Potential Hot Spots: Libya Goes To War With Itself


: Items About Areas That Could Break Out Into War 

February 24, 2011: Widespread unrest continue in Libya, threatening longtime strongman Mummar Qadaffi's four decade-old rule. The massive protests have spread from Benghazi and the eastern part of the country, now completely under rebel control, to the capital city of Triploli, historically a bastion of pro-government support. Significant elements of the military and police forces, including a Major General and his entire command, have defected to the opposition and those numbers continue to grow. Many diplomats, the long-serving Interior and Justice Ministers, and other government officials have resigned or sided with the opposition. Finally, the Arab League voted to suspend Libya from its sessions. This on top of the mounting international pressure on the country's regime.   But the biggest problem for Qadaffi remains the Libyans who have not been on the receiving end of some of the oil money. Qadaffi played divide and rule with hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue over the last four decades. Much of the money was squandered on lame ideas, or stolen by more skillful crooks than Qadaffi. The few tribes that remained loyal to Qadaffi prospered, everyone else got by on a trickle of oil generated cash. Qadaffi's security arrangements worked for decades, but anger and resentment grew. When Libyans saw what their neighbors in Tunisia and Egypt could do to the local dictators, the unrest began.

Thus far, reaction to the mass protests in Libya has been the most violent of any Arab state, with the government attempting to launch an outright assault to crush pro-democracy demonstrators. It's unclear exactly who is on what side and whether the government forces that have fired on protesters in recent days are members of the regular army, Qaddafi's militias, foreign mercenaries, or other government security forces. In all likelihood, it's a little bit of each. One thing is certain: even the military is beginning to desert, and the mercenaries (from Libya's southern neighbors, not Europe) have been most frequently seen killing civilians. 

The uprising in Libya and the government's reaction to it underscore serious differences between the North African country and other Arab states, like Egypt and Tunisia, whose government fell after largely peaceful demonstrations and a lack of willingness on the part of the military and security forces to go all-out in violently suppressing the demonstrations. But Libya is not Egypt. 

Some elements of the Libyan Army have proven willing to use force to suppress the demonstrations, especially those specialized units specifically trained to protect the regime and controlled by Qadaffi's sons. Other units, especially in the eastern part of the country, seem to be defecting. This shouldn't come as surprise. After all, the Libyan government has not exactly given its military any reason to be especially proud or loyal to the regime for the last four decades. But there are other differences as well. 

For one thing, the regular army has never been a significant factor in the country, and is neither as large, well-equipped, nor as professional as Egypt's. Despite being an army man himself, Qaddafi, over the decades, has deliberately kept the Libyan Army in a weakened state, fearful that it might present a meaningful challenge to his personal authority. Armored and mechanized infantry units, in particular, were often issued fuel supplies that are completely inadequate for combat training or exercises, on the assumption that it would make it more difficult for the Army's heavy formations to attempt a coup against the dictator. Instead, Qadaffi lavished arms and perks upon his People's Militia, whose sole purpose is to maintain the regime in power and violently crush any major opposition. It is these forces that have apparently perpetrated much of the violence in Libya and are currently tasked with defending the regime's hold on the capital of Tripoli. Estimated numbers of the People's Militia are anywhere from 45-120,000 troops. Training and leadership in the Libyan Army and People's Militia are horrendous and their most useful role is in suppressing unarmed demonstrators. But they have the most to lose if Qaddafi goes, so it is possible they might fight to the death defending the capital. 

Libya's military forces are regularly regarded as being among the worst anywhere in the world, and certainly within the Middle East, ranking below even Syria in its levels of training, equipment and readiness. Libya's standing army numbers around 50,000 officers and men, with 25,000 of those consisting of professionals and the other half consisting of conscripts. The Army is organized into six Commando/Special Forces Battalions, one Armored Battalion, one "Regime Security" Brigade, 10 Mechanized Infantry Battalions, 10 Infantry Battalions, and 22 Artillery Battalions. All together, Libyan ground forces, officially, number around 90-100,000 troops, nowhere near as large as Egypt 450,000-man Army and probably not enough to retain control of an entire country in revolt. 

The deliberate weakening of the military's capabilities has had disastrous consequences in the past. During the "Toyota War" against Chad in the 1970s and 1980s, Libyan troops were completely routed (by tribal irregulars, firing from Toyota pickup trucks), and expelled from Chad, marking a tremendously embarrassing defeat for the regime. The Libyans found themselves further embroiled in a border war with Egypt in 1977 that saw the battle-tested Egyptians easily defeat the Libyans. In short, Libyan fighting capabilities have been in serious disrepair for decades. 

Equipment is another major problem. Like Syria, Libya has had little in the way of new equipment and firepower for the last 20 years, thanks largely to its status as a pariah state. On paper, Libya maintains a massive armored force, about 2,025 tanks in all. Some 200 of these are Soviet T-72s, 100 are older T-62s, and 500 are ancient, but still running T-55s. There are over 1,000 T-55/54s which are inoperable. Out of 200 T-72 main battle tanks, the most up-to-date in Libya's arsenal, 115 of these are also in storage and not available for front line combat service, mainly for lack of maintenance and spare parts. The older tanks are in even worse shape. It is suspected that heavy artillery pieces and other armored vehicles are in similar straits. The bottom line is, Libya as a country is incapable of defending itself against invasion from even another Third World country, so poor is the state of its military. 

Despite all this, the military and security forces have been able to muster some snipers, plus a few helicopter gunships, artillery and other heavy weapons, for attacks on largely unarmed civilians. The forces behind the attacks on the demonstrators are probably a mixture of government security forces and regular military forces. Almost anything in Libya is difficult to verify, especially concerning military matters, but it is likely that the regular army forces backing the government's efforts at regaining control of the country come from the "Regime Security Brigade", whose actual designation is probably the 32nd Brigade and is considered the most loyal of the regular army forces, not to mention the most well-trained and equipped. The 32nd is commanded by the dictator's son, Khamis. Beyond the 32nd Brigade and perhaps a few commando units, there's not much genuine support for the current regime within the military.  

In fact, it is possible that even some of the elite troops may be turning against the government, with reports indicating that a special forces unit known as Al-Saiqa ("Thunderbolt") had been involved in fighting off government security forces earlier in the week. This is not implausible since Al-Saiqa is a common title for special forces/counter-terrorist units in the Arab world (both Syria and Egypt have special ops units so named). 

 Out of approximately 50,000 regular troops, only a hardcore of about 5,000 soldiers and special forces can be considered reliable, and it's simply impossible to retain dictatorial control over a population of almost 7,000,000 people with only a single brigade of soldiers. It is now out of the question as to whether the government can retake the entire country. It can only hold out for as long as possible. 


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