Libya: The Big Bluff And The Men Of The Desert

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April 25, 2011: Kaddafi forces have warned the rebels that troops have been withdrawn from Misarata so that pro-Kaddafi tribesmen can come in and kill the rebels, and take control of the city. There are six tribes in the area which, in theory, could muster over 20,000 armed men of the desert (actually, many of them live in Misarata or in the suburbs). But some of these tribes (or large factions of them) are pro-rebel, and others are not united on the idea of some bloody urban warfare for their young men. The tribes (along with everyone else in the region) depend on the port of Misarata for many essential goods, but without cooperation from the NATO warships off the coast, the tribes will not be able to use the port for anything. The government says the rebels have until tomorrow to accept the tribal demands (to get out of Misarata) or face attack by the tribal militias. The rebels are apparently going to call Kaddafi's bluff.

The rebels insist that they have forced government troops back from Misarata through hard fighting, not some kind of deal with local tribes. Kaddafi's men have been taking a beating, especially from the NATO aircraft. But Kaddafi really can't afford to lose Misarata, because that makes the capital, Tripoli, the next rebel objective.  

Morale among government fighters is low. They know that the world, and most Libyans, are against them. That's why Kaddafi depends so much on mercenaries, who take their high pay (thousands of dollars a week) and send it home, hoping to get themselves out of Libya when the end finally comes. While Kaddafi is a proven survivor, he has never had to face this much opposition. But Kaddafi still has options. He controls much of Western Libya, and a third of the population (about two million people). He has some cash on hand (a few hundred million dollars, at least), but his overseas accounts are largely frozen by international sanctions. But Kaddafi knows he can hold the two million people he controls hostage, forcing the UN to allow "humanitarian" aid in. Kaddafi also has control of the western oil fields, but these produce only about a fifth of the nation's oil. Thus even if he is allowed to sell this oil, all he will end up with is the kind of "food for oil" deal that Saddam Hussein exploited in the 1990s. However, Kaddafi will be faced with an increasingly hostile population in Western Libya as income, and living standards, decline. Moreover, the rebels will probably succeed in halting shipments from the west Libyan oil fields. This would leave Kaddafi's two million hostages living on UN charity, meaning minimal food, medical and other aid. Thus Kaddafi's long term prospects are not good, and his most loyal followers have figured this out.

Overnight, NATO warplanes bombed Kaddafi's compound in Tripoli, destroying office spaces and causing dozens of casualties. Kaddafi called it an assassination attempt. NATO estimates that the fighting in Libya has left about 10,000 dead, and over 50,000 wounded so far, most of them civilians. Kaddafi is believed to have 10-15,000 members of his security forces still in action, and about three times as many mercenaries. Most of these gunmen are used to maintain control over the two million people in western Libya. A few thousand troops and mercs are used to fight the rebels, mainly in and around Misarata. The Kaddafi forces are suffering casualties, and low morale, as a result of the continuing NATO air strikes.

For the last few weeks, there have been over a hundred dead and wounded a day in Misarata. Until the Libyan army forces began to withdraw, the Misarata rebels were getting increasingly desperate. They even began calling for NATO to send ground troops. This is generally opposed by most of the rebels, and the rebel leadership

Arab media continues to express dismay that it is Western, not Arab, air power that is assisting the rebels. Arab governments point out that NATO nations have more equipment and experience with modern warfare. But Arab critics point out that Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states have over a thousand modern jet fighters between them, and plenty of smart bombs. Here is an opportunity to use all this stuff, in a good cause. But many Arabs insist that Arab air forces aren't ready, and some even mention what many fear; that Arab pilots will reveal that they really are not ready. Arabs don't want to risk Iran finding that out.

April 24, 2011: Kuwait gave the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) $180 million, to pay salaries and other administrative expenses. No one outside Libya is sure of who all the members of the TNC are, or how united (or not) the key people are. There is also a risk that much of the Kuwaiti money will be stolen. Even with a revolution going on, the corruption the region is famous for continues to be a factor.  

April 23, 2011: Government troops began withdrawing from the west Libyan city of Misarata. The retreating troops fired rockets at areas their gunmen had left, continuing the destruction of the third largest (550,000 population) city in the country. The government said this was not a retreat, but a redeployment to allow tribal gunmen to enter the city and drive the rebels out. At the moment, this is generally considered a fiction.

American Predator UAVs have begun operating over Libya, and one fired its first Hellfire missile today (apparently at a government multiple-rocket launcher vehicle.)  The U.S. also offered the rebels $25 million worth of protective vests and military radios. Other NATO nations made similar offers.

April 21, 2011: Near the Egyptian border, nine vehicles full of pro-Kaddafi gunmen attacked an oil pumping station 300 kilometers southwest of the port city of Tobruk. One of nine rebels guarding the station survived the attack, escaped and made it to Tobruk. Meanwhile, on the other end of the country, rebels seized the Wazin guard post on the Tunisian border and forced over 150 Libyan soldiers to flee into Tunisia. This border crossing is 200 kilometers south of the main one, that carries most of the traffic between Tripoli and Tunisia.

The U.S. announced that it was sending armed Predator UAVs to operate over Libya.

April 20, 2011:  Britain, France and other NATO countries have agreed to send teams of trainers to help turn rebel fighters into more capable soldiers. The trainers will also work with the senior commanders of the rebel forces, providing professional advice, and liaison with NATO leadership outside the country. Initially, each country will only send 20-30 troops.

April 19, 2011: After a month of operations, NATO has flown 2,800 sorties over Libya, 43 percent of them combat missions. In these, warplanes have used about 2,000 smart bombs and guided missiles.

April 18, 2011: NATO warships fired some more cruise missiles at targets in Kaddafi controlled parts of Libya.

April 17, 2011: About 160 kilometers south of Benghazi, outside the town of Ajdabiya, rebel fighters defeated an attack by pro-Kaddafi gunmen. This is part of a weeks long battle to clear pro-Kaddafi forces from the eastern oil fields.  To the north, rebels forces continue to fight for control of the oil port of Brega.

April 16, 2011: Rebels leaders admit that they are receiving weapons and military equipment from NATO and Arab countries, but won't provide details (apparently on the advice of the donor nations.)

 

 

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