After a week of air strikes by American and NATO warplanes on forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, the news is once more encouraging for the Libyan rebels. The insurgents were reported on Sunday to have retaken Brega, the crossroads city of Ajdabiya and the important oil port of Ras Ranuf. Ras Ranuf had fallen to Gaddafi’s troops last March 12.
After the second day of their renewed offensive, rebel forces stand 370 kilometers west of their stronghold of Benghazi, to which Gaddafi’s soldiers had driven them and his tanks had entered last Sunday. NATO air intervention that day ended the Libyan dictator’s hopes of crushing the rebellion any time soon, causing his forces to withdraw after suffering substantial losses.
With the rebels once again in control of Eastern Libya, they are now set to advance further west to Sirte, the coastal stronghold of Gaddafi’s tribe and the high-water mark of their first offensive against Tripoli. NATO warplanes were reported to have bombed Sirte Saturday night in preparation for the expected rebel attack.
But even with NATO’s assistance, hopes of a quick rebel victory and an end to the conflict are, however, problematic. In the New York Times, a rebel fighter was quoted as saying Gaddafi’s troops offered no resistance and simply pulled back past Ras Lanuf.
“There wasn’t any resistance,” said Fariz Sheydani, 42. “There was no one in front of us. There’s no fighting.”
Gaddafi loyalists apparently also did not damage the important oil facilities located in Ras Lanuf before their retreat. If this is true, Gaddafi’s non-resistance of such a strategic town strongly indicates his forces are retreating to defend his stronghold of Tripoli and towns in Western Libya.
Because of the NATO air strikes, the Libyan leader knows his heavy weapons like artillery, tanks and armoured personnel carriers that have played such an important role in his soldiers’ successes now cannot move or be placed in the open. A French warplane, for example, was reported to have destroyed a loyalist artillery battery outside of Ajdabiya on Saturday.
Since Gaddafi knows he cannot win this war with NATO warplanes controlling the skies, his strategy now appears to be one of surviving by waiting out his opponents. His troops pulling back into Tripoli is the key to this strategy and his living to fight another day. In Tripoli, Gaddafi knows his forces are safe from NATO air attacks, since the entire civilian population serves as a human shield. As part of this survival strategy, Gaddafi even has civilian supporters inside his family compound, since their presence ensures his and his family’s safety from NATO bombs.
NATO air strikes inside a built-up urban area would not only risk causing heavy civilian casualties but would also make a mockery of the UN resolution allowing the establishment the no-fly zone. The resolution was passed to save innocent civilian lives and not to see them perish in NATO air attacks.
Using civilians as human shields against Western air strikes is not a new tactic. Saddam Hussein used anti-American supporters from Western countries as human shields before the 2003 war that toppled him. Hamas employs this tactic in Gaza against Israeli forces, while the Taliban often have civilians accompany them, voluntarily or otherwise, as protection when they go on missions.
Across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas, al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban like to stay overnight in civilian homes, often against the hosts’ wishes, in order to escape Predator attacks. Like Gaddafi, these terrorist groups take full advantage of Western sensitivities concerning the loss of innocent lives in combat operations.
By withdrawing into Tripoli, Gaddafi’s forces not only restore the balance on the battlefield but will also enjoy a distinct advantage in any street battles. While the rebel soldiers are, for the most part, a rag-tag force possessing a lot of enthusiasm, Gaddafi’s soldiers are much better trained, equipped and led, especially the elite units. And if it comes to street fighting, in the absence of air strikes the Gaddafi loyalists will be able to use the heavy weapons that brought them so close to capturing Benghazi only last week. The rebels face a daunting task in capturing Libya’s capital city and possibly even Sirte.
NATO reluctance to hit civilian targets will also help Gaddafi if he decides to make a stand at Sirte. Troops can be sent to reinforce the garrison there in civilian vehicles, such as vans. Military troop carriers can be recognized from the air and attacked, but vans would be spared destruction since the passengers may be civilians. The fact Gaddafi’s soldiers have already been transported in such a manner has now prompted a call for a “no-drive zone”, in which any vehicle found in a forbidden area would be a legitimate target for NATO warplanes.
As it stands, Gaddafi can defeat any current opposition attack lacking air support on his Tripoli bastion. And since NATO refuses to put boots on the ground in Libya, it will take some time and a large effort to dislodge him from the capital, if that is even possible. And now that the NATO coalition has regained from Gaddafi’s hands what it really wanted, the oil fields of Eastern Libya, it may be content to leave the situation at a stalemate. The principle powers leading the coalition, France, Great Britain and Italy, receive much of their oil supply from this area and may now have less interest in pursuing the war into Tripoli. To do so may actually see the coalition break up, which is probably what Gaddafi is waiting for. The United States has already drawn back and handed over coalition leadership to the Europeans. If the conflict becomes a prolonged one, others may follow.
The United States also seems able to live with the possibility of Gaddafi staying in power. When questioned on ABC’s This Week a week ago about this prospect, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: “That’s certainly potentially one outcome.” On NBC’s Meet The Press on Sunday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated Libya was not even a high priority for the administration, saying the war there was not “a vital national interest.”
“I don’t think it’s a vital interest of the United States, but we clearly have a national interest there,” Gates said.
Gaddafi also appears to be playing for the stalemate. A delegation he sent to the African Union (AU) meeting on the crisis in Addis Ababa has agreed “to implement an AU roadmap.” The AU plan calls for an immediate end to hostilities, co-operation on the distribution of humanitarian aid and the protection of foreigners. The rebels refused to send a delegation to the talks, saying Gaddafi had to step down first.
A stalemate in the Libyan conflict would probably see a two-state solution develop like occurred between the Czech Republic and Slovakia after the fall of communism or between North and South Sudan after their civil war. An agreement would have to be reached between rebel-held Eastern Libya and Gaddafi’s Western Libya fiefdom on sharing oil revenues, like occurred between the two Sudanese states, which may be why Gaddafi’s forces did not destroy the oil facilities when they retreated.
NATO or a UN force would have to guarantee Eastern Libya’s security against any Gaddafi plan for reconquest but, barring that, the Egyptian army, paid by oil revenues, could do the job just as well. The Egyptians already have Special Forces troops in Libya, helping the rebels and, as an oil-poor country, may already have an eye on Eastern Libya’s oil fields. Until then, since Gaddafi shows no signs of stepping down and his army has not disintegrated under the NATO air offensive, a ceasefire is now needed to stop the killing and save innocent lives, for which purpose and for whose benefit the UN issued its no-fly mandate in the first place.
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