By Tony Karon, Time
The question is not whether Libya's rebels will capture Colonel Gadhafi birthplace of Sirte, or storm his citadel in Tripoli; it's whether NATO will hand them those prizes by escalating its air war with the aim of destroying Gadhafi's regime.
Coalition air strikes have broken the grip of Gadhafi's forces on the cities of eastern Libya that they had recaptured over the past two weeks, and NATO air power now effectively precludes the regime using its heavy weaponry to hold territories many miles from its own strongholds.
But the equation could be different in Sirte and more so in Tripoli, where Gadhafi maintains a measure of popular support and his forces - along with his armed supporters from within the civilian population - would be defending the city from a rebel offensive.
The rebels have recaptured Ajdabiya, and the oil ports of Brega and Ras Lanuf, without a fight; the regime's forces simply retreated under the barrage of coalition air strikes. (Rebels claimed the same had happened in Sirte overnight into Monday, although that hasn't been verified.)
The rebels' own military capabilities, by measure of weaponry, training, organization and command remain distinctly limited. So, as NATO powers and others involved in the campaign convene in London on Tuesday to plot their next steps, they face the question of whether to use their military leverage to assault the regime on its "home" turf and effectively bomb it out of existence. There are good reasons to believe they're unlikely to go that far.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Sunday that the alliance's actions would be limited to implementing U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, "nothing more, nothing less."
And that resolution mandates foreign powers to protect Libya's civilians through imposing no-fly zone and an arms embargo, and destroying armor and other heavy weaponry that menaces civilian population centers. But it says nothing about regime-change; on the contrary, it requires member states to work for an immediate cease-fire and a democratic political solution to Libya's civil conflict.
Read more over at Time’s Global Spin blog.