Potential Hot Spots: The Endgame In Libya

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March 15, 2011: The war in Libya is fought along an 1,822 kilometer highway that passes through dozens of cities and large towns that contain over 80 percent of the country's population. The oil workers, and a few nomads and residents of remote villages, live in the vast interior. Most Libyans live and work along the coastal highway. That's where the war is being fought. The rebels have more armed men, but most are civilian volunteers, armed with assault rifles and not much else. There is not much training or discipline, and little experienced military leadership. The government has some warplanes and armed helicopters, as well as some tanks and artillery. The government forces also have some civilian volunteers and a growing number of foreign mercenaries (from Tuareg tribes to the south, as well as Eastern Europe and Syria). The government forces also have better discipline. Many senior men from the security forces and the military have remained with Kadaffi, for the moment.

The government strategy involves deployment of lots of cash (several hundred million dollars worth), post-war promises, and a small force of loyalist troops and foreign mercenaries. The foreign troops (mostly from African nations to the south), are the most reliable. Pro-government Libyan troops still occasionally have loyalty problems. This much is known from the few that have been captured, and incidents where government forces halted, and seemed to settle some internal dispute with gunfire.

But the basic government strategy is working, so far. Several brigade size (1-3 thousand men) units are being sent along the coastal highway to recapture towns and cities. These assault brigades are equipped with Russian made tanks, and other armored vehicles, including artillery. The brigades are backed up by a few dozen fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships, as well as a few warships off the coast. Once the rebels in a town are killed or driven out (or into hiding), the government forces bring in less heavily armed security troops, and contact local government loyalists (or recruits some new ones) and proceed to terrorize the locals into obeying orders and not demonstrating or taking up arms. There aren't a lot of loyalists right now, so terror is the primary weapon. The foreign mercenaries are particularly trigger-happy, and shoot anyone who appears to be resisting. Restoring the old Kadaffi will take months, or years, because of all the killings and the extent of anti-government hatred among the population. Hostility that has been growing for decades is suddenly out in the open. Many Libyans the Kaddafi clan thought they could trust, turned out to be rebels. The Kaddafis only have the support of 5-10 percent of the population. But properly organized (and bribed), this is enough to dominate the majority.

On the west end of the country, dictator Muamar Kaddafi never lost control of the capital, Tripoli, along with its many nearby military bases. Yet most of the Tripoli population is probably pro-rebel. On the east end, there is Benghazi, still in the hands of rebels. In the middle (closer to Benghazi) is the oil shipping facility at Ras Lanuf. Control the oil and you control the national wealth. Kaddafi's forces control the city of Sirte (Kaddafi's home town), just to the west of Ras Lanuf (which is 620 kilometers from Tripoli).  Rebels still hold  the third largest city (after 1.1 million Tripoli and 671,000 in Benghazi), Misarata, which is 210 kilometers east of Tripoli and has a population of 550,000. Despite its proximity to Tripoli, government forces have been unable to take Misarata.  But the government shock troops have retaken most of the oil ports and refineries, and Misarata is under siege.

Oil production has largely halted. Before the unrest began in February, Libya was producing 1.7 million barrels a day, with 1.2 million being exported (mostly to Europe). Now only about 200,000-300,000 barrels a day are reaching coastal refineries. Most electricity is produced using local natural gas, and fuel is produced in Libyan refineries from Libyan oil. The government forces have concentrated on capturing the refineries and oil export terminals. Most of these are in central Libya, and directly inland, in the center of the country, are the main oil fields. A minority of the oil is found in the west, south of the capital, Tripoli.

The rebels have no central command, and are divided by tribe and area of origin. There are some deep divisions among the rebels about how the "new" Libya should be run. If Kaddafi and company disappeared tomorrow, the civil war might well continue because of the animosities between rebel factions. The rebellion is not just against the rule of Kaddafi, but against the rule of an "outsider". Libya is a very divided (mainly by tribal loyalty) country. There could easily be four or five major tribal coalitions fighting each other, if Kaddafi were gone. And each coalition would consider other rebel groups unwanted outsiders.

As the rebels lost more ground over the last two weeks, they became more united in their calls for foreign assistance. A month ago, such foreign intervention was not wanted. Actually, no one really wanted to get involved with the Libyan civil war. Arab nations did not want to risk exposing the incompetence of their armed forces, and Western nations know intervention was a no-win situation. Even if invited by the rebels, Western troops going in would soon be widely denounced as "infidel invaders." Moreover, many Western nations (plus Russia, and China) do not want Kaddafi removed because that would threaten economic arrangements already in place (and liable to be cancelled by a new rebel government). Kaddafi was the devil you knew, but the exact nature of any new government was quite murky. Even a "no-fly" zone to destroy Kaddafi's air power is likely beyond the political will of nearby European and Arab nations. Right now, it appears that the rebels will be left alone, to be crushed, and the population brutally terrorized back into submission. Kaddafi will be condemned, but oil shipments will resume, and life will go on.

March 14, 2011:  Government forces are appear to be massing forces for a move on the last major rebel city, Benghazi. If this city falls, and it probably will, the rebellion will be defeated, possibly by the end of the month. After that, months of massacres, executions and other newsworthy tragedies, as the Kaddafi clan restores its dictatorship.

March 13, 2011: Government troops drove rebels out of the town of Brega. This is a small place, with a population of about 8,000. But it contains an oil refinery, a port and an airport. Nearby is the larger city of Ajdabiya (population 135,000), where many key roads from the interior converge. Only 160 kilometers to the north, along the coastal road, is the second largest city, Benghazi.

March 12, 2011: The Arab League agrees that a no-fly zone is required along the Libyan coast, and asks the UN to authorize one. The UN is unlikely to authorize the no-fly zone, because key nations (with a veto), like Russia, oppose any action against the Libyan government. Russian stands to lose billions in arms sales and other contracts, if the current Libyan government is overthrown. Many other nations, both Arab and Western, prefer that the current Libyan dictatorship remain in power.

 

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