US and European diplomats are scrambling to get a clearer picture of the leadership of Libya’s besieged opposition movement after concluding that Muammer Gaddafi is unlikely to fall quickly like his counterparts in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
The outreach to the rebel movement has increased in recent days, according to diplomats, but has yet to include offers of direct military or non-military aid.
Instead, officials said they were gathering intelligence on the structure and capabilities of the anti-Gaddafi forces to assess their needs and how they would use any assistance if western governments decided to more actively back the rebellion.
“It’s only been in the last few days that it’s become clear it’s going to be more of a drawn-out process,” said one senior western diplomat involved in transatlantic discussions on Libya. “Once you make the decision not to support the guy who’s in power, you have to figure out who comes after him.”
Despite lukewarm signals from the Pentagon and White House about a no-fly zone to protect rebels, western diplomats said it was still on the table, backed by the UK and France. William Hague, the British foreign secretary, told parliament on Monday that the UK was working with partners on drafting a possible UN resolution on a no-fly zone, though he and other officials stressed that it was only in the planning stages.
Instead, western governments have focused on contacting self-appointed rebel leaders ahead of a series of high-level European Union and Nato meetings at the end of this week.
“If you look at the rebel side, you want to make sure whatever is going to come up is even just marginally better than what they’ve overthrown,” said a US military official familiar with Pentagon planning. “I don’t know if we know that yet.”
According to the diplomats, among the most active countries in the effort have been Britain and Italy, which has historical ties to Libya. “We have better contacts than the others,” Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister, said on Monday, noting that his government was already familiar with the network of defecting Libyan ambassadors and Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the former justice minister who heads the rebel council.
Britain’s efforts were complicated over the weekend when a team of six special operations soldiers were briefly detained in eastern Libya as they were attempting to make contact with opposition leaders, though Mr Hague said they were still able to meet with Mr Abdul-Jalil. Mr Hague has also been in direct phone contact with Abdul Fatah Younis, the former interior minister and head of Libyan special forces who is the most senior military figure in the Benghazi opposition group.
But an Italian official said there was “no co-ordination” within the EU or Nato over outreach to the rebels. “Everyone is making their own contacts,” the official said.
British and US officials played down the possibility of arming the rebels. They suggested that any support in the near term would come through intelligence assistance, such as helping rebel commanders with information on the deployment of Gaddafi- allied units and regime leaders. “The worst thing I think we can do right now is to show a hand in an overt way that significantly influences any of the things going on,” said the US military official. “Part of the challenge is: how do we aid the process and not taint it?”