The upheavals across the Middle East have come to Colonel Qaddafi ‘s Libya and unlike his fellow rulers to his east, he is struggling to hold on to his iron rule. Much of the population opposes the colonel and many parts of the military and state have gone over to the opposition. The colonel retains control over security forces and army units commanded by his sons, but in the public he only has the support of the few people who benefited from his petro-largesse and a few tribes whose members have been well placed in the security forces and army.
The two sides are maneuvering, fighting intermittently, and seeking to garner international help. Qaddafi may well be looking to Saddam Hussein’s resistance to the western invasion back in 2003 and seek to fight a sustained insurgency, but his rule is almost certainly nearing its end.
Qaddafi ‘s control is mainly in his capital of Tripoli and a smattering of garrisons along the Mediterranean coast. He has brought in mercenary fighters from sub-Saharan Africa and possibly from neighboring Algeria as well. The colonel has tried to regain control over some coastal cities, but without notable success. His attempt to retake Bregga on Wednesday was repulsed by rebel soldiers and citizens.
The colonel’s foreign forces are little more than hoodlums who have thus far been effective in driving demonstrators off the streets of Tripoli but who will be useless against oncoming rebel army units, who of course have superior discipline, weaponry, local knowledge, and public support.
Loyalist forces appear to be weakening. Garrison’s here and there go over to the rebels. Ministers and ambassadors denounce Qaddafi . Tribal support has been based on practical dealmaking, not on the colonel’s charismatic qualities. Those have long left him, leaving only an eerie dissociation that elicits more worry than loyalty. Accounts of the growing size and resolve of rebel forces are reaching the loyalist rank and file, perhaps in exaggerated forms.
Qaddafi has warned international audiences of the twin specters of an al Qaeda victory and calamitous oil prices that will further weaken already flagging economies around the world, chiefly in Europe and the United States. The former argument has no basis in fact; the latter concern is likely transitory. In any event, should a protracted oil crisis emerge due to turmoil in Libya, foreign powers, Arab and western, could easily end it.
Rebel forces are in the process of contacting colleagues and relatives in the loyalist forces and pointing out the increasing futility of supporting the colonel. Further, rebel forces are maneuvering toward Tripoli and other loyalist redoubts with the aim of confronting their opponents with strategic checkmate.
Should Tripoli fall to rebel forces without the capture or deaths of Qaddafi and his sons, the family could seek to continue fighting a guerrilla war against a new government. The precedent of Saddam’s distribution of weapons to his fedayeen followers might lurk somewhere in the colonel’s imagination. The same may be said of the precedent of the bedouin forces that fought the Italian army in the previous century, perhaps with the added romance of a heroic martyrdom while leading an epic charge.
Leaving the realm of romantic dreams for cold analysis, there is little likelihood of a longterm guerrilla resistance as found in Iraq following the western invasion in 2003. The Iraqi resistance was based on several forces, few of which have any parallels in Libya.
Saddam’s Baath party, despite being securely in power for decades, kept a secret cell structure that gave the resistance an organizational structure; Qaddafi ‘s miscellany of committees and cronies cannot do the same. Western forces disbanded the Iraqi army, angering hundreds of thousands of experienced soldiers; the bulk of the Libyan army has turned on Qaddafi .
The Iraqi insurgents enjoyed considerable support from adjacent states, especially from Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards; Qaddafi has only the support of some Algerian security forces and sub-Saharan fighters who could never hope to operate in a sea of Arabs, the preponderance of whom are hostile to Qaddafi .
Any attempt at a sustained insurgency would lead to nothing more than sporadic, short-lived fighting that would achieve little beside increased public animosity toward the Qaddafi clan and their decrepit regime.
Rebel leaders and public voices call for outside, even American, help in ridding the country and the world of the Qaddafi s. The Arab League, Britain, and the US are all discussing imposing a no-fly zone on Libya to prevent further arrivals of foreign supporters of Qaddafi and to prevent the use of airpower on the public. (The latter tugs at the heartstrings of outsiders but is at present not clearly established in fact.)
The outside powers are reluctant to impose a no-fly zone. As appealing as it initially sounds, an aircap would likely entail several days of suppressing Libyan air defense systems, destroying scores of fighters and helicopters, and cratering a dozen or more military runways. The unappealing potential of incrementally increasing the use of force is foreboding as is the potential for an open-ended commitment as in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
Foreign assistance could take the relatively unobvious form of using electronic surveillance to find Qaddafi and his command system and surreptitiously relay the information to rebel leaders. Further, outside help will weaken the prestige that rebel leaders, political and military, will need to build a new political system once the colonel is gone.
More obvious outside intervention could play into the colonel’s hands, if only weakly and temporarily. Qaddafi could use his continued control of national television to depict the rebels as in league with nefarious foreigners to humiliate the nation, seize its oil and gas resources, and perhaps even to recolonize it.
Such claims would have found an eager audience several decades ago at the outset of the colonel’s Green Revolution, but today they ring hollow, especially for the young urban dwellers who compose the bulk of the popular movement. To them, such claims are trite cries from a distant past that echo insignificantly across an empty expanse. Nonetheless, any vacillation caused by such rhetoric, however small, will needlessly protract the ordeal of ousting Qaddafi and delay the hopeful beginning of new day for Libya.
BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org