The Shores of Tripoli

7 03 2011

A most un-civil war is going on in Libya. It hasn’t been getting a great deal of press here in the States, but the rest of the world is watching.

By the way, There are somewhere on the order of two hundred different ways to spell the name of the Libyan leader, and the man has been known to use at least three different variations of the spelling himself, so I’m not gonna get into it. I’ll use the spelling I got from Al Jazeera over the weekend and stick with that. Feel free to get outraged or annoyed by my choice.

After more than four decades, a lot of the people in Libya have finally had enough of the “Brother Leader”. Most of the eastern half of the country is in open revolt, and Qaddafi’s influence appears to be mainly limited to the area immediately around Tripoli and a few partisan strongholds such as his home town of Sirte. Here’s a map:

The map belies the real picture, of course. Libya only has about six million people, and two million of them live in Tripoli. Even with that advantage, he seems to have thoroughly botched the response to the initial demonstrations last month. In the face of peaceful protests, Qaddafi sent in armed goons who had no compunction about using live munitions against their own citizens. When some of his troops refused to fire on fellow Libyans, Qaddafi reportedly had several hundred of them executed by more “loyal” troops. When he started losing control of some of his military units, he resorted to hiring mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa. At the moment (subject to change on short notice), Qaddafi seems to have a large percentage of his core military units on his side, along with several thousand security personnel within Tripoli, an unknown number of mercenaries (many of whom seem to lack even basic military training), and the members of his home tribe, the Gaddadfa. This makes the numerical odds slightly in the rebels’ favor, offset significantly by the better training and equipment among the loyalist troops (units of which are commanded by his sons).

After managing to really piss off a significant percentage of his remaining populace, Ka-Daffy was somehow surprised when the peaceful protests turned to open revolt. The initial successes of the rebels may have been a surprise, but Qaddafi had only himself to blame. Aside from his monumentally thick-headed response to the initial protests, Qaddafi has been segregating and isolating his people for forty years to prevent any serious rivals from emerging. As an unintended consequence of his political maneuvering, the isolated segments of Libyan society finally managed to find common ground: They really hated Qaddafi’s guts, and were in no mood to accept the “Brother Leader’s” son as the new head of the government. The scattered tribes and fragmented social groups within Libya didn’t have much else to lose, either- especially after Qaddafi declared he would hunt them down house by house. Now, it’s win or die.

So far, there has been a lot of dying in Libya. Unconfirmed estimates of the death toll keep spiralling into the multiples of thousands, and Qaddafi’s remaining “loyal” military seem to be going out of their way to attack hospitals being used by the opposition. There have been documented cases of Libyan tanks firing on hospitals in rebel-held territory, and loyalist troops have been seen riding in commandeered ambulances, firing indiscriminately into crowds. Helicopter gunships and strike aircraft have also been employed against civilian populations, although these incidents are becoming less common. Qaddafi (or his advisors) might be getting leery of possible international intervention if he keeps bombing unarmed civilians, or they might just be conserving fuel and ammo in the face of arms embargoes and a huge lot of actual armed civilians to use for target practice.

A word about international intervention. A great deal of blather has been forthcoming from many quarters about the lack of a coherent international response to the de-facto civil war in Libya. Some of this blather has been coming from Libyans fighting Qaddafi, in a weird sort of mixed message Americans should be familiar with by now. The rebels are almost universally of the opinion that they do not want foreigners getting involved, followed almost immediately with plaintive queries as to why the international community is not getting involved. I heard an interview on NPR this afternoon with a man fighting Qaddafi who said firmly that Libyans did not want any foreign help, but that they would remember who did not help them. I’m pretty sure that is a textbook definition of “discontinuity of meaning”.

In reality, there is a lot the international community could do, but not a lot that the international community could do as a matter of practicality. Among the rich western nations who could waltz in a declare peace at gunpoint (and make it stick), there exists a fiction commonly referred to as “international law”. This fiction has no basis in objective reality except for the fact that those rich western nations believe it does. Confused? Don’t be.

As long as the North Americans and Europeans believe that international laws have some effect, then those international laws have an effect. That effect may be largely in preventing the Europeans and North Americans from getting mixed up in messes like Libya, but it is a real effect- whether or not other countries routinely violate those same rules when it suits them. You see, the Europeans and North Americans also violate the rules when it suits them, but they feel bad about it afterward. A lot of the populations in Europe and North America do try to make their governments at least pay lip service to international law, with varying degrees of success based upon national temperment and how bad off a given country is economically.

That brings us to a weird little episode in the Great Libyan Tragedy/Farce- the arrest and detention in Libya of six SAS troops and two junior diplomats from the UK over the weekend. I’ve never worked with the Special Air Service, but I’ve worked with some American special-forces types who have. The SAS has a well-deserved reputation for being tough, disciplined, and very, very dangerous. The only way any group of SAS troopies could get captured by Libyan security guards near Benghazi would be if the SAS were under orders not to resist. The fact that the Opposition party in Parliament has been trying to make political hay over the incident is not exactly playing fair. The Government can’t explain the actual facts in open debate, and the Loyal Opposition knows this, so they’re trying to parlay the incident into a general impression that the Government has dropped the ball in this particular foreign mess.

