deakin University Middle East expert Mat Hardy to find out whether the Gaddafi regime is serious when it says it will join forces with fundamentalists and if the current military deadlock can be broken.

Is Saif Al Islam serious when he says Libya will become an Islamist state? Why would he make those comments now?

I think that Saif saying that is purely a shock tactic. He basically says to everybody “If you want to go against the Gaddafi regime, you’re going to end up with Islamists”.

I don’t put too much stock in what he’s saying. He’s really just trying to say to everybody, it is either us or an Islamic fundamentalist state.

Is al-Islam trying to wedge some of the Gulf States who are supporting the rebels by implying they are undermining a true Muslim regime?

Saif is trying to wedge just about everybody in this. He is trying to wedge the rebel forces by saying they are not legitimate secular forces.

He referred to the Islamists as the “real power on the ground”. He is trying to push everybody apart with this and he is trying point out to the Western forces that they are potentially backing a fundamentalist Islamic force than any move for democracy.

Is it realistic threat or is it a cynical ploy?

I think the chances of the Gaddafis becoming Islamists is about as much as Tony Abbott joining the Greens. Muammar Gaddafi has a very long history of actively campaigning against extreme forms of Islam. He has referred to people and groups like al-Qaeda as being more dangerous than the Israelis or the Americans.

He has said the fundamentalists should be taken out into the street and shot like dogs. I can’t see him coming to a form of accommodation with the sort of Islamic extremists we think of in terms of al-Qaeda and so forth.

Has the conflict in Libya now reached a stalemate? Were those voices who warned against the West becoming involved right?

We have reached the stalemate that we always seem to reach when there is a great reliance on Western airpower supporting local forces. We saw it quite often in the Balkans and other places.

There’s a limit to how much air strikes can do especially when the government or loyalist forces have most of the firepower on the ground. There’s a situation with the geography and the military tactics being used by both sides.

To break the stalemate you’d need to have some quite heavy conventional forces move into the country.

What about the emerging divisions between the rebel forces?

There is definitely a situation where there is no unity between the rebel groups and that is because of the nature of Libyan politics.

There are people in the rebel forces who were former Ministers or cronies of Gaddafi who have now jumped ship and it is quite natural that other elements of the rebels wouldn’t really trust their motives.

The British government has unfrozen 125 million sterling in Gaddafi regime assets and handed them over to the rebels. It is human nature that people might start falling out over the spoils.

But there is definitely no unity among the rebels, there never has been and I am in no way surprised that things are starting to fall apart a bit.

What are the chances that a new strongman may emerge from the chaos? Would the West welcome that?

The West’s worst nightmare is that strongman or a strong force might emerge and it might be an Islamist one. So perhaps the West would welcome an autocratic leader who wasn’t an Islamist. That might settle things down and get the oil flowing again.

Wasn’t Gaddafi that man?

Gaddafi wasn’t that good for business. His nationalisation of the oil industry and so forth wasn’t that good for Western business. He was also a loose cannon. Historically the West doesn’t mind strongmen as long as they do what they are told.

It is when they go rogue that the West doesn’t like them anymore. It is was happened with Gaddafi and what happened with Manuel Noriega and so on and so on.