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    Middle East
     Jun 14, 2011

Libya: The land of make believe
By Victor Kotsev

TEL AVIV - The caption of an al-Jazeera photo inadvertently says it all: "Libyan rebel fighters carry their commander to celebrate after believing they pushed back forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi."

In the past week or so, the absurdities of the Libyan war reached a new level. American officials say Gaddafi's associates want to negotiate his exit; Gaddafi says he will die as a martyr (in reality, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been trying to help him do just that for some time now).

Rebels say they are progressing with "difficulty", but their large casualty numbers and the situation on the ground emphasize the difficulty. The International Criminal Court (ICC) says it wants to

add mass rape to Gaddafi's war crimes indictment while Turkey offers the colonel "guarantees" should he step down. Meanwhile, the opposing banners of humanitarian intervention and state sovereignty fly so high that they seem to have lost any anchor to the ground.

Believe what you will. How we will one day remember this war will be determined only once it is over, likely a long time from now, by a variation of the universal rule that history is told by the victors. In the foreseeable future, however, no victors are set to emerge, only more chaotic strife and carnage. Such moments are the blind spots of history; Libya is thus in a dark period, not only from a humanitarian point of view, but also from the perspective of history.

Gaddafi, as influential American think-tank Stratfor claims, seems to be banking on a stalemate. In a recent report, Stratfor writes:
Gadhafi has lost any chance of being able to reunify Libya under his rule, but he continues to maintain hope that he can outlast the NATO air campaign. Whether or not he truly believes he can reconquer all the areas he has lost since February is impossible to discern. Regardless, should Gadhafi continue to hold on for the next several months, he could compel the West to come to an agreement on some form of partition, as unpalatable as that may sound to the countries leading the air campaign and to the rebel council umbrella. Publicly he denies that partition is his objective, but with total victory out of the question, this is the best possible outcome remaining for the Libyan leader.
Indeed, much of the recent fighting has occurred around important oil export terminals, and reports have it that a stiff competition between Gaddafi and the rebels is underway for oil production capacities. Translation: both sides on the ground are looking for a stable source of longer-term income, most likely in anticipation of a prolonged stand-off that would require constant rearmament. With powerful weapons smuggling networks having already taken root in Libya, the arms embargo, routinely violated by all sides anyway, is little more than a nuisance.

On the ground, the government has resorted to much the same strategy in western Libya as the one it used earlier to force a stalemate in the east. Its superior military tactics and equipment demoralize and inflict heavy casualties on the rebels. The heavy civilian toll serves to broaden the divide and to instigate hatred between Gaddafi's supporters and the rebels, thus ossifying the conflict and consolidating the colonel's support base. (The ICC is planning to indict Gaddafi of war crimes against the civilian population; NATO's ever more intensive air strikes are also reportedly producing heavy "collateral damage")

Militarily, Gaddafi is facing a relatively newly-recruited militia in the west, much of it likely made up of disgruntled men from the large port city of Misurata, the main rebel stronghold in that part of the country and the epicenter of heavy fighting and in the last two or three months. Apart from unrelenting NATO bombardment on government forces from the air, a major factor behind the recent rebel advances has been the availability of manpower and light weapons smuggled by sea.

"[The rebels in Misurata] have a large pool of potential manpower," a BBC report explains. "Many among the 300,000 population have hardened in their opposition to Col Gaddafi during what Western leaders have compared to a ‘medieval siege', residents say. [1]"

The rebels are strong while fighting in the city, on short supply and communication lines and in a terrain that is intimately familiar to them. Once they advance toward Gaddafi's capital Tripoli, however, as they repeatedly tried to do in the last couple of weeks, their lack of discipline and basic training becomes decisive.

They are liable to fall into traps and ambushes where Gaddafi's heavy weapons, hidden in places that are difficult to discover in advance and bomb from the air, decimate them. This is what happened on the eastern front between the towns of Ajdabiya and Brega a couple of months ago [2]; in fact, it happened there again on Sunday, when a rebel attack on Brega was pushed back with more than half of the force wounded or killed [3].

