As the G-8 leaders and the U.N. Security Council continued debating a no-fly zone over Libya on Tuesday, the country’s capital erupted in wild celebrations after reports that Muammar Gaddafi’s forces had retaken the crucial rebel-held town of Ajdabiyah the last major obstacle on the road to the rebel capital of Benghazi. The question that may soon face the international community is, What if Gaddafi manages to put down the rebellion and survive in power?
Two weeks ago, journalists were landing in Tripoli, body armor packed, ready to witness the triumphant arrival of the rebels. Around that time, President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had all declared it was time for Gaddafi to go, apparently confident that his collapse after 42 years in power was imminent. Those statements raised expectations of Western backing among rebel leaders and their ragtag fighters, but none has been forthcoming. As Western leaders remain locked in inconclusive debate on how to respond, Gaddafi’s forces have blasted the rebels into retreat all the way back to Benghazi. Now, the rebels face impending disaster.
On Monday, as G-8 leaders meeting in Paris remained deadlocked over a no-fly zone, state-run Libyan television said Gaddafi’s forces had retaken Ajdabiyah, a critical intersection in eastern Libya, after a day of heavy artillery and rocket fire from ships, planes and ground forces, according to al-Jazeera’s reporters in the area. That sent Gaddafi’s loyalists into the streets for hours of celebratory gunfire and fireworks, while drivers honked their horns long after dark. Earlier in the day, government forces had also reclaimed Zawarah, the last rebel-held town west of Tripoli.
Lebanon, backed by Britain and France, introduced a U.N. Security Council resolution Tuesday night to impose a no-fly zone, but if Ajdabiyah falls, that could come too late to save the rebellion. The town sits at the start of two highways, one snaking north to Benghazi, the other cutting east to the rebel-held oil port of Tobruk near Egypt. Rebel leaders disputed government claims that Gaddafi’s forces had retaken Ajdabiyah. But with the specter of defeat looming, the rebels face grim choices of whether to flee to the Egyptian border or to dig in for a bloody fight to the finish in Benghazi.
Either way, Gaddafi’s prospects for surviving the monthlong uprising seem to be steadily improving. With victory in sight, a confident Gaddafi addressed a gathering of tribal leaders and other supporters in his palace compound late Tuesday night, and raged against the “imperialism” of Western leaders. “You say Gaddafi is going to leave his country,” he thundered, banging his fist on the table, railing against the U.S. and Britain. “They want to conquer Libya, they want to take our oil. Who gave them that right?”
If he defeats the rebels, he could exact bitter reprisals against eastern towns, with mass arrests and perhaps killings of those who led the rebellion. And beyond that, it’s not clear how Western countries will relate to Libya, where U.S., British, Spanish, French and other Western oil companies have invested billions. In an interview in Tripoli last Thursday, Saif al-Islam, Gaddafi’s powerful son, told TIME he was confident that those companies would seek a quick return to Libya. “Soon they will come back, and cut oil deals, contracts,” he said. “We know this game.” But his father said Tuesday that in light of the response of Western governments to the uprising, only Germany which steadfastly opposed a no-fly zone would be allowed to do business in Libya.