Muammar al-Qaddafi likes to play chess, and it may be that he sees a checkmate nearing. According to a respected Russian newspaper today, Moscow officials say the Libyan leader is "sending out signals that he is prepared to relinquish power in exchange for security guarantees." The logic, as summed up by Reuters, is that Qaddafi sees decreasing supplies of money and fuel, and increasing military pressure from NATO and the rebel army.
Of course, no one really knows what is going on inside the Libyan leader's head; his government spokesman categorically denied the report. Many analysts are skeptical. Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya scholar at Dartmouth College who was recently appointed as an advisor to the United Nations mission for Libya, told Foreign Policy that back channel talks between Qaddafi's government and Russia haven't gone anywhere.
"The bottom line is he doesn't want to go," he said.
Western diplomatic sources told Reuters that it is in Qaddafi's interests to "send out conflicting signals about possible deals, in the hope that it will sow confusion among the rebels and the fragile Western alliance trying to push him out."
But according to David Mack, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former U.S. diplomat in Libya when Qaddafi first came to power, that analysis doesn't hold up. Qaddafi, he says, is depending on his supporters thinking they don't have any other way out other than backing him until the end. Making the world think his exit is actually an option harms that narrative.
"It's our strategy to try to convince people around Qaddafi that there are better options," Mack said.
One thing is clear -- as NATO bombs continue to target Qaddafi and his backers, and as the rebel army and Qaddafi's forces battle each other in the east and west of the country, there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering.
Russia, the United Kingdom, and Turkey are all in back channel talks with his government, according to Vandewalle. The United States is participating in defacto talks through the United Kingdom. And South African President Jacob Zuma has been pushing a diplomatic solution since the fighting started. He's met with Qaddafi several times and yesterday said NATO countries should assist in persuading the Transitional National Council (TNC) "to remove some of the preconditions that are making it hard or impossible to start with the negotiations process" -- such as the insistence on prosecuting Qaddafi.
On Sunday, there were signals that the TNC was softening its position. In an interview with Reuters, opposition leader Mustapha Abdul-Jalil said the TNC had offered Qaddafi the option of resigning but staying in Libya. (The next day he backtracked a bit, saying that it was just a scenario that was discussed internally but that there was no "current or future possibility for Qaddafi to remain in Libya").
Yesterday, the Libyan government said it held talks with the TNC on several occasions in Italy, Norway, and Egypt about finding a peaceful solution (an Italian government spokesman called the reports untrue).
"The one thing that is going on is there's an enormous amount of back channels," said Vandewalle.
Vandewalle is skeptical Qaddafi is really looking for a negotiated exit.
"He is determined to stay to the end," he said. "It could all be a bargaining point by him, though I still take him at his word. He has a 42-year history. He sees himself as a martyr for Libyan nationalism. He's always been quite consistent in the basic points of his ideology."
The change, if there is any, according to Vandewalle, could be from the people around him, including his son, Saif al-Islam, who has reportedly been involved in some of the back channel talks.
But Mack said the narrowing of options for Qaddafi, might make him more open to the possibilities of leaving.
"It's more desirable for him than some of the other possibilities," Mack told Foreign Policy. "For all of Qaddafi's political failings -- and they are numerous -- he remains an Arab father. Which is to say, if members of his family and other people in his inner circle come to him and say, Okay, this is it, there's a Russian plane waiting to take you off, it's time to go, he might feel he has to do this for his family."
Mack said he's gone against his own political interests before for the sake of his family -- such as the time he nearly broke off diplomatic relations with Switzerland over the arrest of his son, Hannibal, for allegedly mistreating his domestic staff at a luxury hotel in Geneva.
And if the day comes when his family appeals to him to accept a deal, Mack said, it would probably be through a Russian offer, since they have more credibility with Qaddafi than the United Nations and other countries, which he thinks are more wedded to the United States.
The Russians, meanwhile, very much want to be the agent of that deal, Mack said, in order to have influence with the future Libyan government. One hypothetical solution could be the following: Russia reverses its position that it won't take Qaddafi on its soil and allows him to settle at a secure compound near the Black Sea. In return, they get the gratitude of the successor Libyan government for having taken him out of the country. And the payoff for Moscow? Oil, says Mack.
One complicating factor in all of this is the recent ICC indictment of Qaddafi and his son. Even though Russia is not a signatory to the court, it makes negotiating with Qaddafi immeasurably more difficult, said Vandewalle.
"There's much less incentive for Qaddafi" to go easily, he said. "His options have narrowed and it's caused him to harden his position more than anything else."