February 28th, 2011


A Libyan Appraisal

Continuing my new focus on Libya (perhaps because I lived there once). As best I can make out, most of the east of Libya is in the hands of rebels (pink area of map below), except for Surt, Gaddafi's home town, which was reported a day or so back to have 4,000 loyal troops of his in control of it, and of the coast road. In the west, Gaddafi still seems to be in control (green areas in the map below) except for the towns of Sabratah and Az Zawiyah, and parts of Tripoli. After Tripoli, the largest city in Libya is Benghazi, followed by Misratah and Az Zuwiyah (which also has one of the two largest oil refineries in Libya). I'm supposing that most of Libya's population lives along the coast, and that large areas of southern Libya are almost entirely unoccupied.

At the moment there seems to be little sign that Gaddafi is likely to step down or be toppled in the immediate future. So what's likely to happen in the longer term?

libya map1Reports today say that Az Zawiyah is surrounded by Gaddafi's forces, and units of his have been approaching Misratah, which both suggest that Gaddafi is trying to take complete control of the west of Libya. In the meanwhile, in Benghazi the ex-Justice minister is trying to form a provisional government, banks have re-opened, and a semblance of normality restored.

At the moment, with most of the weapons and troops in Libya, Gaddafi looks stronger than the rebels, in the west of Libya at least, and he looks set to recapture both Az Zawiyah and Misratah. What else is likely to happen when heavily armed soldiers confront mostly unarmed civilians? There would seem to be every likelihood of a bloodbath if Gaddafi's forces fight their way into these two cities. Or else starvation if he lays siege to them.

But Gaddafi's position is likely to deteriorate. He may currently be strong, but armies need to be supplied with ammunition, fuel, and food. And it's rather hard to see where Gaddafi's supply chain comes from for any of these (apart from fuel, if he retains control of the refinery at Az Zawiyah). There is revolution both in Tunisia in the west, and Egypt in the east. Trade with the world, by sea and by air, is at a standstill. As also are oil exports.

With America swinging behind the rebels, and Senator John McCain today calling for a no-fly zone over Libya and for weapons supplies to the rebels, the eastern rebels may be able to return their half of the country to something like normality fairly rapidly, restoring oil exports from the eastern oilfields, and trading out of Benghazi. A British Hercules aircraft today flew (twice) into the airfield at Nafoora to collect 150 oil workers, and returned them to Malta, suggesting that the Libyan air force either does not have control of Libyan airspace, or has sided with the rebels.

In the west, it would seem likely that there will be no return to normality. Instead there will be fighting, starvation, and great suffering among the civilian population while Gaddafi remains in control. Gaddafi's only hope for the long term is, after securing the west of Libya, to set out to recapture the east. But the longer he waits, the more likely the east will be re-supplied and re-enforced by land and by sea, and become too strong to recapture.

Gaddafi may temporarily have military superiority over the rebels, and may be able to recapture several towns. But, unless he can regain control of the whole of Libya rapidly, he faces an increasingly impossible task as the rebels in the east grow stronger, and his own resources dwindle away. The hitherto-loyal commanders around Gaddafi will probably recognise one by one that the situation has become hopeless, and make their escape as best they can - particularly if eastern army units seize the initiative and begin to lay siege first to Surt and then Misratah.

Every day that Gaddafi fails to recover control of Libya means that every day he is less and less likely to ever manage to do so.

Update 28 feb 2011: Daily Mail:

David Cameron threatened Colonel Gaddafi with military action last night, promising a no-fly zone and arms shipments to his enemies.

The Prime Minister even suggested he could send British troops into Libya as a peacekeeping force to stop Gaddafi’s henchmen massacring democracy campaigners.

At a National Security Council meeting yesterday morning, he ordered military chiefs to draw up plans for the no-fly zone. If Gaddafi turned his air force on the rebels, RAF warplanes would be able to intervene.

Update 1 Mar 2011: David Cameron has backtracked after the US White House called his idea "premature".