Libyan rebels set for protracted conflict


ANALYSIS:Eminent military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz said war was essentially about mass and momentum. The retreating Libyan rebels appear to lack both

THE BATTLES being played out over the past week on the 1,800km of Libyan coastline share a key attribute with those of the North African campaign of almost 70 years ago – namely, fluidity.

The geography of Libya’s coastline, vast stretches of desert separated by strategically vital towns, present the same defensive and logistical problems for both attackers and defenders today as they did to Rommel and Montgomery in the second World War.

The seesaw nature of the battles in the 1941-42 campaign saw the mobile Germans sweep across Libya and into Egypt, only to over-extend themselves and be forced back to Tripoli by the British. By then the British had overstretched, and when attacked by regrouped Germans they too had to retreat to their start lines back in the east.

Although on a far smaller scale, (many of the Libyan “battles” reported seem to be skirmishes involving forces of tens rather than thousands) the current conflict is being conducted on largely the same terrain as 1941, with many of the same factors at play.

Firstly, the 1,500 or so rebels also advanced with momentum, determination and what appeared a relative degree of mass, even threatening to take Tripoli. Then, too confident, they overextended and were ambushed in Bin Jawa by forces loyal to Col Muammar Gadafy, who counter-attacked and drove the rebels out of the strategic oil towns of Ras Lanuf and Brega last weekend.

The next important town east of Brega was Ajdabiya, which was retaken by Gadafy forces on Tuesday. The rebel commander, Gen Abdel Fatah Yunis, said on Sunday night that Ajdabiya, 170km west of Benghazi, was “a vital city” for them. “It’s on the route to the east, to Benghazi and to Tobruk and also to the south. Ajdabiya’s defence is very important . . . We will defend it,” he told journalists. Not sufficiently, as it turned out.

Gen Yunis had argued that Gadafy forces had overstretched themselves. And therein lies another similarity with the North African battles of history: as forces retreat, they shorten their supply lines, thereby strengthening their defensive capabilities, while attackers weaken as they advance. Nowhere is such a dynamic more obvious than in Libya, with its vast coastline interrupted by logistically important towns. Added to this, the rebels are falling back to their hinterlands and might expect to recruit more fighters as the battles draw near to the heart of the insurgency. But such retreats may not embolden those Libyans sitting on the fence, nor, perhaps, the international community.

The rebels are also poorly equipped relative to Gadafy’s armoured, artillery and air forces and are facing logistical problems of their own. In many places they rely on popular support for food, water and ammunition resupply. They also clearly lack command and control, weapons training and a basic understanding of military tactics.

Moreover, given the barren desertscapes between each coastal hub, when they decide to defend these towns at the peripheries, where the oil refineries are located, they are at a considerable disadvantage due to the greater bombardment capability of loyalist forces’ tanks and artillery.

So far, it is this capability that has allowed the loyalists to deliver quick blows to the rebels in the east. But where the rebels have contested the urban space, as in Zawiya last week, they have sucked Gadafy’s forces into a close-quarter battle that caused them attrition. Such a fact provides a clue to how the rebels may defend their Benghazi base.

In western Libya on Monday, rebel-held Misrata was attacked and Zuwara fell on Tuesday to pro-Gadafy forces, which also had both the mass and momentum to enter Ajdabiya. They will want to drive on quickly to Benghazi as well, especially given the international community’s reluctance to act in any meaningful way.

This, of course, is precisely Gadafy’s strategy: to take Benghazi and quell the rebellion before any no-fly zone or airstrikes can halt his advance, thereby presenting a fait accompli to the international community.

Holding Benghazi will prove very difficult for loyalist forces. Mass and momentum will not matter as much, as displayed in Zawiya, and especially when rebels are defending their homes and families and are faced with the prospect of brutal Gadafy repression.

Even if loyalist forces take the city, the rebels will be likely to continue to fight. They will adopt asymmetric tactics, using the more compact urban environment to negate loyalist advantages of armour, artillery and air power. And the longer they fight, the greater the chance of assistance from outside actors.

Given the popular support for the rebellion in Benghazi, a widespread insurgency/civil war in eastern Libya is likely to continue for some time, even if Gadafy’s forces drive on, and we may in time see the development of an eastern Libya rump state.Whichever way the battle swings, without decisive international intervention one way or another (special forces may already be operating with the rebels), Libya is probably staring into protracted civil war or insurgency.

Shashank Joshi of British think tank the Royal United Services Institute has noted that: “Between 1960 and 1999, civil wars lasted on average over seven years.” So far, Libya’s has lasted just one month.

PATRICK BURYis a former captain in the Royal Irish Regiment of the British army. He saw service in Afghanistan and wrote a memoir, Callsign Hades(Simon Schuster; 2010) and a patrol diary for The Irish Times.He has retired as a soldier and is now a commentator on military matters