Libya: the view from the bunker

Libya's war is being shaped by Tripoli's defiance, the rebels' endurance, and the western coalition's strains. In the mix, a Gaddafi regime faced with elimination is making larger plans.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
21 April 2011

The state of the Libyan war after five weeks depends as much on the view from where you are as on the day it started. This is equally true of the Muammar Gaddafi regime, whose core personnel in the Bab al-Azizia bunker has survived the Nato aerial attacks - and in many ways done more. Indeed, it could well be feeling more confident now than on 19-20 March 2011 when the American and French bombardments began.

There are three reasons for this. First, the Nato attack on a rebel armoured convoy near the town of Ajdabiya on 5 April was a huge and costly error that disrupted the opposition forces’ first attempt to use artillery and tanks against the regime's forces (see “Libya, and the decisive moment”, 14 April 2011). Since then, a stalemate has persisted in the east while the regime has consolidated its hold on western Libya - with the key exception, so far, of the town of Misrata.

Second, two aspects of Nato’s military escalation may turn out to benefit the regime. The deployment of an Anglo-French military team to advise the rebels in Benghazi is presented as a modest and limited action, but it raises the suspicion that more “boots on the ground” will follow - something reinforced by news that the European Union may send armed escorts to assist delivery of humanitarian aid. Together, these moves serve the regime's propaganda narrative that the logic of western intervention in Libya is to occupy another Arab state (see "Libya's war, history's shadow", 24 March 2011).

Third, Nato itself is facing unexpected problems on two fronts: political and material. Canada is refusing to increase its much-needed air-support during the campaign for the general election being held on 2 May. What happens after that, including the prospect of any increased Canadian commitment, will depend very much on whether the centre-right prime minister Stephen Harper stays in office.

Much more seriously for Nato is that the states leading the air-strikes, Britain and France, are already running short of the highly sophisticated (and expensive) precision-guided munitions that have been used to attack the Tripoli regime's weapons. A country such as Britain lacks large stocks of missiles such as the Storm Shadow and the Brimstone; yet the more that Gaddafi forces locate their large military equipment in urban areas, the more Nato needs the most accurate weapons in order to avoid civilian casualties.

So severe are current problems that the United States may have to consider retaking its central role in air-operations, barely a week after withdrawing fifty aircraft (see “NATO Runs Short of Munitions in Libya: Report”, Defense News, 16 April 2011). A reversal by Washington would expose the limits both of Barack Obama's policy that Nato’s European members should take the lead in Libya and of these members’ military capacity.

The Tripoli outlook

In light of these developments, is it possible to get some idea of how the Gaddafi regime is facing its current predicament?  The regime is a complex entity, with numerous competing views and now experiencing a steady drip of defections. Yet examining its military capabilities in the context of recent events can offer some sense of its outlook and intentions.

The starting-point here is that the joint Nicolas Sarkozy-David Cameron-Barack Obama statement on the war published on 14 April makes abundantly clear that the west’s policy is one of regime termination. Gaddafi's regime is therefore fighting for its survival, and its intentions must be assessed accordingly.

Tripoli’s military forces are relatively small: probably no more than 15,000 fairly reliable troops, and a minority of elite, well-armed and really dependable units. Some of these units have proved themselves to be highly versatile by adapting rapidly to an adverse air-power environment. Moreover, the rebels are determined but lack basic training; even with the advantage of Nato air-cover they have had sustained difficulties in combating the regime's troops (see CJ Chivers, "Inferior Arms Hobble Rebels in Libya's War", New York Times, 20 April 2011).  

These are the ingredients of the current stalemate, where nonetheless the regime is very keen to make two particular gains. The first is to take control of the eastern town (and important crossroads) of Ajdabiya, which would mean access to the key oil-and-gas terminals at Ras Lanuf and Brega. 

True, neither of the latter may yet then be usable by the regime, but denying their use to the rebels would still be vital; for if the rebel forces were able to export oil and gas freely from these terminals (as well as Tobruk on the Egyptian border) this would help secure their financial base. The regime cannot allow this if it is to survive; these two ports must not fall to the rebels; thus controlling Ajdabiya, or at least keeping it out of rebel control, is crucial to the Gaddafis.

The second gain would be to control Misrata. This is less because it has a useful deep-water port than to cut the symbolic threat of a rebel stronghold in the heart of western Libya. Misrata, already a focus of intense conflict, may thus become even more the heart of the civil war over the next weeks.

The forward plan

These calculations underlie the complexity of the regime's situation. Yet its planners will also be at work on other options, and this is where analysis moves into more uncertain territory. As it does, it should be remembered that the regime is fighting for its survival and has a lot more support than Nato expected even in late March 2011. There is therefore a strong possibility that its strategists are actively considering a range of irregular and asymmetric military and paramilitary actions.

Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, before it came in from the cold and found a welcome in the west after 2001, had numerous connections with paramilitary movements across the middle east and beyond. They included the Provisional IRA and a number of Palestinian groups, which the Libyan security and intelligence forces were adept at cultivating.

These relationships belong largely to the past and many will have faded, but the knowledge, memory and (in some cases) contacts survive. A regime that faces the prospect of termination can be expected rapidly to rebuild what it can - especially relationships with groups that have any sort of capacity to act against western interests.

There are already concerns among western security agencies that some very potent weapons may be in the process of dispersal from the regime's more secret arms-depots. A particular worry relates to small anti-aircraft missiles (“manpads”, i.e. man-portable air-defence systems). These may have little effect against advanced western strike-aircraft with all their jamming and countermeasures capabilities; but their use against civilian aircraft would be a very different matter.

This, to reiterate the point, is a regime looking into the abyss: three powerful western politicians have made that clear. That, in combination with its record, is a recipe for extreme action. It should thus be no surprise if in coming months, the Libyan war acquires a sudden, unexpected and potent international dimension.

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