Libya: Running Out The Clock


June 22, 2011: Rebels have turned their attention towards clearing out pro-Kaddafi forces outside of Tripoli. These gunmen are still outside Misarata, holding the eastern city of Sirte and operating in the desert south. Rebel forces are fighting in Zliten, which is 60 kilometers west of Misarata and 130 kilometers from Tripoli. Berber rebels are holding onto the mountains south of Tripoli, and ready to advance on the city 150 kilometers to the north. NATO air strikes are chewing up the Kaddafi forces coming from Tripoli, across the coastal plain, to the mountains. Depending on how numerous the Berber rebels become, and how weak the Kaddafi forces get, the Berber advance could happen within a week, or more than a month. Dealing with the largely amateur Berber force, it's hard to make precise plans.

In Tripoli, the rebels are organizing and reinforcing their armed followers. These rebels harass Kaddafi forces and provide target information for NATO bombers. Kaddafi's supporters in Tripoli are numerous enough to organize some demonstrations for the media.  But in most neighborhoods, the talk is of when Kaddafi will be gone. Kaddafi is trying to hang on and play world public opinion. Kaddafi apparently seeks to partition Libya, keeping control of Tripoli and the west Libyan oil fields. But the oil is far to the south of Tripoli, and the area is largely inhabited by Berbers, who are hostile to Kaddafi. The Berbers are armed and organized and have chased most Kaddafi gunmen to the edge of the mountains. Kaddafi has ordered his troops to keep the Berbers in the mountains south of Tripoli, and the fighting has been vicious. The Kaddafi forces have been accused of using landmines, and firing rockets on civilians.

The rebels and Kaddafi forces are stalemated between Misarata and Tripoli. But each day the Kaddafi forces get weaker (from NATO bombings, declining morale and the NATO blockade), while the rebels, who can export oil and import whatever they want, get stronger. Most importantly, the rebel forces continue to receive more training, and gain experience in combat.

The rebel government is having problems with its finances. Partly this is inexperience, partly it is having to build a government from scratch. Some rebel leaders blame NATO, but more observant rebel leaders understand that the problems are internal, and that's where the solutions will have to come from. NATO and Arab nations have offered financial and economic aid, but with an eye towards insuring that the cash does not disappear into a secret overseas bank account. Those precautions slow things down a bit.

So far, there have been about 13,000 air missions flown over Libya, although only about 40 percent were air strikes against Kaddafi forces. The rest were reconnaissance, air refueling and transport. This intense recon operation is necessary to track down Kaddafi forces. These guys have learned to adapt to all that aerial oversight. Recently, for example, rockets were fired into Misarata for the first time in several weeks. This was mainly for harassment, and a way to make it clear that Kaddafi troops could go just about anywhere. But there is a cost, as NATO warplanes destroy dozens of Kaddafi targets daily, some of which are vehicles sneaking around in the night. This sort of thing is dangerous for the rebels, who must keep NATO informed of where the good guys are at all times, otherwise, they will get attacked.

For the first time in three months, a NATO aircraft has been lost over Libya. NATO admitted that it lost contact with a MQ-8 Fire Scout helicopter UAV recently. Back in March, an F-15E had a mechanical problem and crash landed in the desert. The two man crew was quickly picked up by helicopter. While the NATO pilots get combat pay, the losses have been more similar to an extended training mission than to a combat zone. But there is danger. Not all of Kaddafi's major anti-aircraft missile systems have been accounted for. NATO electronic recon aircraft constantly monitor the area for signs that a Kaddafi air defense radar has gone back into action. These radars would be quickly destroyed in that case, but until the NATO anti-radar missiles hit, aircraft would be at risk.

NATO airstrikes are split between aiding rebel forces in contact with Kaddafi troops, and attacking Kaddafi bases (headquarters, vehicle parks, ammo and fuel storage sites). Kaddafi has responded by moving his headquarters, vehicles and military supplies into mosques, hospitals and residential neighborhoods. NATO can still use smart bombs (especially laser guided ones) to hit the military targets without harming civilians. But occasionally the smart bombs miss their targets, and surrounded by human shields, Kaddafi is getting the civilian deaths he seeks. Kaddafi's media specialists make the most out of the handful of civilian deaths in Tripoli, and distracted foreign media from the far larger number of civilians killed by Kaddafi forces (via artillery fire into cities and ground fire against civilians). Over 95 percent of the civilian deaths have been caused by Kaddafi's troops, while NATO bombings so rarely injure civilians that any such incident is big news.

Defecting Kaddafi fighters, and those captured, confirm that Kaddafi had ordered terrorism to be used to persuade rebellious populations to give up the fight. The terror attacks included deliberately firing artillery into residential neighborhoods and raping any rebel civilian women encountered.






Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close