by Austin Bay
April 27, 2011
For almost seven weeks, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi'sloyalists and mercenary soldiers have besieged the city of Misrata. Rebelfighters and Misrata's citizenry have suffered brutal assault after assault,but with the aid of NATO and coalition air power, they have denied Gadhafi'sregime a key military and political goal: complete control of western Libya'scoastal cities and towns.
Reports began to circulate on April 25 that Gadhafi'sforces, after a bloody fight in a key neighborhood, had retreated to theoutskirts of Misrata. The city, however, remains surrounded.
Gadhafi hasn't quit the battle, and the truth is, he can'tafford to quit. Located about 130 miles east of Tripoli on the road to Sirte,Misrata is an island of rebel resistance lying deep within territory Gadhafi'sregime must secure if it is to survive politically.
That's because Gadhafi is now fighting a war to retaincontrol of western Libya, also known as Tripolitania. Libyans understand theimportance of Misrata. Agence France-Presse quoted Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, aspokesman for the Libyan rebel Transitional National Council, as saying:"Misrata is the key to Tripoli. If he (Gadhafi) lets go of Misrata, hewill let go of Tripoli. He is not crazy enough to do that."
For a little over two millennia, the classical Romanprovincial designations of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica have lingered as popularnames for Libya's western and eastern regions. Numerous commentators havesuggested that Libya's civil war will stalemate and end with a 21st centuryresurrection of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Gadhafi would retain a rump statein the west, and the rebels would make Benghazi the capital of a New Cyrenaica.
However, the revolt against Gadhafi pits oppressed outsidersagainst privileged regime insiders. Misrata demonstrates that the war isn't amatter of east-west geography and a neat two-way division. So does continuedresistance in the Nafusa Mountains south and west of Gadhafi's stronghold ofTripoli.
The Nafusa range is a desert escarpment and a predominantlyethnic Berber region. With a few exceptions, for four decades the Berbers havereceived short economic and cultural shrift from Gadhafi.
Early on, Gadhafi understood the Berbers presented ageographic threat and ethnic challenge. Regime forces began attacking theBerbers in late February. In mid-April, Berber rebels seized the Libya-Tunisiaborder crossing between Wazin, Libya, and Dehiba, Tunisia. This opened a supplyline to Tunisia. NATO aircraft are now providing air support to the Berbers.Gadhafi's attempts to secure his southern desert flank, by bribes, harassmentand outright attack, have been stymied.
In March, Gadhafi suppressed uprisings in the western citiesof Zuwara and Zawiya (near the coast, between Tripoli and the Tunisian border).However, opposition simmers in the region.
Stalemate? Possibly, but go back to the map -- Gadhafi faceswar on four fronts. To the east, the Cyrenaica front. To the south, theBerbers. Misrata, though surrounded, hasn't cracked. The western front (Zuwara)may be quiet, but the area requires a garrison that Gadhafi might otherwise useelsewhere.
The dictator also faces a fifth front -- what might becalled a 21st century fifth column, to use the Spanish Civil War term. TheLondon Times quoted British Defense Secretary Liam Fox as saying: "Allparts of command and control are legitimate targets so long as they are attackingcivilians." On April 25, an air attack hit Gadhafi's headquarters. Thecoalition targeted a building, but in a dictatorship, the tyrant exercisessupreme control.
The coalition will soon be operating Predators. The dronesrepresent a tiny increase in strike and reconnaissance capability. As politicaland psychological warfare, however, they add punch.
Last week, Gadhafi was tooling around Tripoli in aconvertible and shaking his fist. Now he must cast a wary eye to the sky.