The Libyan coastal strip is a strange place to conduct a war, the distances are vast and there is nothing there but desert and a few small towns that are a long way apart from each other. As armies advance their supply lines get stretched and their logistics fall over. It is more like fighting at sea than on land and it can often be better to retreat to shorten your supply lines and thus gain a strategic advantage over your enemy, whose supply lines are then being stretched. Much as Rommel and Montgomery discovered 70 years ago.
At the beginning of last week the rebels had advanced very quickly to the outskirts of Sirte, then just as suddenly they retreated back several hundred kilometres to Ajdabya. Since then the fighting has concentrated around Brega, which according to some accounts has changed hands six times. So why did the rebels fall back so far and so fast? It could be for a mix of some of the following reasons:
- Gaddafi’s forces changed tactics from using heavy weapons like tanks to using “technicals” which are pickup trucks with a heavy machine gun or other weapon on the back. These are much harder for allied aircraft to target.
- Command of the allied forces was transferred from the USA to NATO, maybe command impetus was lost in the switch over.
- Bad weather for 3 days restricted allied offensive flying.
- The allied forces found higher value targets away from the rebel front line.
- Sirte is a Gaddafi stronghold and if the rebels had entered there might have been a bloodbath. So perhaps the allies removed air support to force the retreat and thus uphold the UN resolution evenly for both sides.
- The rebels just ran out of fuel, food and ammunition because they were at the end of a vastly overstretched supply chain.
So now we have what looks like a military stalemate with neither side having the capability to beat the other. But this is not the true situation, the rebels have started exporting oil so they will have money and they are receiving a lot of “assistance”, which is taking many forms, for instance we British are giving them radio equipment so they can better organise their fighting.
Meanwhile Gaddafi’s ability to command, control and communicate is being steadily eroded by allied air attacks and his military assets are being destroyed, one by one, with no means of replacement. Eventually his regime will implode.
Both sides know that this is the score, as do the international community. So we are in a strange interlude where Gaddafi still has some freedom of action which he thinks gives him some negotiating power. So he is working flat out at an optimum political solution for himself.
Hence Reuters have reported that the Libyan government says it’s ready to hold elections, a referendum or any other reform to its political system and that Libya is ready for a “political solution” with world powers. Al Jazeera reports that Moussa Ibrahim the Libyan government spokesman, has told reporters that they are ready for negotiations as long as it is from within Libya. Gaddafi sent an emissary to talk to the Greek government (a non belligerent NATO and EU member). And we are hearing reports that Gaddafi wants to stay on as a constitutional monarch (the new King Idris!) and that his family want to supervise any political transition.
Gaddfi has a huge political advantage in that the allies are an ad hoc coalition, each member of which has their own agenda. So they lack strong and clear political leadership and could quite easily be distracted by division. Against this Gaddafi has the huge political disadvantage that his people clearly hate him. Too much cruelty and repression for so many years against so many people is more than his propaganda machine can counter. Everyone in Libya has personal knowledge of fellow citizens being tortured and murdered by the state. Now the worm has turned and the genie is out of the bottle, there is no going back.
As I said when I last wrote here about Libya “this conflict has had many twists and turns and will continue to do so”. The range of possible endgames looks much as I wrote in that article, the main change in the last week is that the rebels have become a lot more politically organised, with their hands obviously being held by the allies in many ways. It is not a matter of will Gaddafi be deposed, it is merely a matter of how and when.