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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Rebels trying to topple Libya's Muammar Gaddafi have so far fought alone. Help is not in sight, even as he strikes back with tanks, artillery and warplanes.
Gaddafi is widely reviled in the Arab world, even by his fellow autocrats. Nor is he loved by the Western powers that had courted him for his oil until the revolt against him.
Yet with the military momentum appearing to shift in his favour, the Libyan leader of 41 years may succeed where Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali failed, in clinging to power.
His willingness to use extreme force, with no effective riposte from the outside world, could also set a dangerous example to other Arab rulers confronting disaffected populations.
According to a sombre assessment by U.S. President Barack Obama's national intelligence chief, James Clapper, Gaddafi is "in this for the long haul" and is likely to prevail.
Public calls are growing for some action to save rebels and civilians from the firepower of pro-Gaddafi forces, now regaining ground near Tripoli and along the eastern coast.
Yet nothing has been done beyond sanctions in the form of an asset freeze and arms embargo, threatening prosecution for war crimes, and French-led moves to recognise a rebel national council.
The rag-tag Libyan fighters battling Gaddafi's military cannot fathom what the world is waiting for, even as the leader's son Saif al-Islam declares that they face a full-scale assault to crush their three-week-old uprising.
"I am disappointed as we have asked for air and sea blockades," Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, head of the opposition national council in Libya, told the BBC on Friday, saying that delaying action further "might allow Gaddafi to regain control and remain in power against the will of the Libyan people".
Yet there is no international consensus on robust action. Judging by Thursday's meetings of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the African Union and NATO, none will emerge soon. European Union leaders were meeting on Friday to discuss Libya.
Many fear mission creep if, say, a no-fly zone were imposed.
"What happens if it is not the Libyan air force that is gaining ground, but their armour ... and heavy artillery?" asked Timur Goksel, a former U.N. peacekeeping adviser in Beirut.
"Then what do you do, attack those? Because that's not a no-fly zone, it's war. It's a very complicated decision. The Western countries have to think very hard," Goksel said.
For all their anti-Gaddafi rhetoric, Western powers are wary of plunging into another conflict in a Muslim nation in the absence of any simple way to remove a leader bent on survival.
The United States is hamstrung by its costly and contentious military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia and China, along with Arab nations such as Algeria and Syria, are queasy about any precedent for meddling in another country's affairs.
So it is hard to get the U.N. Security Council to authorise military action -- no-fly zones or sending military advisers or weapons to rebels are arguably acts of war -- and no nation or alliance is yet ready to step in without such approval.
The International Crisis Group has argued instead for a ceasefire and negotiations to end a burgeoning Libyan civil war.
"Western calls for military intervention of one kind or another are perilous and potentially counter-productive. There are no quick or easy fixes," the conflict resolution group says.
"Insisting that Gaddafi step down will not make it happen. Imposing a no-fly zone, bombing airfields or arming the rebels could tilt the balance of power in the rebels' favour, but is unlikely to swiftly bring down the regime."
The African Union, rejecting any military intervention, plans to send five heads of state to Libya to seek a truce.
The Arab League has suspended Libya's membership. Saudi Arabia and its five partners in the GCC have voiced support for a no-fly zone and declared Gaddafi's rule illegitimate.
The Arab League was due to meet in Cairo on Saturday and officials said it would not let a delegation from Tripoli attend. But decisive action from the League would be a surprise.
"The Arab League has become an entirely emasculated body that is essentially capable of doing nothing except rhetoric and speeches," said Karim Makdisi, who teaches international relations at the American University of Beirut (AUB).
He said most Arab regimes remained intact despite the overthrow of leaders in Egypt and Tunisia and popular unrest against others. None of them wanted the Arab League to lead the way in intervening against the government of a member state.
NATO is also skittish about proposals to crimp Gaddafi's military with a no-fly zone. This would require evidence of war crimes against civilians, a clear legal basis and firm regional support, said its secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasumussen.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has signalled that her country will not go solo in imposing a no-fly zone on Libya.
"Absent international authorisation, the United States acting alone would be stepping into a situation whose consequences are unforeseeable," she said on Thursday, belittling the effect of past no-fly zones in Iraq and Serbia.
Gaddafi, like Iraq's Saddam Hussein, would portray any Western intervention as a selfish, colonial venture -- rhetoric that for many Arabs is grounded in decades of bitter reality.
"What we fear most is this European and Western eagerness to take control of Libya's oil," said Omar Nashabe, an editor at Beirut's al-Akhbar newspaper, which is sympathetic to Hezbollah.
Many Arabs feel outraged by Gaddafi's bloody strikes against his foes, but might also mistrust Western action, especially if an air embargo produced unintended civilian casualties.
"There is no belief that U.S. intervention will be brief, in the interests of Arabs, or serve the interests of stability," said AUB's Makdisi. Many Arabs would see it as oil-motivated or as a U.S. bid to get ahead of the curve after failing to respond adequately to the pro-democracy revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.
"The wider context is the abysmal failure of the Obama administration to have any coherent U.S. policy toward the Middle East," Makdisi said, citing its past support for Arab strongmen and its ill-starred Israeli-Palestinian peace drive.
Editing by Kevin Liffey