Moussa Koussa - Qaddafi's big defector

If Libya's Foreign Minister's defection is the start of the palace coup, will it mean the allies supporting the rebels can avoid having to arm them? Afterall who are these guys who go to war in the family car?

News that Washington and London are involved in serious debate about arming Libyan rebels is reassuring – not the arms bit, but the fact that some high level thought was going in to the issue of giving guns to guys who go to war in the family car. In other words, to a group of men passionate about defeating Qaddafi, but little else is known about them?

Which paves the way for reassurance no.2. It seems C.I.A. and MI6 operatives have been beavering away in Libya for weeks trying to work out exactly who the rebels are and how best to organize intelligence for military air strikes that avoid killing these rebels or Libyan civilians. That is a whole lot better than having no intelligence on the ground. Does it amount to ‘boots on the ground’ which UNSCR 1973 explicitly forbids? Do the Gucci loafers of super-spies equate to boots? The argument will come, but not right now.   

And reassurance no. 3? Well it is the defection of one of Qaddafi’s main men. When Moussa Koussa popped up in London on Wednesday, he surprised both London and Washington. Well sort of. It turns out the former Libyan Foreign Minister has been chatting to British Foreign Secretary William Hague for weeks and as recently as last Friday. Then he leaves Tripoli for medical treatment only to use it as a staging post for a defection to the West.

He’s a good catch, but highly toxic. The Libyan opposition is rightly very wary of him. The Qaddafi regime purports to be very weary of him.

He hasn’t even asked for political asylum, and Hague has made it clear that has not been offered. The families of the Lockerbie bombing victims are already baying for Koussa’s blood. They may have their revenge, but first things first.

Koussa’s defection – and those of other Libyan diplomats and armed forces personnel - is possibly indication that self interest is starting to corrode the bastion of loyalists that surround Qaddafi. The more pressure applied by the allies supporting the rebels, the more defections, hopefully. Even better would be for someone from Qaddafi’s inner bastion to put the old dog down, and thereby relieve Obama & Co. of any worries concerning a future Libya with a madder-than-hell Qaddafi still roaming about from tent to tent.

The Libyan press conferences on Moussa Koussa take a war watcher right back to the heady days before the fall off Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Remember when the Information Minister Mohammad Saeed al-Sahhaf stared straight down the barrel of the camera declaring there are no Americans in Baghdad? Right behind him were plumes of black smoke from American bombings. The Minister described them as the sure signs that the infidels were committing suicide in massive numbers. He did so with a straight face. Now the Libyans are talking of Moussa Koussa being a tired old man with diabetes and heart and psychological problems. The slim, grey suited 64-year-old has apparently taken a leave of absence to find superior health care in Tunisia and is expected back in Tripoli. All said with a straight face, but the sort of faux compassion that would chill anyone’s heart into a catatonic state.

Moussa Koussa may not know where he is going next, but it is a fair bet he’s not going back to Tripoli.

Is he the sign of regime collapse? Not yet, but he is certainly a positive for the rebels and not for Qaddafi. Sure regimes do not depend on one person (so long as we are not talking about the dictator himself). But Koussa knows where the bodies are buried so to speak. He has been head of intelligence and very close to Qaddafi. He was in all the background shots when Tony Blair welcomed Qaddafi back in to the international fold. He was also instrumental in the negotiations that freed the Lockerbie bomber. This guy will have intelligence vital to those who want Qaddafi brought down. He may well go down too, but that was his choice.

Qaddafi’s regime says Koussa is a Libyan and would never disclose anything that triggered the destruction of his own people, but that comes from a regime that refuses to believe Koussa is actually in Britain. Go figure.

Perhaps the most important aspect of all this spy stuff behind the scenes and the gradual undermining of the regime so as to provoke more and more defections, is that the issue of having to arm the rebels will not get much past the theoretical stage if regime collapse comes first.

Washington for one must be – or should be – very mindful of repeating the ignominy of Afghanistan circa 1980s when the very same weapons – and superior training – it provided to Afghan rebels so they could repel the Soviets were turned on them once the Soviets fled. Americans soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan with bullets fired from U.S. manufactured and supplied arms.

Yet arming Libyan rebels is now being openly thought-bubbled.

President Obama hasn't ruled it out. He’s not exactly in…but he’s not out…a practice that is coming to be part of the Obama Doctrine on war.

Hilary Clinton has lawyerd up and told world leaders, diplomats and the media that the UNSCR 1973 which sanctioned the no-fly zone and all other measures to protect the civilians of Libya also allows for the supply of arms to the rebels. She says the strict arms embargo on supply to Libya is over-ridden by Resolution 1973. The Brits seem awfully keen to go along with this interpretation.

It is all part of the Goldilocks principle that applies to this war - not so much international help that it fuels a full-scale war; not so little help that it allows for a full-scale civilian massacre; but just enough help to allow the rebels to prevail and perhaps inspire a body-guard to deal to Qaddafi.

Obama stopped just short of actually saying that when in his Monday speech he reminded those close to Qaddafi that they should see clearly that history is not on Qaddafi’s side.

Good plan in a Machiavellian sort of way, and Koussa may be a sign that a palace coup could be in the offing.

At this stage however the rag-tag bunch of enthusiastic guys doing the hard yards are sooner or later going to run out of luck.

Luck and bullets, and really fast if they don’t stop shooting them into the sky to celebrate any minor victory. Why do they do that?

Despite set backs such as Koussa, the Qaddafi strategists remain shrewd and now they have no planes left, they have started fighting the rebels on the ground in small divisions, and they are deliberately making themselves almost indistinguishable from the rebels. If they look like the rebels, the allies can’t shoot them from the sky for fear of shooting the guys they are UN sanctioned to protect.

If Clinton et al have decided UNSCR 1973 can be stretched to apply to those who are on the ground protecting civilians, i.e. the rebels, then can’t the country’s Arab neighbours do some stretching of their own across their common borders to supply arms?

Look at Egypt. Yes it is a little busy at the moment to itself be involved in full-scale training of its Libyan co-revolutionaries, but it has had over the years billions of dollars in aid from the U.S.for state-of-the-art weaponry. Couldn’t it shunt a bit of shiny steel across the border?

And then there is the fly in the allies’ ointment which takes us right back to the beginning of all this.

NATO’s supreme commander for Europe, USadmiral James Stavridis this week mentioned to the US Senate Armed Services Committee some magic words. Magic because they tend to turn any clear thinking to porridge which, like the Goldilocks principle would be good if it weren't so hot. Stavridis mentioned that there were “flickers” of talk of an al-Qaeda presence amongst the Libyan rebels. And he chucked in a bit of Hezbollah for full-on fear flavouring. He had no full report. No incidents, names nor actual numbers. But when you say al-Qaeda, nothing else matters. His ‘flickers’ went viral.

Was Qaddafi right all along? Remember he said this whole uprising was a plot by his arch enemy al-Qaeda and the world should be supporting him, not the ‘terrorists’.

At first it appeared little homework had gone in to exactly who the rebels are, but now we know the CIA and MI6 have been on the ground well before the air strikes even began, there’s a chance bin Laden is not actually directing operations.

Given recent history it is only a chance, but there’s precious little else to hang on to at the moment.

The alternative would be to sit back and watch the slaughter of those guys in their family cars, often armed with little more than old hunting rifles.

Surely those cars are better employed taking kids to schools, not brave young men to the front lines of war against heavily equipped professional fighters.