The Rebels' Last Stand

Without Western help, anti-Gaddafi forces stand little chance.

The Libyan revolution, which but weeks ago seemed set to topple the 41-year-old era of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, now seems destined to fail. Libyan military forces loyal to the Gaddafi regime, backed up by foreign mercenaries, have dealt the rebellion a series of sharp military defeats in recent days. It was only days ago that the Western press was reporting that the rebels had encircled the Libyan capital city of Tripoli, trapping Gaddafi within. Now, it is the rebels who face encirclement and defeat, with heavy fighting being reported in Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi, de facto capital of the rebellion.

Tracking the fighting in Libya from afar has been problematic, as it has not been consistently clear which side, if either, was providing militarily accurate information. The same locations have been taken and retaken multiple times, adding to the confusion in a country that was never well covered by reliable Western media to begin with. But what is known is that the rebels were originally able to quickly seize control of the eastern coast of Libya (virtually all the country’s population lives along the Mediterranean shore) and then began an advance on Tripoli, which lies  in the far western part of Libya.

Meanwhile, rebellions occurred in cities near of the capital in the west, leaving Tripoli seemingly surrounded. Heavy fighting was then reported in Tripoli itself, and it seemed for a brief time that by the time that military units loyal to the triumphant rebels could reach the capital, it might already be in the friendly hands of anti-Gaddafi rebels.

There is no longer any such optimism. A major victory for the rebels was seizing control of the city of Zawiya, as it not only sits only 30 miles from Tripoli, but was in the western part of the country, far from the rebellion’s beginnings. Last week, after heavy fighting that reportedly left the city in ruins, the Libyan military declared itself firmly in control of the city, and even gave Western journalists a tour, complete with rent-a-mob crowds cheerfully praising Gaddafi amidst the debris. The fate of the rebels of Zawiya is not known. Perhaps some were able to flee and regroup. No doubt some fell into the hands of the victorious Gaddafi loyalists. Whatever became of them, it was unlikely to be have been pleasant, or within the Western laws of war.

It seems as though the situation is roughly similar in all other areas. The towns approaching Benghazi have either been bombed by air or attacked on the ground; there are conflicting reports over which faction controls any given location at any given time. No doubt there are times when the enemy forces are in contact with each other and both claim to control the same location. The town of Brega, home to a port that exports Libyan oil, quickly fell into opposition hands after the uprising in Benghazi, but has been the scene of heavy fighting. News reports suggest that the town has been captured and recaptured several times over the last several days; with the most recent available reports saying that the opposition currently holds the town.

Time Magazine reporters in Brega have been left with only cellphone text messages as a means of communicating with their editors, but have even so been able to file gripping reports of heavy air attacks, mass casualties, and anti-Gaddafi fighters barely hanging on to strategically vital Brega. The efforts of these reporters, on the front lines with cellphone in hand, are a modern version of classic war reporting from earlier eras. And their coverage of poorly armed, barely trained soldiers heading into battle and being bombed from the air, along with the steady advance of Gaddafi’s forces on the ground, make it clear that if the rebellion is to survive in Libya, the rebels will need help.

At the very least, they will require advanced military supplies — supplies America or its European allies could easily and inexpensively provide. There is some reluctance to furnish the Libyan rebels with high-tech Western munitions; the bitter memories of the Taliban using American arms to first defeat the Soviets, and then wage war against the West, are too recent to ignore. But Libyan tanks and armored vehicles have reportedly been used to devastating effect against enthusiastic but lightly armed rebel infantry. Anti-tank weapons could make a big difference. So too could small arms and ammunition, in absurdly generous quantities.

The Libyan rebels do not have the time needed to craft a properly trained military. If they are to have any chance, they will need to compensate for a lack of training and experience with firepower. Such a strategy has many risks, and will exact a high cost in blood. But against trained troops and professional mercenaries, with no time to prepare a proper army, what else can be done other than to hope that firepower rules the day?

In truth, they will likely require more than that. Libya’s air force is outdated and not particularly large, especially by the standards of the region. But the rebels, who have no aircraft and virtually no anti-aircraft weapons, are hopelessly outclassed by Libya’s otherwise unimpressive air arsenal. Ever since the first reports emerged of Gaddafi using his aircraft against helpless citizens emerged, there have been calls for the West to impose a no-fly zone on Libya. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, while not ruling the plan out, was clear from the outset that imposing a no-fly zone would require military strikes against Libya’s defenses first. In other words, it would commit the United States and its allies to one side of a Libyan civil war.

Some of America’s European allies, notably France, are hawkishly calling for a zone to be established, fully aware that such a step would be to take a side in a civil war. France has also recognized the Libyan rebels as the official government of “Free Libya,” as have the Portuguese. Canada is considering such a step. But no country other than the United States is capable of imposing a no-fly zone on Libya unilaterally, meaning some international body would need to provide legitimacy. The dysfunctional UN, with Russia and China holding veto power, is unlikely to authorize military action against Libya. The G8 has deferred to the UN, as has NATO. Put bluntly, no one cares enough about Libya to get involved. America has shown little interest, leading to speculation that it prefers the stability of a hostile ruler to the uncertainty of taking sides in a civil war.

In short, the Libyan rebels, however brave, are likely on their own. It is nearly impossible to predict in advance how a civil war will unfold, particularly one taking place in a society with the tribal complexities that Libya must contend with. But militarily, Gaddafi holds the advantages. Unless his fortunes change dramatically at home or the Western world chooses to intervene abroad, Libya’s rebellion might soon come to a tragic end.

Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @mattgurney.