As Libyan rebels have momentarily halted their westward advance through the northernmost reaches of the Sahara toward their key objective of the town of Sirte, Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi’s stronghold on the central Mediterranean coast, a series of deadly surges and retreats are taking place. While the opposition is firmly in control of the eastern city of Benghazi, which is now the rebels’ temporary de facto capital, the cities and towns between Benghazi and Sirte remain extremely vulnerable to recapture by government troops loyal to, and sub-Saharan African mercenaries in the employ of, the regime in Tripoli. The strategic oil terminal and adjacent town of Ras Lanuf was reported to be firmly in control of the rebels on the evening of March 5 but as Jamestown witnessed on a March 7 visit to the area, some of the opposition’s more tenuous, westward gains can be quickly reversed as Colonel Qaddafi sees fit to prolonging the war in a bid to regain control of his country’s coastal oil supply depots.
Outside the town of al-Aghela, residents told the author that nationals from Mali, Chad and Niger (from the northern Nigerién city of Agadez) had been imported to fight for the regime. These mercenaries were brought to the Libyan town of Sebha, the principal city of the Fezzan region, then transported to various fronts across the country. Colonel Qaddafi has added a pan-African assemblage of combatants to an indigenous Arab and Berber rebellion occurring mostly in Libya’s arable coastal settlements and urban centers. With mercenaries being ferried in by air from neighboring Sahel states and untold numbers of migrant workers from Egypt, South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia fleeing Libya’s borders, Qaddafi has created the ultimate regional crisis which has paralyzed Western policy makers and threatens its already destabilized neighbors in Egypt and Tunisia. Qaddafi continues to make preposterous allegations that the rebels are at once al-Qaeda allied Islamists and thuggish drug users who are an imminent threat to the Libyan way of life.
Although the rebels do have a minority element of religiously motivated fighters in their vanguard while all the rebels apply an Islamic vernacular to their battle cries when heading to the front, the revolt does not appear to be Islamist in character in its initial phase, despite Qaddafi’s insistence to the contrary. The rebels have adopted the symbolism of the iconic Cyrene rebel leader and martyr Omar al-Mukhtar who was hanged in 1931 by Benito Mussolini’s colonial regime for his fierce resistance to Italian occupation. The references to al-Mukhtar by the rebels’ nascent public relations organ, the Revolutionary Media Committee, are a pointed expression of Libyans’ distaste for outside meddling in their affairs and meant as a message to the West not to intervene on the ground here.
On, March 4, Jamestown witnessed a fierce battle on the road between al-Aghela and Ras Lanuf, where once exuberant rebels were repulsed by heavy artillery, mortars and small arms fire, with many of the most inexperienced volunteer fighters running for their lives and regrouping several kilometers back from the front line. According to a witness who arrived behind rebel lines after escaping Ras Lanuf, Tripoli’s soldiers consisted of three distinct groups:
- Professional soldiers and officers from Sirte and Tripoli who remained loyal to Qaddafi and feared persecution in a new, rebel-controlled Libya.
- Clans like the al-Ah’soun and Awlad Suleiman who had been press ganged into service having been told their families would suffer and they would be killed if they refused to fight.
- The aforementioned mercenaries who had reportedly been trained to fight regional proxy wars against the regime’s enemies du jour elsewhere in Africa.
Rebel forces continue to remain at a great disadvantage to Tripoli as long as government warplanes control the sky and Washington and Brussels dither in bureaucratic miasma at the prospect of creating a no-fly zone to ensure and solidify rebel ground advances. Rebel control over the towns of Ajdabiya, al-Burayqa, and al-Aghela is still tenuous and could be lost at any moment, should Qaddafi decide to mount a major tank assault on them and simultaneously launch airstrikes on Benghazi. Libyan rebels have a territorial advantage over the regime but Tripoli has a definitive hardware advantage as well as the ability to access the international arms market.
Though precise information is impossible to come by from behind the lines, a Libyan source told the author that Qaddafi was being resupplied with munitions and arms from Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s Belarus, which appears to be acting as a conduit and a cover for Russian arms destined for the African market. Following the defection of two Libyan pilots to Malta at the start of the troubles, Qaddafi has reportedly outsourced aerial assaults on his subjects to Serbian and Syrian pilots. On March 5, rebels outside of Ras Lanuf claim to have shot down a jet with an anti-aircraft battery and upon inspecting the wreckage, allegedly found the deceased pilot with Syrian identity documents lodged in his flight suit. However, there have been conflicting reports regarding the downed pilot’s nationality.
