Libyan rebels fighting the forces of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi appear to have run out of time to make significant advances in their quest for control before the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Ramadan's sunrise-to-sunset fasting may hinder the rebels
The rebels had set themselves the goal of advancing toward the capital Tripoli before the beginning of the month-long, sunrise-to-sunset fast. Towards the end of last week, rebel forces had pushed west from the coastal city of Misurata in the face of heavy bombardment from regime forces while opposition fighters in the western Nafusa Mountains managed to capture the village of al-Qawalish, 100 kilometers (62 miles) south-west of Tripoli.
However, while fighting had been stepped up in the final days of July, few significant gains had been achieved against the entrenched forces loyal to Gadhafi. The rebels now face increased hardships and difficulties during Ramadan, even though Islam permits fighters to forgo fasting during the holy month in times of war.
"Under Islam you can defer days of fasting to a different time of year," Sir Richard Dalton, head of the Libya Working Group at Chatham House, told Deutsche Welle. "And 'necessity' does allow fighting to continue so my hunch is the conflict will go on but at low intensity."
Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle East and North Africa expert at the London School of Economics, told Deutsche Welle that one problem could be to garner enough local support for the fighting to continue during Ramadan. "If local support is withdrawn, both sides may face a damaging loss of local legitimacy which is important to their claims for holding legitimate political authority in the areas they control."
Arab-reliant rebels set to suffer
Public support aside, the prospect of fighting through Ramadan presents another unique set of problems. As well as the difficulties which arise from a lack of sustenance for those soldiers fasting during combat, there is also the question of a dearth in supply - both of food and arms - which would severely hinder the ability of a fighting force to continue in war; a situation which would particularly affect the rebels.
"The rebels might be vulnerable to their high levels of Qatari support, given the conservative Islamic credentials of the Qatari leadership," Ulrichsen said. "Qatar may well be expected to pressure the rebels - and NATO - to halt fighting during Ramadan, and would undoubtedly possess ample leverage in the form of essential supplies and financial contributions should they wish to deploy it."
Ulrichsen added that given the level of assistance to the rebels any reduction in Qatari support could prove extremely detrimental to their prospects.
There is also concern over what action can be taken by NATO forces supporting the rebels during the Islamic holy month.
NATO feeling the pressure
NATO strikes on Gadhafi forces may continue during Ramadan
There appears to be no clear consensus among NATO officials over whether the bombing campaign should be stopped during Ramadan or scaled back, with some admitting fears that suspending NATO operations may ease the pressure on Gadhafi while others have reservations over the possible reaction in the Islamic world to military action during the religious period.
NATO would be within its UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians by continuing its operations during Ramadan but is expected to confer with the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) and the 56-state Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) before making a decision.
The Gulf States involved in policing the no-fly zone over Libya - the United Arab Emirates and Qatar - have yet to make clear where they stand on operations during Ramadan.
"Clearly NATO faces a public opinion backlash throughout the Islamic world if it continues its bombing campaign during Ramadan," Ulrichsen said. "NATO is extremely vulnerable to any erosion of Arab support and the sight of a Western alliance continuing to bomb a Muslim country during this religious period would be extremely damaging, both to NATO and to any Arab allies."
No consensus on operations
Richard Dalton said he would not be surprised if NATO scaled back its operations, adding however that "they would not do so if Transitional National Council military gains were threatened."
The UN mandate to protect civilians may justify continuance
Those in favor of maintaining the bombing campaign say that there is a precedent for military action by foreign powers continuing during Ramadan, citing US operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They argue that NATO should continue to take "all necessary measures" to protect the civilian population of Libya against aggression as mandated by the UN.
Supporters of a continued campaign, such as France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, suggest that there is a danger that a month-long pause or reduction of operations could threaten the gains already made against Gadhafi, leading to many more months of combat in order to regain any lost ground. There are some concerns that a pause could even put the whole operation in jeopardy.
"Gadhafi has shown repeatedly that he has no moral scruples about launching offensives as and when he wishes to do so, so it would not be beyond him to take advantage of Ramadan to launch an all-out attempt to bring the war to an end once and for all," Ulrichsen said.
While the NATO campaign to support the rebels has decimated Gadhafi's air capability, regime forces are still more than a match on the ground for opposition forces and while the intervention has prevented the fall of rebel-held cities such as Benghazi and Misurata, the regime remains in place.
Juppé said last week that Muslim representatives had indicated it was permissible to conduct attacks in order to protect civilians during Ramadan. "According to several of the countries participating in the contact group there is no contradiction between the religious rules during the Ramadan period and the continuation of our military intervention," he told reporters last week.
Opportunity for diplomacy?
There are voices within NATO which see the Muslim holy month as an ideal time to push for a cease-fire but only if the Gadhafi regime stops attacking and bombing its own people during Ramadan.
Defiant Gadhafi is unlikely to respond to diplomatic efforts
"Ramadan won't lead to a cease-fire on its own," Sir Richard Dalton said. "The terms have to be right and there is no sign of that happening yet. In addition to that, we don't know what progress if any Abdul Elah al-Khatib, the UN envoy to Libya, has made in his discussions and whether there is any give on either side of the conflict."
In the unlikely scenario that a cease-fire can be agreed during Ramadan, it could provide the international community with a last-ditch opportunity to find a diplomatic solution to the nearly four-month long conflict. However, the number of nations willing to take the risk of entering into mediation with Gadhafi is dwindling.
"Gadhafi has few friends in the Middle East that could or would be willing to use any cease-fire to increase diplomatic efforts to reach a negotiated solution," said Ulrichsen.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge