Libya: The Trap

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June 15, 2011: Government forces have been pushed back from the western city of Misarata (which is 200 kilometers east of Tripoli). Depending on how determined government troops and mercenaries are along the coast road, the rebels could be fighting in Tripoli in a few weeks. As government forces are pushed back from Misarata, they are firing their artillery and rockets at the city while they still can.  NATO aircraft are dropping leaflets on government troops holding towns along the coast road between Misarata and Tripoli. The leaflets urge the troops to surrender or flee, otherwise they are likely to be killed by NATO smart bombs or rebel fighters. The rebels have more enthusiasm than skill, but the smart bombs have a scary reputation. The leaflets also mention French and British helicopter gunships. These have been around for about a week, and they are also scary, what with their autocannon and guided missiles.

After a three day lull, NATO aircraft are again hitting targets in Tripoli. Despite the NATO nations involved with the Libya operation owning thousands of warplanes, various logistical and support shortages means only about 150 sorties a day can be put over Libya. And only about half of these are bombers. NATO originally planned to deliver 300 sorties a day. They might have done that if the better prepared Americans had stayed, but the U.S. is angry at NATO for coming up short in Afghanistan and always expecting America to come in and do most of the work and handle most of the criticism. While American aircraft are still supplying dozens of sorties a day (most of them aerial refueling to electronic warfare), it's up to the other NATO states to supply the bombers. As more rebels get organized and go to war, they all demand air support. There isn't enough to go around. The United States will eventually get blamed for that, but for the moment, NATO is taking the heat.

There is a debate within NATO over whether the bombers should concentrate on getting Kaddafi (a "decapitation" strategy) or provide maximum support for rebel troops. The latter strategy minimizes rebel losses, but the war will continue as long as Kaddafi is alive. But decapitation doesn't always work, because Kaddafi isn't running things all by himself. He has family (especially his sons) and many henchmen. All of these guys are guilty in the eyes of the rebels, and could still keep the fight going. What is most likely to bring rebel victory is the blockade, which stops everything except food and medicine from getting to the population under Kaddafi's control. The fighting interrupts the distribution of these essential supplies, and most Libyans blame Kaddafi for the resulting privation. That anger, more than rebel bullets or NATO bombs, could be the end of Kaddafi.

The offensive along the coast road isn't just one force pushing another along the 1,822 kilometer coastal highway. There are pockets of rebel and government troops all along the highway, although most of the road is controlled by rebels. The government stronghold is in the west, in and around the capitol, Tripoli. Rebels are advancing on Tripoli from the east, west and the south. Off the coast are NATO warships. The mainly Berber rebels are coming from the mountains south of the capital. These rebels have taken the town of Kikla, which is 150 kilometers southwest of Tripoli. Along the coast road, rebels are fighting to take Zlitan, which is 160 kilometers east of Tripoli.  But rebels are also fighting in Zawiyah, which is only 40 kilometers west of Tripoli.  This town has been fought over for weeks, and the rebels are winning.

The coast road passes through the dozens cities and large towns that contain over 80 percent of the country's population. Most Libyans live and work along the coastal highway. That's where most of the war is being fought. The war is also being negotiated. As each new town is approached by the rebels, negotiators have to meet with local tribal leaders, to work out how damage to tribal member's property will be avoided and what help, if any, the tribesmen will give the rebels. Many of the west Libyan tribes have long been Kaddafi allies. But Kaddafi was an unreliable patron, and often turned on his tribal clients. So many tribal leaders are willing to negotiate a new deal with the rebels.

In the east, government troops holding parts of Brega, a port for oil shipments in the east (160 kilometers south of Benghazi) refuse to surrender, and killed 21 rebels when they pretended to surrender, then opened fire. The rebels are quite angry about this.

The defection of senior Kaddafi officials has not worked out well. The officials demanded the usual goodies (immunity, money and sanctuary), but refused to publically denounce their old boss. NATO is now inclined to nail them all with prosecution and prison for crimes committed while in Kaddafi's service. Meanwhile, Kaddafi is trying to work out a deal. The rebels are closing in and, from Kaddafi's perspective, the end is near. Cut off by a land, sea and air blockade, and with nearly every nation on the planet against him, Kaddafi can either die fighting, or make the best surrender deal he can. Kaddafi has always been resourceful and unpredictable, so it's unclear what he will do next.

NATO has agreed to keep the Libyan campaign going another three months. The first three months end March 18th. More nations are recognizing the NTC (National Transitional Council) at the legitimate government of Libya. Sort of. The NTC controls most rebel activities, but its 31 unelected members are recognized only because it is understood that there will be elections as soon as the pro-Kaddafi forces are defeated. That may take a few more months, or longer.

June 14, 2011: Government forces fired five 107mm rockets into Tunisia, causing no damage. Tunisia responded by sending an F-5 jet fighter to fly along the border, along with a military helicopter.

 

 

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