The presence of foreign pilots raises an interesting question regarding Western intervention over Libya. In the event that a pilot from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) were to engage non-Libyan pilots in the air, there is a risk of internationalizing the conflict beyond North Africa and therefore making it more difficult to bring about a decisive end. Though such a scenario may be a remote possibility, while information is scant on the precise nationalities of these supposed pilots as mentioned previously, this factor should be taken into serious consideration by the United States and NATO. The same may be said with regard to the allegations that the regime is being reequipped from the air by Belarus or other suppliers from the post-Soviet space, whose possible presence in Libyan airspace may be a conundrum for such an aerial protectorate.
Rebel supply lines are extremely exposed; eastern and central Libya’s road network is made up of a handful of straight lines traversing vast distances vulnerable to aerial assault as well as powerful sand storms. Without an infusion of new ammunition and external support, rebel forces appear to have a finite amount of equipment. Furthermore, Tripoli has the easy ability to outspend the opposition with oil revenues transferable to its immense war chest.
Colonel Qaddafi’s propaganda organs are working round the clock inside Libya showing rallies in downtown Tripoli eschewing the rebellion and images of fairly serious looking loyalist troops dug in around that city with rows of tanks lining the streets in position for a defense of the urban perimeter or a possible counter offensive. In an attempt to create a counter-narrative in the Western and Arab media, Qaddafi has invited select foreign journalists for propaganda tours of Tripoli, hoping to demonstrate his regime’s legitimacy and display its firm control of the capital. Despite the law and order look of the footage officially allowed to be broadcast on the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya news channel, smuggled mobile phone videos of sporadic violence coming out of the city tell a different story. The advent and diffusion of mobile recording technology has made it impossible for Qaddafi’s regime to keep images of the uprising from reaching the outside world. The author was shown video footage taken on a tiny Nokia-brand phone of an intense fire fight from the earliest days of the rebellion, before the country became accessible to journalists, in which dissident soldiers had a sustained engagement with loyalist troops inside Benghazi’s sprawling army barracks in the dark of night with tracer fire flying past the accidental cameraman. Technology has presented as much of a challenge to Libya’s strongman as the protests and mass defections he was accustomed to quelling for decades.
Though opposition forces claim total control of Zawiya to Tripoli’s west and Misurata to its east, their major obstacle to mounting an assault on Tripoli, and therefore their highest strategic objective, is conquering Sirte. As the rebels rapidly moved forward in a highly disorganized manner, in part due to the lack of proper communications equipment and in part because they tended to move in spontaneous cells, Jamestown witnessed the opposition suffer nearly instantaneous casualties as Libyan Red Crescent ambulances hurtled toward the front to evacuate fighters to a rear guard medical facility outside of al-Aghela. The rebels depend on sporadic mobile phone service of two providers, al-Madar and Libyana, both of which are owned by Muhammed al-Qaddafi, who has seen fit to disable the country’s Short Messaging System (SMS-commonly known as text messaging) in order to disrupt the opposition’s coordinating abilities. While phone calls can be eavesdropped on, SMS’s are harder to decipher for Qaddafi’s intelligence network.
Weather has been another hurdle in the war. As rebel troops mounted the March 4 offensive, a mild sand storm helped to jam already poorly maintained arms, making the rebels virtual cannon fodder for Qaddafi’s forces. Volunteer fighters’ lack of proper training in operating the rebels’ looted weapons stock has been another debilitating factor. For example, a teenage boy helping to operate a cannon on the al-Burayqah front on March 2 lost a leg when standing directly behind the device as it launched a shell, the backfiring cleaving his extremity. All of these factors, which create an extremely chaotic kinetic battle environment, stem from a dearth of top-down coordination in the movement with motivated yet untrained novices mixing with experienced soldiers dating back to Colonel Qaddafi’s disastrous Chadian adventures of the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the techniques being employed by both Benghazi and Tripoli in the current conflict are reminiscent of the 1986-1987 Toyota War in northern Chad’s Borkou-Ennedi-Tibesti region and the then disputed Aouzou Strip, when lightly armed but highly mobile Chadian forces in technicals faced off against Libyan armor and MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets in the final phase of the Libyan-Chadian war. Then as now, Qaddafi invited select international journalists to come to the region and view his ‘victory’, thereby propagating his version of events to a global audience. In the Toyota War, as Hissène Habré’s Chad began to make gains on the ground decimating Libyan troops, Qaddafi also relied on air power to make up for inherent weaknesses in his ground campaign.
The government of Chad in the 1980s needed the French air force to keep Libyan jets at bay while Chadian regular forces pushed the Libyan army and its allied north Chadian rebels northward toward the Aouzou Strip and Libyan border areas. A similar strategy might become indispensable for the rebels in Benghazi. Due to the resilience of Chadian Toyota technicals backed by French air cover, Chad’s army effected a resounding defeat for Qaddafi and the war petered out by late 1987. Libya’s rebels desire a similar strategy and anxiously await a decision by the international community; NATO, the United Nations, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference condemn Tripoli’s actions but have made no decision to intervene. NATO’s Rasmussen stressed that his organization needs UN backing for the creation of a no-fly zone but the Russian Federation reportedly said it would move to block such a proposal (RFE/RL, March 8).
