Libya: An Ugly War Getting Uglier

A turning point for anti-Gaddafi forces.

Libyan rebels scored their most important victory in the nearly three-month old uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, when they captured the airport in Misrata on Wednesday, virtually taking control of the city. Gaddafi’s forces had been besieging Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, for two months and had driven the rebels into an area around the harbour, where they were subjected to constant rocket and artillery fire. Two Western journalists, one American and one British, were among the people killed by the heavy barrage during this time.

“The airport and its approaches were the last remaining pieces of significant terrain in the city to be controlled by the Qaddafi soldiers,” the New York Times reported.

NATO immediately followed up the rebel success with air strikes on Thursday on a compound in Tripoli. Three civilians were allegedly killed in the attack, but after a government-guided tour of the area, reporters suspect civilians are being used as human shields in the compound to protect a possible underground military complex.

The rebels’ capture of Misrata is important for several reasons. It is the only city the anti-Gaddafi forces hold in Western Libya and is regarded as the stepping stone to capturing Tripoli, Gaddafi’s stronghold. Located 130 miles east of Tripoli, a Misrata in rebel hands represents a knife at Gaddafi’s throat. Which is why the Libyan leader fought so bitterly to take it from rebel hands and why strenuous efforts may still be made in counterattacks to recover the lost ground there. But even if Gaddafi does succeed in containing the insurgents within Misrata, their victory will certainly add to the accumulating military strain on his forces.

Moreover, the rebels’ taking of Misrata is a huge public relations coup. In the eyes of the world, the battle for Misrata had become an important symbol of the anti-Gaddafi cause. Gaddafi is now seen to have failed to attain a goal he badly wanted and needed, and so close to home at that, while the rebels prevailed. Ultimately, if the rebels overthrow Gaddaffi, the Misrata victory may become for the Libyan conflict what Stalingrad was for the Soviets: a psychological and military turning point.

On the rebel side, probably their greatest advantage in breaking Misrata’s isolation consists in the fact they can now start to bring in food and medical supplies through the sea port for the city’s 500,000 desperate, suffering people. Only tugboats and a few Red Cross ships had risked making the trip to Misrata during the siege due to the danger.

Supplying soldiers and civilian populations, or logistics as military strategists term it, decides many wars, and some analysts believe this is what will determine the Libyan conflict’s outcome. On Wednesday, the rebels scored an important triumph in this area by opening an avenue to feed the people under their control in an important city.

Gaddafi, on the other hand, is facing a bleak future logistics-wise. Although Gaddafi’s army is believed to have enough weapons and ordnance for a year’s fighting, his ability to feed Tripoli’s one million people for that period of time is problematic. NATO has imposed a tight air and sea blockade around his stronghold. An extended period of suffering could see a renewal of the anti-Gaddafi protests the Libyan capital experienced earlier in the conflict that loyal security forces seem to have quelled. But when people become very hungry and unhappy, like in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt, force will not prevent them from taking to the streets again.

While NATO countries are blocking Gaddafi’s supplies, they are helping rebel logistics significantly with shipments of food and aid to Benghazi, the rebel stronghold. The first American ship to deliver “non-lethal aid” to the rebels arrived in Benghazi this week. Among the items delivered were 10,000 ready-to-eat meals. Ships from other NATO countries have already made trips to Benghazi, delivering food and aid, while Qatar has been sending the rebels weapons, the only country reported to have done so. The rebels have asked NATO for better weapons but the alliance has been slow to respond. The United Nations has imposed an arms embargo on Libya, but some governments interpret it as applying only to Gaddafi.

NATO is also assisting the rebels logistically by unfreezing the $60 billion Gaddafi and his family had in assets and bank accounts in their countries. This money will be turned over to the rebels to help run the territory they control. One estimate is that, in the short term, the insurgent government in Benghazi will need $3 billion alone to meet their commitments. Oil-rich Qatar has already helped out with a $600 million donation. To further assist rebel finances, NATO is also allowing the sale of oil from the territories under their control in Western Libya.

Gaddafi is expected to hire lawyers to fight the confiscation of his assets, about $34 billion of which are located in the United States. This is not surprising, since there is an oil embargo on the areas he controls, and he has no other source of revenue. As time goes on, Gaddafi will need money more than the rebels. It is a matter of survival. He has to pay for his shadow army of 20,000 mercenaries, and mercenaries are expensive. They will only keep fighting as long as they get paid. It is not known how much cash Gaddafi had at the start of the conflict, but his financial resources are not inexhaustible. And wars cost money – lots of money. Secretary of State Robert Gates said on Thursday the Libyan conflict has cost the United Stares $750 million so far, and America is not a major combatant.

But Gaddafi is a ruthless survivor and knows how to make an ugly war even uglier. He is proving this by hitting back at NATO with perhaps the one weapon he knows the European Union countries fear: an unrestricted flood of illegal immigrants. By allowing a massive flood of refugees to leave from Libya to Europe, primarily to Italy and Malta, Gaddafi is not only taking revenge against NATO for interfering in Libya’s civil war, but showing them what will happen if he is removed from power.

Under Gaddafi, Libya had been the guardian of Europe’s gate against an uncontrolled influx of illegal sub-Saharan African immigrants. Libya had struck an agreement with Italy in 2008 to return such would-be migrants, which reduced the numbers reaching Italian shores significantly. Now, officials in Tripoli are reported to be deliberately sending boatloads of these refugees, who had been living both legally and illegally in Libya before the conflict and numbered about 1.5 million, to Italy and Malta. And since these voyages of desperation are often undertaken in overloaded, unseaworthy boats, they sometimes end tragically. Several ships have sunk before they could reach a safe shore, costing hundreds of lives.

Gaddafi knows he has to win this war or he and his family will die, which is incentive enough for him to fight to the bitter end. His defeat at Misrata represents not just a failure in this life or death struggle but also a sign of weakness, which is deadly for a dictator in his part of the world.

And as time goes on, the rebels will get stronger and stronger as NATO’s training efforts take effect, and their logistics and strategic situation improves, to which the Misrata victory contributed. The fall of Misrata into rebel hands may also have finally dispelled for NATO the notion of sending ground troops into Libya to assist the rebels, which the alliance almost did when it appeared Gaddafi’s army was going to seize the city. Even without NATO troops, though, the insurgents will defeat Gaddafi, but only after more months of hard struggle.