CAIRO, Egypt – Western air strikes on Libya could fuel a possible mutiny inside Moamer Kadhafi’s regime and bolster the ranks of opposition forces, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday.
Although the endgame in Libya remained unclear, Gates said during a visit to Egypt that mounting pressure on Kadhafi’s regime could encourage his associates or even members of his family to turn on him.
“I think there are any number of possible outcomes here and no one is in a position to predict them, whether there are further major defections within his own ruling circle, whether there are divisions within his family,” he said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested a similar scenario in an interview on Tuesday, saying Kadhafi’s associates were reaching out to their contacts worldwide to see how they can “get out of this.”
Speaking to reporters in the Egyptian capital as coalition forces enforced a UN no-fly zone in neighbouring Libya, Gates made no promises of an early end to the conflict and said that it was unrealistic to expect military action to be over in a matter of weeks.
The armed intervention has raised concerns of a potential stalemate between Kadhafi’s troops and the rag-tag rebels, as the United States and its European allies have ruled out deploying ground forces.
President Barack Obama has said Kadhafi has to relinquish power and Gates’ comments suggested Washington expected the embattled leader’s rule to collapse eventually.
The UN mandate for military action does not call for Kadhafi’s ouster and military commanders say they are not trying to target the regime’s chief.
Obama, keen to draw a distinction with the 2003 Iraq war, has described the air raids as a “limited military action” and stressed that the United States soon will play a supporting role as other countries patrol the no-fly zone.
Gates said Washington still expected to hand over command of the operation within a “few days” to other countries.
Asked if it could come as soon as Saturday, Gates said: “I don’t want to be pinned down that closely but what we’ve been saying is that we would expect the transition to the coalition to a different command-and-control arrangement to take place within a few days and I still stand by that.”
He also acknowledged that it was difficult to gauge the strength of opposition forces, but held out the possibility that air raids could bring back volunteers to the rebels’ cause by stifling the regime’s firepower.
“A lot of people who were in opposition, who played a role in the early days, have hunkered down.
“And it may be that changed circumstances, where he (Kadhafi) can’t use his aircraft and where he’s more challenged in using his armour, they return to the fight. But we just don’t know that.”
He said that “it’s been very hard for us to assess” the effectiveness of the rebels because they had grown out of popular uprisings.
In the unrest that had erupted before international military action, Gates said “it wasn’t as though you had an alternative army moving back and forth across Libya.”
Some who had initially joined the uprisings, including troops from military bases, appeared to have withdrawn in the face of the regime’s violent crackdown, Gates said.
His comments came on the fifth day of UN-backed military strikes against the Libyan regime as Kadhafi vowed his country was “ready for battle.”
Gates said there was no “timeline” for the end of the international military operations and noted the UN Security Council resolution that authorised a no-fly zone was “not time-limited.”
“But I think no one was under any illusions that this would be an operation that would last one week, or two weeks, or three weeks,” he said.
Gates, who flew to Cairo after talks in Moscow, also dismissed Russia’s offer to mediate an end to the conflict, saying there was no basis for negotiations given that Kadhafi had vowed “no mercy” against his opponents.
In last week’s vote on the UN Security Council resolution backing military action to protect civilians, Russia and China abstained but both have since sharply criticised the air strikes.