Colonel Qaddafi has deliberately kept the Libyan military divided amongst itself to prevent the rise of a peer competitor who could one day overthrow him and it is this internal maneuvering that hinders his forces in the present conflict. While the rebels desperately lack a unified command, they are guided by an overwhelming sense of purpose, the elimination not only of the Qaddafi family but also of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). In contrast, regime forces are fighting primarily for their own personal preservation, determined to hold the territory they presently control surrounding Tripoli and Sirte, and pushing the rebels back to a stalemate, at best. It seems unlikely at present that loyalist troops will be able to recapture eastern Libya’s historically rebellious Cyrenaica region at present, as a rebel administration begins to take its first fitful steps and clamors for international recognition.
Though Libya’s rebels certainly do not speak with one voice as of yet, particularly with regard to what the role of foreign powers should be in the conflict, several recurring themes run through their discourse. Many in the country’s small, educated, older elite fondly remember the Allied intervention in Libya in 1941 and their commendable fight against the Axis powers and German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Nonetheless they, along with the country’s youth, are extremely skeptical of American interests in their country. They fear that an American or NATO enforced no-fly zone would be coupled with very unwelcome ground forces storming the country’s ports and confiscating oil installations. This factor, combined with the region’s propensity for conspiracy theories, the Anglo-American occupation of the Republic of Iraq and Washington’s close ties with Israel, make the rebels, intellectuals and fighters alike, wholeheartedly weary of a possible American/NATO occupation. Simultaneously, they fret that Qaddafi’s repeated claims that al-Qaeda is infiltrating the country and coordinating with the opposition is a clever attempt by the leader to buy time. They believe it is effectively working to extend Western inaction in the Libyan war by creating an air of doubt about Benghazi’s intentions and Libyan vulnerability to al-Qaeda ideology following the eventual fall of the Qaddafi family. Front line fighters frequently told the author that they reject out right the al-Qaeda ideology and state they are simply trying to overthrow one of North Africa’s most intractable dictatorships.
Fighters told the author that they will continue to push westward with or without a no-fly zone but they would strongly prefer Western intervention in the skies to help solidify their gains on the ground. As fighter bombers, apparently Russian-made Sukhois, continue to strafe rebel positions (witnessed by Jamestown outside the Ras Lanuf oil terminal on March 7), pro-Qaddafi forces can mount sustained counter-attacks on the road pushing the rebels back east and nullify some of their recent lightening gains. In response to air raids, neophyte rebel supporters tend to flee the area while hardened fighters, many of them appearing unskilled in anti-air defense, man swiveling anti-aircraft batteries and recoilless rifles, firing wildly toward the sky and intimidating fixed wing attackers with little chance of bringing them down other than by pure luck. The rebels’ defeat at Ben Jawad, a town between Ras Lanuf and Sirte, on March 5 and their struggle to hold the Ras Lanuf oil terminal marks their first significant roll back by loyalist forces, due in part to their disorganization and lack of hardware equivalency with Tripoli. For now, rebel momentum toward Qaddafi-held Sirte has stalled.
The geographic chink in Qaddafi’s armor is the city of Misurata, between Tripoli and Sirte. Since Misurata fell to the rebels, the regime may only be able to resupply Sirte from Tripoli by air. If the rebels can genuinely consolidate their control of all of the territory beyond Ras Lanuf in order to mount an attack on Sirte, Qaddafi’s birthplace and the site of his pan-African projects, loyalist troops streaming out from Tripoli toward Sirte would likely meet stiff resistance en route in Misurata, which could draw in rebels from the opposition outpost of Zawiya toward Tripoli’s western flank. Colonel Qaddafi’s men may make serious pushes in Misurata and Zawiya in order to create an unbroken chain of loyalist cities before trying to retake al-Burayqah (also known as Brega) and points further east.
An alternate scenario would be that Qaddafi mounts a scorched earth campaign in rebel-held towns by storming the east with tank divisions and bombarding infrastructure in Benghazi. With loyalist forces storming back toward rebel positions around Ras Lanuf at the time of this writing, the rebels’ immediate objective of mounting an all out technical assault on Sirte seems unlikely without the firm consolidation of their gains along the central coast. Despite the increasing risk of casualties, the elongation of their supply lines the further they move away from Benghazi and the depletion of ammunition stock, the rebels tell Jamestown they plan to push ahead regardless of the cost.
Derek Henry Flood is the editor of Jamestown’s Militant Leadership Monitor publication. Mr. Flood is also an independent author and journalist who blogs at the-war-diaries.com.