Libya: the prospect of war

The military balance of Libya’s domestic conflict is raising debate about external intervention. But the strategy of the Gaddafi regime is also crucial to what happens next.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
10 March 2011

The conflict in Libya is taking on the character of a civil war as Muammar Gaddafi’s regime recovers from its earlier reversals and consolidates its forces. Its substantial support is concentrated mainly in western Libya, especially around the greater Tripoli area which has nearly one-third of the country’s 6 million population (see Alison Pargeter, "Libya: a hard road ahead", 8 March 2011).

The course of the conflict as it enters this new phase will depend largely on the regime’s strategy over the next week. Gaddafi’s success requires the effective deployment of his military and paramilitary forces, by no means all of which are reliable. In addition, the escalation of conflict inside Libya raises the possibility of external military intervention. These two issues - the internal war, and the influence of outside powers - will be considered in turn.

The military realities

Libya’s navy is small and is of little consequence, although it might have some capacity to damage oil facilities if needed. The army has more than 40,000 troops, but half of these are conscripts and largely incompetent. The most effective unit is the elite 32nd brigade, with around 4,000 well-equipped and loyal troops. There are also mercenaries in varying numbers being imported, who however would depart rapidly in the face of any substantive reversals (see “Libya: the Washington-London dilemma”, 3 March 2011).

Libya’s air-force has over 300 combat-aircraft, but most are Soviet-era planes with a limited capability, and many are in storage - though there are also some Mirage F-1 planes that have been upgraded by French technicians. The force's strike-aircraft could have an impact if the conflict moves east towards the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, as equally could the substantial number of transport-aircraft and attack-helicopters. Again, the sudden reversal of alliances is highlighted by the presence in Libya’s transport fleet of fifteen C-130H Hercules planes from the United States, and by the Italian arms company Finmeccanica’s recent refurbishment of CH-47 transport helicopters.

These are the military realities. The larger strategic issue is that the Gaddafi regime will only survive beyond the short term if it regains control of most of Libya’s oil-and-gas industry. These resources are widely scattered; most of the energy fields are in the east and southeast of the country which accounts for around 80% of current production, with the remaining fields south of Tripoli in the west.

But the numerous oilfields, wherever they are located, are much less important than Libya’s coastal processing plants, refineries and export terminals. These are the strategically important centres, and the regime has to retrieve the majority of them without delay.

Zawiya, west of Tripoli towards the border with Tunisia, is one of the main outlets for the western oilfields. The Az-Zawiya oil-refinery west of the city is a key facility that the regime needs in order to maintain its own fuel supplies. This explains why the town has become a key site of conflict between Gaddafi's forces and his opponents who have been occupying the city (see "The colonel fights back", Economist, 10 March 2011).

In addition to the plants near Tripoli, five terminals that handle oil-and-gas exports from eastern Libya generate the great majority of the country’s export revenues. The easternmost one is the large Marsa El Hariga terminal at Tobruk, on the border with Egypt; to the west are the Zuetina and Marsa El Brega terminals south of Benghazi, the latter the site of Libya's liquefied natural-gas plant. These three are beyond Gaddafi's reach at present, while the two others - at Ras Lanuf (already the centre of conflict) and Es Sider (beside Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte) are being closely contested by Gaddafi’s forces.

The three sites west of Benghazi - Zuetina, Brega and Ras Lanuf - are likely to be the Gaddafi loyalists’ key objectives in coming days. The central challenge for Gaddafi's military planners is to move ground forces eastwards: a difficult logistical task since any large armoured vehicles, and especially tanks and self-propelled artillery, must be moved by road on large articulated transporters. Libya has relatively few of these and they can be rendered impotent by sabotage of bridges. Smaller vehicles may be able to divert across a dried-up river-bed but tank transporters most definitely can't.

In turn this means that airpower - transport aircraft as well as helicopters and strike-aircraft - will become increasingly important as the civil war develops. Both the direct military implications of this shift, and the possibility of greater numbers of civilians being killed by air-strikes, raises the second crucial issue in the evolving conflict: whether outside intervention will prevent Libya’s air-force from operating.

The view from outside

The intensifying conflict has led the Barack Obama administration to consider - gradually and reluctantly - some kind of intervention (see Jim Lobe, “Obama Inches closer to Military Intervention”, TerraViva/IPS, 7 March 2011). Its calculations are taking place against the background of vigorous pressure from conservatives in the United States for military action against Gaddafi; some even call for the defence secretary Robert M Gates - who has been notably dismissive of the idea of imposing a “no-fly zone” - to resign (see William Kristol, “The Gates of Resignation”, Weekly Standard, 14 March 2011).

So far the United States has moved an amphibious task-group into the eastern Mediterranean, though the aircraft-carrier battle-group centred on the USS Enterprise has not yet transited the Suez canal from the Red Sea. There are no indications either of a carrier battle-group being deployed from the eastern United States.

This still leaves the possibility of some kind of intervention, perhaps involving US military bases in Italy and Greece. The large naval air station at Sigonella, sixteen kilometres southwest of Catania, could readily accommodate aircraft redeployed from other US bases in northern Italy; the smaller naval-support facility at Souda Bay in Crete (which is collocated with a large Greek air-force complex) could also cope with planes brought in from elsewhere.

Nato is already involved, as confirmed by the best independent source available - NATO Watch. A current briefing reports regular Awac flights from southern Europe and a move to 24/7 surveillance flights (see NATO Watch Briefing Paper, 18);  other sources quoted by NATO Watch report that a Nato team entered eastern Libya by the beginning of March comprising “experts in airlift and command and control operations based at NATO headquarters in Brussels” (see Jane's Defence Weekly, 2 March 2011).

A number of Arab League states and some rebel groups within Libya are calling for a no-fly zone. But the most accurate assessment in this very uncertain period is that US and European planners are investigating a variety of approaches - many of which fall short of the no-fly option.

These include arming rebels (especially with sophisticated portable anti-aircraft missiles);signal-jamming of Libyan command-and-control systems; and even inserting special-operation teams to link with rebel groups (see Thom Shanker, “U.S. Weighs Options, On Air and Sea”, New York Times, 7 March 2011).

The cost of conflict

An important part of understanding the present situation, however, is also to look at it from the viewpoint of Muammar Gaddafi and his military coterie. This, after all, is a regime that has held power for forty-two years with all the elemental political skill - as well as the range of enemies made - that that implies (see Fred Halliday, "Libya's regime at 40: a state of kleptocracy", 8 September 2009). 

The regime’s aim can be assumed to be short-term survival followed by the longer-term recovery of the whole of Libya. In that case its appropriate military posture is calibrated actions designed to wear down the opposition while not going so far as to provoke foreign military intervention, such as a no-fly zone.

The regime is aided here by the deep reluctance of western politicians, especially Barack Obama and his associates, to slip into yet another war in the region. In this respect, the Iraq disaster casts a long shadow - something the Gaddafi network knows only too well (see Godfrey Hodgson, “America and the Arab revolts: faces of power”, 8 March 2011).

If this analysis is correct, and the regime succeeds in maintaining its basic equilibrium, then a long drawn-out conflict may be a realistic prognosis. The resulting costs will be measured in human lives; but also in the prospects for deepening the “Arab spring” that first bloomed in Tunisia and Egypt, the countries on either side of Libya.

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