reflections

Mar 31, 2011 | 04:14 GMT

6 mins read

What Koussa's Defection Means for Gadhafi, Libya and the West

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Wednesday marked nearly two weeks since the beginning of the Libya intervention. While the day's most important headline came as a surprise, others were more expected, and some confirmed what STRATFOR had been saying since the earliest days of the intervention. The most significant event was the defection of the country's long-time intelligence chief turned foreign minister. The continuing retreat of eastern rebel forces added fodder to the ongoing discussion in Washington, Paris and London as to whether or not to arm them. A pair of anonymous leaks from the American and British governments revealed that CIA and British Special Air Service (SAS) agents have been on the ground in Libya for weeks now, while an unnamed European diplomat admitted that the no-fly zone had been nothing but a diplomatic smokescreen designed to get Arab states on board with a military operation that held regime change as the true goal. The defection of Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa to the United Kingdom came after a "private visit" to neighboring Tunisia, where he reportedly held meetings in his hotel room with four unidentified French officials. (Why it was that Koussa, who has as much blood on his hands as any Libyan official who has been around for as long as he has, wasn't on the U.N. travel ban list remains unknown.) From there, he flew to London, and news that Koussa had resigned and officially defected followed shortly thereafter. The move creates the possibility that more high profile members of the regime could follow suit if they feel that the writing is on the wall. For the West, Koussa is quite a catch, as he was the long-serving chief of Libya's External Security Organization – and thus, the de facto head of Libyan intelligence – during the heyday of Libyan state-supported terrorism. Koussa moved (or, some would say, was demoted) to the foreign minister's post in 2009 and he will be an invaluable resource for the foreign intelligence services that will be lining up to debrief him in London. Though there had been whispers in recent years that Koussa had lost favor with the regime, he was still in a very high profile position, and is surely a treasure trove of information on the inner workings of the regime of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Koussa can attain immunity, but Gadhafi cannot – it is politically impossible at this point. Koussa will have information on the bombings of Pan Am Flight 103 and UTA Flight 772, arguably the two most famous acts of Libyan state terrorism carried out during Gadhafi's rule. It is ironic that Koussa chose the United Kingdom as his destination for defection, as he will now be (temporarily at least) residing in the same country in which Lockerbie is located. It is likely that a deal was reached between Koussa and the British government, with the French acting as interlocutors, giving him immunity from prosecution in exchange for intelligence on the Gadhafi regime and his silence on the details of the negotiations that led to the release of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber. The intelligence Koussa provides will aid Western governments in getting a better handle of where Libya's secret agents are stationed abroad, thereby helping them deter the specter of the return of Libyan state terrorism. His defection will also only further convince Gadhafi that exile is an inherently risky option. The British and French are the most vocal proponents of pursuing an International Criminal Court investigation against the Libyan leader, and their coordination in bringing Koussa from Tunisia to the United Kingdom has given them a source of testimony for use against Gadhafi in any proceedings that may commence in The Hague one day. Koussa can attain immunity, but Gadhafi cannot – it is politically impossible at this point. This development will likely only solidify Gadhafi's resolve to regain control of territory lost since February, or go down with the ship. Indeed, after seeing rebels advance to within a short distance of Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte on March 28, the Libyan army (reportedly with Chadian mercenaries' help) pushed the enemy back all the way to the east of Ras Lanuf, a key oil export center on the Gulf of Sidra. The air campaign did not stop their advance, and the rebels were openly admitting that they are no match for the much better organized and equipped forces fighting on behalf of the regime. On the second day of steady rebel losses being reported in the international media, an anonymous U.S. government official leaked that the CIA has been on the ground in Libya for weeks. Similar leaks from a British government source said that the SAS had been on the ground helping coordinate targets for air strikes for a similar amount of time. This news was hardly a revelation at STRATFOR, but it is clear that the leak was intended for the ears of the general public, with the intention to give people the sense that Western forces are somehow in control of the situation and establishing contacts with those who are the potential substitute for Gadhafi. Covert operations have a way of not counting in the public's mind as "boots on the ground" since they are not seen, only spoken about. They are thus viewed as acceptable to a public that would not accept a true deployment of combat troops. Leaking that the CIA and SAS have long been on the ground in Libya also serves as a form of psychological warfare against Tripoli, as it displays the resolve of those that are indeed pushing for regime change in Libya. Successfully toppling Gadhafi is now one of the core political imperatives at home for the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom and France. For U.S. President Barack Obama in particular, though he is nowhere near having an Iraq moment, Libya still represents his boldest foreign policy move to date. If Gadhafi is still in power as the 2012 presidential campaign heats up, Obama could have a lot of questions to answer.

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