British intelligence operatives sought, and failed spectacularly, to open up preliminary negotiations with rebel forces over the weekend--a reversal that has Western powers once more uncertain about how to handle the de facto civil war between insurgents and Muammar Gadhafi's brutal regime in the North African nation.
Operatives with England's SAS/MI6 team in Libya wound up being detained by the rebel leaders to whom they were trying to open a line of contact. Their humiliation has left the broader international community stymied on Monday as pro-Gadhafi forces and rebels appear locked in a strategic stalemate.
Anti-regime forces organized a rebel council in their eastern Libyan stronghold of Benghazi over the weekend--but early international efforts to open talks on possibly assisting them had a rocky start. The rebel forces arrested the eight-man British intelligence and commando team that had helicoptered into eastern Libya last week to start a quiet dialogue.
"The eight Britons had been detained and questioned since Thursday by rebel leaders who had suspected they were mercenaries," the Guardian reported. "Challenged by guards at a wheat farm, they were forced to open bags containing weapons, reconnaissance equipment, and multiple passports, then herded into a dormitory before they were handed over to the rebels."
British foreign secretary William Hague acknowledged Sunday that the members of what he called the British "diplomatic team" had left Libya after experiencing "difficulties," the paper wrote.
Some analysts suggest that episodes like the British setback point out just how little Western analysts know about the rebel forces -- a knowledge gap that makes international intervention on Libya less likely.
"I would argue the case for American intervention has now diminished," said former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller on Monday. "The context within which Libya is now unfolding has fundamentally altered. It is no longer remotely the Egyptian-Tunisian [peaceful protesters] context. It has now morphed …into a civil conflict between two armed camps about which we know very little. ... This is now a grind, a civil conflict."
"What happened [with the British team] over the weekend has reinforced the sense of caution many people already feel," said Robert Danin, the former Middle East Quartet deputy envoy.
"The larger point when considering military force now is this is not something the Arab world wants," Danin, now with the Council on Foreign Relations, continued. "I would say there is no consensus view about what to do from air... People are saying a no-fly zone is a step on a slippery slope."
Other analysts argue, however, that it would be a mistake to generalize the SAS/MI6 snafu into a rationale against intervention.
"There are a lot of different things one could do, some of which are relatively cheap and easy," said former Defense Intelligence Agency Middle East analyst Jeffrey White.
"We could provide the rebels ... with tactical intelligence about these movement of [pro-Gadhafi] forces," White, now a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said. "We could … probably provide them with air warning, okay a couple planes took off from Tripoli."
"We could also do things like put in a field hospital that provides traumatic wound care and emergency medical assistance to combatants," he said. White also suggested that "we could provide air defense for Benghazi, which is a relatively much smaller area and simpler problem. … We're not talking about the Luftwaffe or Soviet air force."
A no-fly zone is "not the only option for what one could do," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) told CBS's Face the Nation Sunday. "One could crater the airports and the runways and leave [pro-Gadhafi forces] incapable of using them for a period of time."
The White House for its part still sounds cautious about increasing military intervention in Libya. "Lots of people throw around phrases like no-fly zone," White House chief of staff Bill Daley told NBC's Meet the Press. "They talk about it as though it's just a video game."
Some Libya experts predict that despite the battle for territorial advantage between pro- and anti-Muammar Gadhafi forces, some sort of negotiations are likely to get under way.
"The Libyans are great deal-makers," a former U.S. official who has worked on on Libyan issues said Monday on condition of anonymity. "They put you up against the wall until your nose is smashed"--then make a deal.
By way of precedent, the former official cited the deal Gadhafi struck behind the scenes with British MI6 and the CIA to give up his weapons of mass destruction program in exchange for the international community not pushing for regime change in 2003.
The onetime official added that intermediaries such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair--who has reportedly developed a rapport with Gadhafi since leaving office--are well-placed to "sense when Gadhafi is ready to make a deal. The [Gadhafi] boys will cut a deal. Free passage, a little bit of money, no [International Criminal Court] prosecution, they will cut a deal."
Libyan officials also signaled interest in negotiations with the rebels. Former Libyan Prime Minister Jadallah Azous Al-Talhi appeared on Libyan state-controlled television Monday to appeal for a "national dialogue to end the bloodshed," the Washington Post reported. "Opposition sources said the regime had made private overtures about launching negotiations"--which the rebels said to date they had rebuffed.
Separately, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on Sunday named former Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelilah al-Khatib to be his special envoy to Libya. Libya's foreign minister and former intelligence chief Musa Kusa reportedly granted permission for the UN team to arrive in Tripoli for talks on the humanitarian situation.
(Libyan anti-government rebels celebrate at a checkpoint in Ras Lanouf, eastern Libya, Monday, March 7, 2011.: Hussein Malla/AP)