Libyan rebels fighting dictator Muammar Gaddafi made their biggest gains in months recently when they battled their way into two strategic towns near Tripoli that control the dictator’s supply lines, cutting him off from outside help and threatening the city with encirclement.
Last weekend, the rebels occupied the center of Zawiya, a coastal town of 291,000 only 50 kilometres from Gaddafi’s Tirpoli stronghold. Zawiya sits on the pro-Gaddafi forces’ supply route from Tunisia, a critical artery for the Libyan leader’s survival, so government reinforcements were sent immediately to the threatened city and drove the rebel fighters in a counter-attack from its center. Since then, artillery bombardments and snipers have kept the rebels from advancing, but the supply route has been made “largely unusable.”
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that Gaddafi’s days are numbered, that his isolation grows more extreme as each day passes,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Monday.
Zawiya was one of the early cities to rise in rebellion against Gaddafi. Situated in an oil-producing region, it contains Libya’s only oil refineries. Last February, shortly after the uprising began, the Zawiya tribe threatened to cut “the flow of oil into western Libya unless the authorities stopped their deadly crackdown against Libyan protesters.” In what is largely a tribal conflict in Libya, the Zawiya have been called one of the 30 tribes and clans that have “a demonstrable influence on the country.” Gaddafi, however, soon retook the town by force, after which his secret police was reported to have conducted large-scale purges.
Gharyan was the second strategic town the rebels seized in recent days. Located in the mountains west of Tripoli, Gharyan sits astride Libya’s main North-South road, over which supplies for Gaddafi’s forces were being trucked in from Algeria through southern Libya.
Berber fighters from the Nafusa Mountains began the offensive to capture Gharyan early last month and are the ones responsible for the rebels’ recent successes after months of back-and-forth battles that resulted in a stalemate. While Gaddafi’s forces held the rebels in check at Brega in the east and at Misrata in the west, the Berbers advanced north out of their western mountains to the coast at Zawiya. The Berbers are linguistically and ethnically different than the Arabs and have suffered years of discrimination at Gaddafi’s hands, which caused them to side with the rebels.
Gaddafi, however, will do his best to reverse these rebel victories and throw everything he has into the battle to recover these two towns, like he did earlier with Brega. But a failure to retake Zawiya and Ghaaryan and re-establish the stalemate will not only mean that his isolation is almost complete and his forces threatened with encirclement, but that the “Battle for Tripoli” may soon begin.
This is not a development that anyone wants, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries that have been supporting the rebels with air power and weapons. With his back, and that of his family’s, to the wall, NATO and the rebels know Gaddafi’s resistance will only stiffen the closer the fighting gets to Tripoli. It is estimated that 20,000 Libyans have already died in the conflict. And once inside the city’s confines, combat will cause the number of civilian casualties to increase dramatically. Some of Tripoli’s more than one million residents are now reportedly heading for the Tunisian border out of fear their city is about to become a battleground.
“We are afraid of whatever is coming,” said an accountant fleeing Tripoli.
Gaddafi most likely believes he has no other option than to fight to the death. Although NATO has offered to allow him to remain in Libya if he steps down, Gaddafi is fully aware that ceasing to resist will be his death sentence. There are too many people in the country who want to kill him and his family for the cruelties he has inflicted on them. Many of the 20,000 estimated dead in the conflict, for example, are civilians thought to have been killed by Gaddafi’s secret police. A large number of Libyans were also killed and tortured in his prisons during his 40 years of rule. This makes for a lot of relatives seeking revenge, a justifiable action under the Arab tribal code existing in Libya.
Gaddafi has also constantly stated he will not seek refuge abroad. The Libyan dictator fears that he and his sons may be turned over to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has indicted them for war crimes. Interestingly, a Venezuelan envoy has been reported in Tunisia where a special United Nations diplomat arrived on Monday to meet with representatives of both sides of the Libyan conflict. It was rumoured in April that Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, a Gaddafi friend, had offered the Libyan leader asylum, although the offer was denied.
But the UN envoy’s meeting with the rebel representatives over a “peaceful transition” in Libya may not have gone well. One rebel delegate was reported to have thrown his shoe, a sign of “deep disdain,” regarding the proposal. As the rebels’ battlefield victories and confidence grow, for some of them their willingness to make a deal has probably decreased.
But the rebels admit they are not strong enough yet to capture Tripoli. They are hoping their victories and the city’s encirclement will spark an uprising that will overthrow the regime. But that appears unlikely with the secret police system and informer network Gaddafi has established over his 40-year rule.
The rebels are also well aware that Gaddafi may still have nasty surprises in store for them. His forces launched their first Scud missile against Brega recently, although no damage was done. Some have understood the Scud’s launching as a sign of Gaddafi’s growing desperation; but it also may be a warning. Perhaps the greatest fear now should be Gaddafi using a weapon of mass destruction, like poison gas, against the rebels, something a ruthless dictator like him with nothing to lose and a family to protect just might do.
One military analyst states that with his recent defeats Gaddafi has to worry about his forces’ dropping morale. Will encirclement see a collapse in fighting spirit, or at least a rise in the number of desertions, or will his army’s core units made up primarily of his own tribe and the ones that support him, which NATO has been targeting, continue their determined resistance? NATO air strikes are also responsible for this loss of morale among pro-Gaddafi forces. Its warplanes have been targeting those core units, some of which Gaddafi’s sons command. They have also been targeting Gaddafi himself but without success so far.
NATO is allowing food and medicine into Tripoli, and Gaddafi appears to have an abundance of cash and munitions, which he had been stockpiling for a rainy day, such as he is now experiencing. While defections of high-ranking officials still continue, the most recent being that of security officer Nassr al-Mabrouk Abdullah, who flew with nine members of his family to Cairo on Monday, Gaddafi’s core of tribal and military supporters appear intact. Abdullah’s defection with his family may be due to that fear of tribal revenge, since he is said to have “blood on his hands” from interrogating rebels.
While the rebels admit Gaddafi has put forward proposals to stop the bloodshed, they still insist he and his sons must step down. But since Gaddafi refuses to do so for reasons already discussed, expect him to fight it out and turn Tripoli into a Stalingrad or Berlin in 1945, if Tripoli is attacked. Without a doubt, as was stated in one German newspaper, Gaddafi would be willing to stage an Arab “Gotterdammerung,” if his downfall appears likely. Like Hitler, if he can’t win, then everyone is going to lose.
In the end, however, if the war continues, it is inevitable Gaddafi will fall, after which NATO’s greatest fear is that Libya will sink down into a chaos of tribal violence. This is a strong possibility, as the recent assassination of the rebels’ military leader, Abdul Younis, stirred fears of tribal conflict and indicated the rebels are united only in their desire to get rid of Gaddafi.
The Libyan leader’s eventual defeat may only represent the end of the first phase of a multi-phase war in which tribe may fight tribe over the oil facilities, which are already severely damaged, to control the billions in revenues. And those tribes who lose would become proficient saboteurs of the oil fields. So despite rebel victories like Zawiya, Gharyan and eventually Tripoli, Libya may yet turn into NATO’s biggest defeat.
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