The battle line today between Misurata and the neighboring towns in the west seems very similar to the fluid battle lines in the east from the early days of the NATO campaign. The rebels pushed the government troops out of Misurata, and advanced in the direction of Tripoli, with heavy fighting in the towns of Zlitan and Zawiya.

Subsequently, however, Gaddafi's forces counterattacked, and by late last week the fighting was again around Misurata, with dozens rebels killed and an unknown number wounded. On Sunday, the government took foreign reporters on a brief and tense tour of Zawiya's center [4]. Early Monday, reports came in that the rebels had advanced towards the town again.

A separate Berber rebel militia took over the town of Yafran, but reports claim there was little to no resistance, and the Berbers seem unlikely to advance on Tripoli. According to some sources, Gaddafi keeps his best-trained crack troops in reserve; currently, he seems to rely on a strategy of mobile warfare and counterattacks in order to delay the campaign and consolidate his control over a base territory.

NATO, meanwhile, has intensified its bombing raids; the capital Tripoli and Gaddafi's now empty headquarters are drawing many of the bombs. This seems to be a strategy to demoralize the colonel's core circle with hopes that he will be removed by an internal putsch. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently claimed that "numerous and continuing" offers by people close to Gaddafi to negotiate his stepping down were coming through to her [5].

Reports notwithstanding that a few close associates of Gaddafi were killed, wounded, or defected, the strategy does not seem to be working. Gaddafi insists that he will stay in his country (meaning, in some form of power) to the end, and it is unlikely that his inner circle, full of his relatives and people whose fortunes are intimately intertwined with his, would take action against his will.

Turkey's offer of "guarantees" for him, presumably against persecution, seems empty, particularly in light of the ICC's declared intention to indict him of war crimes. The example of Nigeria, which went back on similar guarantees to former Liberian President Charles Taylor and extradited him in 2006, is likely fresh on Gaddafi's mind.

The stalemate can perhaps be broken by one of two developments [6]: if Gaddafi and a large part of his inner circle are physically eliminated, or if NATO sends ground forces into Libya. A number of NATO bombing raids in the last months looked very much like attempts on his life; one of them allegedly killed Gaddafi's obscure son Saif al-Arab and several of the colonel's grandchildren. In an ironic twist, Gaddafi's daughter recently filed a war crimes suit against NATO on the basis of that incident.

Even though it is hard to say how many people besides Gaddafi NATO would have to kill to bring down his regime, some NATO officials have already started to prevaricate (rather than issue denials) on whether Gaddafi is an official target of the campaign. "While the killing of foreign leaders is generally frowned upon and rarely admitted to, Qaddafi probably shouldn't be counting on the law to protect him," Joshua Keating concludes in a recent legal analysis in Foreign Policy [7].

As for a ground invasion, this is an even riskier option, and a sign that NATO considers everything else to have failed. There are some indications, however, that the alliance is laying the groundwork for a potential land war in Libya, including the use of helicopters and the ratcheting up of war crimes allegations.

Save for these two options, there seems to be little that can remove Gaddafi's regime from power. We should consider the colonel's tactical retreats in light of these threats. Should they fail to materialize, a stalemate in Libya seems to be practically assured down the road. Meanwhile, more chaos and confusion is in store.


1. Misrata: City under siege, BBC, 10 May 2011.
2. Colonel Gaddafi goes Mao, Asia Times Online, 30 March 2011.
3. Gaddafi forces repel rebels at Libyan oil town, Reuters, 12 June 2011.
4. Zawiyah's heart a ghost town after rebel advance, Reuters, 12 June 2011.
5. Clinton: Gadhafi associates say potential for Libya transition of power, Ha’aretz, 9 June 2011.
6. Gadhafi's daughter files war crimes lawsuit against NATO, Ha’aretz, 8 June 2011.
7. Is It Legal to Try to Kill Qaddafi?, Foreign Policy, 10 June 2011.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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