Speaking of foreign messes, what should the international community do about the civil war in Libya? Visibly aiding one side or the other is politically undesirable, because it sets a horrible precedent which may come back and bite the ass of the intervening country when they have internal problems. Sitting back and watching what happens, while the preferred method of statecraft throughout the last few centuries, has the disadvantage of having a ring-side seat for the odd genocide (see Rwanda and Darfur for recent examples). Furthermore, the Libyan rebels do not want a few thousand US Marines coming ashore to deal with Qaddafi for them. Even at the cost of several thousand dead young Libyans (who have next-to-no training and have been trying to overcome well-equipped regulars with enthusiasm, AK-47s, and- sometimes- sticks), I tend to agree. If Libya frees itself from Qaddafi, the Libyans deserve to do it on their terms. If they ask for help, I think we should give it to them, but I want the Libyans to win.

So, what do we do? My suggestion would be to fly in planeloads of medical supplies and ambulances to Benghazi. Those cannot possibly be construed as military aid- except by that loon Qaddafi, of course. To assuage Qaddafi fears that the aircraft are bringing in only medical supplies and ambulances, allow a Libyan government observer (strictly supervised by a squad of Marines) and someone from the International Red Cross/Crescent examine each aircraft before it lifts off. So long as only medical supplies and ambulances are being delivered, there’s no harm in this program. If Qaddafi or his flunkies don’t agree or don’t like it, warn them very thoroughly that any attempt to interfere with the delivery of humanitarian aid will result in a large-scale repeat of the US bombing of Libya in 1986. In fact, every time a plane with Libyan markings comes within three hundred kilometers of one of the aid flights, NATO should destroy a few Libyan aircraft on general principles. After a couple of iterations of this program, Qaddafi will either stop or run out of aircraft.

On the ground, in the meantime, it’s turning into a meatgrinder. Qaddafi’s troops have better training and equipment, and a lot more of it. This is bad for the rebels. Unfortunately for Qaddafi, he can’t unleash all of that military might on the rebels, because a large portion of those forces are busy keeping the lid on in Tripoli and other areas controlled by the government. Pull those troops out of Tripoli to smash the rebels in Ras Lanuf, for example, and the populace in Tripoli might overwhelm the security forces left behind. All told, dear old Muamar is in a tough spot. I think that’s a good thing.


Current status: Interested

Current music: This Is Why We Fight by the Decemberists



3 responses

18 05 2011
Anthony R. Seta

Great post. Today is 5/18/11. I’ve been following the news intensely about this subject. This is a well-written no BS assessment. You called the strengths and weaknesses of Gadhafi’s forces better than the standard press reporting that was dominating the media coverage in March. Considering all that has happened since 3/19/11 with implementation of NFZ and NFZ+, you called this campaign pretty good. Thanks for the insights.

I’m very much looking forward to the final days of Mr. Gadhafi. Based upon recent reports from NYT and BBC, it appears that the opposition forces in Misurata have broken the siege and are now expanding westward (i.e. toward Tripoli). Evidently the Benghazi based rebels have been funneling men and ordnance via sea travel to port Misurata. With NATO’s assistance, this tactic has apparently worked. It appears that Gadhafi is losing all control of this portion of Western Libya and surrounding farms are now supplying the people of Misurata with foodstuffs.

I have two questions, and I’d appreciate your insight;

1) Based upon my reports, Gadhafi has a battle group of around 3K men that are dug in in the area of Ras Lanouf and Al Brega. Why are the Benghazi rebels holding back and not assaulting this ‘stranded army’. I say stranded because it’s a long way from Tripoli and with Misurata now under opposition control, I don’t see how this battle group can be sustained with fuel, ordnance and food.

2) If the map that I’ve been following is correct, the only petroleum producing regions still under Gadhafi control (and capable of producing) is in the area of Sabha. If this is the case, then should it not be a priority of the Benghazi based rebellion to cut off this supply source?


19 05 2011

Anthony: Thanks for the compliment. I just read a variety of media reports and merged the information with my own military experience and lessons from history. I’m glad you find it informative, but the real kudos are due the various journalists (real ones, not the empty suits and talking heads you see most often on TV) who dug up the actual hard data.

From my reading, the seige of Misurata hasn’t been completely broken yet. The rebels have managed to drive most of Gaddafi’s troops out of the city and are able to re-supply them by sea, but it’s still surrounded by loyalist troops and guns. You might have more up-to-date information. I’d love to see it happen.

