Christopher Morris / VII for TIME
Muammar Gaddafi's powerful son Saif al-Islam tells TIME in an exclusive interview Thursday night that his father's military is on track to seize the entire area of rebel-held eastern Libya, with pounding victories on Wednesday and Thursday in various parts of the country irreversibly turning the momentum of the war in Gaddafi's favor. "The big war is over," Saif says, sitting in a hotel room in central Tripoli. Thursday had been a bloody day of battle in Libya, during which Gaddafi's forces pummeled the key eastern oil-refinery town of Ras Lanuf, seizing it back from rebels with aerial bombing, ground attacks, and blasts from the Mediterranean, and reportedly inflicting heavy casualties. In an interview filled with rage, hurt, a sense of betrayal, and a taste of triumph, Saif — who before the war was long regarded as Libya's likely next ruler — says of the rebels: "Their backbone is broken. We have airplanes, reconnaissance, telling us they are escaping everywhere. They have no future."
Saif's sense of impending victory comes as NATO members gather in Brussels on Friday to debate whether to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. The U.S. and E.U. are scrambling to coalesce around military and diplomatic strategies to stop Libya from tearing itself apart. France on Thursday became the first country to recognize the rebels' National Transition Council as Libya's legitimate government, and declared that the French embassy would soon move from Gaddafi's capital Tripoli to the rebels' headquarters of Benghazi, Libya's second city where the revolt first exploded on Feb. 17.(See exclusive photos of rebels fighting Gaddafi.)
Thousands of miles from the politicking in Washington and Brussels, Tripoli's mood has palpably changed since Wednesday, when government tanks pounded the oil-refinery town of Zawiyah, 30 miles west of Tripoli, finally crushing a two-week revolt there, and leaving a shattered city under tight control, with government tanks parked in the central square where just a week ago rebels held sway. Then came Thursday's military success across the country in Ras Lanuf.
Taken together, Saif concludes — perhaps optimistically — that the regime has mortally wounded the morale of the rebels, and that the military might not need heavy firepower to crush the remaining anti-government forces, whose frontline skills have proved wanting. From now on there will be only "small, very small" battles, he says. "The way is clear to Benghazi."(See what a day is like in Gaddafi's Tripoli.)
There is one big obstacle to a smooth Gaddafi victory, of course: the possibility of Western intervention in support of the rebels. Yet in Saif's mind, the efforts currently under discussion in Washington and Brussels come too late to save the rebels from defeat. "Nobody cares about NATO, about Europe," Saif says, waving his hand dismissively. "They [Western countries] have the sense that the game is over in Libya. We will win the war, insh'allah, by the will of God."
If Saif's prediction proves right, the West's decision to back the rebels could leave it shut out of Libya, with Gaddafi still installed in Tripoli. Yet Saif believes the West will once again court Libya if his father survives in power, even after blunt declarations from U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and other leaders that Gaddafi should go. After all, Gaddafi has endured years of being a pariah, isolated from the West under heavy sanctions. "One month ago [Western countries] were sooo nice, so nice like pussycats," Saif says in a contemptuous sing-song tone. "Now they want to be really aggressive like tigers. [But] soon they will come back, and cut oil deals, contracts. We know this game."(See "Libya: The Case for U.S. Intervention.")
On Thursday afternoon Saif drummed home a message of an imminent military victory at a youth rally in a tented hall in Tripoli, packed with about 2,000 young devotees of his father's regime. The crowd stood spellbound through Saif's fiery one-hour speech, a rabble-rousing pep talk to potential recruits for the war effort. "We will never ever give up. We will never ever surrender," Saif told his father's supporters, who erupted in wild cheers as he warned the rebel leaders in Benghazi: "We are coming! We are coming!"
Yet despite his almost-cocky confidence, Saif — relaxing at day's end in blue jeans and a zip-up sweater — admits that his father's regime has been deeply shaken by the revolt, caught off guard by the rebels' ability to whip up an armed force and take a large chunk of oil-rich eastern Libya. "Everybody is shocked," he says. "In 48 hours they controlled more than 10 military sites in the country."(See "March of the Volunteers: Can the Rebels Take Tripoli?")
Everybody, that is, except him. Looking back — which Saif notes he is loath to do now — he says he had long warned his father's regime that there would be trouble if they did not implement democratic reforms. Talking to TIME in Tripoli in February 2010, Saif said that Libyans urgently needed open elections and other freedoms — "freedom like in Holland," he said in that interview. Yet as the bitter internal struggles within Gaddafi's government dragged on through the years, Saif lost many of his political battles, failing to convince hard-liners of a truly dramatic reform program — and so the seeds were planted for the explosive revolt that occurred last month.(Comment on this story.)
With a tone of bitterness, Saif says he was betrayed "big time" by his closest reformist allies, who ditched him last month and joined the rebel side. Yet he blames above all the hard-liners, who blocked democratic reforms out of "stupidity," he says. "We talked about everything in the past and we were so hesitant. The terrorists took advantage of this."(See the latest scenes of unrest in Libya.)
With Libya now at war, Saif still insists that sweeping reforms are possible — something which seems unfathomable if his father's 41-year rule survives this conflict. Saif disagrees, saying that on the contrary, the regime has been shaken into realizing the need for democracy. "We have a golden opportunity now," he says." "Everybody is convinced that the things we said 10 years ago, five years ago, were right. To have a modern democracy, modern economy, more freedom." The hard-liners, he says, have learned "a very tough lesson." Which is? "That they should listen to me."
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