In a long civil war, logistics will be the key to victory. Gaddafi is spending moeny like water, and those cash reserves are finite. Libya is only exporting a tiny fraction of the oil it once used to ship, and roughly half of that is coming from rebel-held ports, so the government isn’t getting enough new revenue to replace the cash they’re hemorhaging. If the rebels- specifically the tribes in the fertile areas along the coast- stop supplying the loyalists with food, the government position becomes much less secure.

In the interior, water sources are likely to be heavily contested points, but Gaddafi’s troops have been largely withdrawn from most of the eastern interior from some reports. They still maintain a corridor to the southwest, and a large area immediately around Tripoli. Barring a total embargo of food from the surrounding countryside, Gaddafi could maintain a fairly strong position. Probably not a survivable position, in the long run. Just powerful.

An assault on the capitol would be extremely costly in lives (especially to the non-combatants living there). I don’t think the rebels are currently organized and disciplined enough to successfully take the city.

In my amateur opinion, the rebels would be well advised to consolidate their position in Misurata before starting major offensive operations against Ras Lanuf (although I’ve read reports of heavy fighting east of the city). If the rebels hold Misurata and can interdict direct travel from Ras Lanuf to Tripoli, Gaddafi will find it very hard to re-supply and reinforce his troops there. Especially in the face of NATO air strikes in loyalist territory.

Regarding Gaddafi’s oil supplies, I think it would be more cost-effective for the rebels to concentrate on cutting off Gaddafi’s access to oil customers. In my uninformed opinion, the rebels should build up their naval capabilities and cut the loyalists off from their customers. Blockading the port at Tripoli would be tough to accomplish, but cheaper (in terms of lost soldiers) than trying to assault the well-defended oil fields in the center of Gaddafi territory.

Sorry for the long-winded reply. I’ve paid a lot of attention to this area. Pity the rest of the country seems to have forgotten about it.

19 05 2011
Anthony R. Seta


Not much news today coming from the Libyan frontlines…

I think that people like us are interested in the conflict due to historical interests in the region and the impacts upon US foreign policy.

For the greater American public, the news (depending upon sources) is put into a digestible format for domestic consumption. Consequently, the news is channeled into a political format (i.e. is the Libyan action good or bad for the Administration, how does the intervention affect the GOP primaries, etc…) as opposed to providing an insightful regional analysis of how this intervention can be either beneficial or harmful to greater US interests in the region. Consequently, MSNBC and Fox are worthless for critical analysis of Libya coverage. CNN and the NYT have done a decent job (in my opinion), but these organizations are still pulled into the purely domestic political orbit. This type of editorialized news coverage obviously provides for poor analysis with little of substantive value for military critiques, but this this the type of analysis that drives the conversation amongst our countrymen. Sadly.

Full disclosure – I am not a conservative or libertarian. I don’t have much in common with ultra-liberals, but I have nothing in common anymore with the modern conservative/GOP movement. I hope that this does not offend you. I’m 41 and have varied with political beliefs over the years.

I just listened to the president’s speech on NPR and like what I heard.

Back to Libya, I believe that the NATO imposed embargo has pretty much isolated most of Gadhafi’s oil exports and/or refined petroleum imports from other nations. My strategic concern for the opposition is removing the final oilfields under Gadhafi control with the obvious intent to starve the beast. Gadhafi (spelling used by CNN) can no longer field heavy armor (what’s left of it) due to NATO actions and also due to the fuel consumption and logistics required for these vehicles. But he can still field a fleet of Toyota pickup trucks that have been modified into true Somalia-like ‘technical’ battle wagons with mounted heavy machine guns and/or recoilless rifles. The lack of fuel for the civilian population in Tripoli is also becoming a real problem for the regime. I’ve read many reports and I’ll try to provide links sometime, but it appears that pre-war Libya had two primary refinery complexes – one in Zawiya (directly west of the capital) and the other in Tobruk (opposition territory). Zawiya was forcefully re-conquered by the regime several weeks ago. The full story of this alleged massacre will manifest itself upon the cessation of hostilities. But this refinery complex in Zawiya is reported to be the smaller facility and can not provide for all civilian and military needs of the Gadhafi government. Therefore, it seems logical to me that the rebels make an effort to proceed southward from Misurata to the Sabha district to cut off the flow of this raw crude.

What now seems obvious is that perhaps thousands of Benghazi fighters have migrated to Misurata by sea and these troops have changed the battle in that city. But why is the primary Army in Benghazi (i.e. the ones that used to rush up and down the highway) holding back from marching westward through Al Brega, Ras Lanouf and then to Sirte? I just can not comprehend how Gadhafi can keep his forces supplied and equipped in these areas east of Sirte now that the coastal highway has been cut off with the opposition capture of the city of Misurata.

Thanks again for your blog. I’ve wanted to start my own for some time. Yours is a good model of what I’d like to achieve. I’ll be in touch. Take care,

Anthony Seta
Cincinnati, Ohio USA

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