Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, comprised of an incongruous mixture of the military, militias and professional mercenaries who are veterans of massacres in Chad and Darfur, have launched an offensive. Foreign correspondents say that they are carrying out air and artillery strikes against Libyan insurgents.
In eastern Libya, where insurgent forces have liberated a large part of Cyrenaica province, an attack by Gaddafi’s motley forces on an oil port in Brega on the far outskirts of Benghazi was beaten back for the time being by the just as motley forces of rebel militias and army deserters. Both sides have some armoured vehicles, artillery, mortars and grenade launchers. The Gaddafi supporters are using aircraft, while the insurgents in Benghazi have a few old fighter jets and several helicopters, but nobody has seen them in action. Clashes between the two sides have been fleeting and the participants have likely numbered in the hundreds instead of the thousands.
In western Libya near the capital of Tripoli, the insurgents have virtually no heavy weaponry and their forces are clearly outnumbered. The city of Az Zawiyah, to the west of Tripoli, is being tightly blockaded by the elite 32nd Brigade, which is commanded by Gaddafi’s son Khamis. Having gained full control over Az Zawiyah, Gaddafi forces have managed to push forward to the Tunisian border, where thousands of refugees had gathered before the Tunisian authorities finally agreed to let them in to the country at the very last moment.
Residents of Tripoli report that the authorities have been searching and arresting opposition supporters identified in photographs and videos at anti-government demonstrations. Gaddafi has promised to fight until the last breath and drown his opponents in blood, maintaining that the people love him. His former confidant and general, Suleiman Obeidi, believes Colonel Gaddafi could be able to hold on to power for months ahead. Libyan bank accounts with billions of dollars have been frozen in the United States and other countries, but Gaddafi still has a lot of resources to back him up.
The recently deposed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt were also fully prepared to use merciless military force against their own people, but the armed forces managed to retain unity and neutrality, which ultimately made it possible to resolve both crises in a relatively peaceful manner. In Libya, Gaddafi has deliberately weakened the army and it fell apart in the same way it did in Russia in 1917. It is not clear what the outcome of the ensuing civil war will be. Some sort of National Transitional Council has been formed in Benghazi and it is now begging Western countries to support the insurgents with “airstrikes on Gaddafi’s mercenaries.”
The Libyan conflict is taking place on Europe’s doorstep. Refugees poured into Italy following the revolution in Tunisia, but the authorities, having fed them, are looking to legally send the majority of them back so they can build democracy back home. Libya has a population of 6.5m and it’s feasible that millions of Libyans could flee the country. There’s no way they will be deported if fighting and repression are still taking place in Libya. In addition, refugees from other African countries could claim they are escaping the Libyan massacre and attempt to flee to Europe via Libya, particularly since Gaddafi has threatened to open the gates to Europe for millions of African refugees. Back in 1999, it was the threat of two million Albanians invading from Kosovo that finally compelled Europe to take up arms and ask the Americans to lead the campaign.
The US navy is converging on Libya with aircraft carriers, amphibious helicopter carriers and marines, while the French navy has also moved into the area. For now, officials are talking only about introducing a no-fly zone for Libyan aircraft, but a full-scale air offensive would essentially be required to enforce it. The aircraft carrier forces are not sufficient for this, and US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has called for patience, demanding that “unity in NATO” be established first. Such unity will probably be found quickly – just as soon as the threat of an influx of millions of Muslim refugees becomes obvious. Libyan refugees don’t pose much of a threat to the United States, but Barack Obama must prove that he is a strong commander-in-chief and not some wimp with a Noble Peace Prize as he starts preparing for a difficult re-election campaign in 2012.
Terrified by the massacres in Libya, the UN Security Council could approve the introduction of a no-fly zone. Even if China and Russia object, the Gaddafi regime has already lost its legitimacy, so the West could recognise the National Transitional Council and then legally act at its invitation. But the Americans won’t be conducting a classic land operation with their allies, and manned aircraft will also be used cautiously as they launch guided weapons and stay out of possible air defence attack zones. Nobody wants to see pilots killed or captured. Combat and reconnaissance drones are needed above all to control the rapidly changing situation and carry out strikes on Gaddafi’s forces. The US could send “invisible” B-2 strategic bombers, which are capable of delivering deep penetrating high-precision bombs, overnight to destroy bunkers in Tripoli where Gaddafi and his associates are hiding.
Land bases would be needed for unmanned aircraft in Sicily or even in Libya in the liberated territory between Benghazi and Torbuk. The vehicles would be piloted by satellite crews working in the United States, while in Libya itself there would be a small group of army special forces, field operatives and mercenaries sent by the CIA to coordinate the West’s air power with the opposition forces. Chances are they are already quietly assessing the situation on the ground in Libya, establishing ties with the rebels and preparing frontline bases.
It is well known from the battles fought by Nazi Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s African Corps that you cannot hide from aircraft in the Libyan desert, especially from modern aircraft. Gaddafi’s mercenaries and supporters don’t have any experience fighting under the conditions of American supremacy in the sky and will run away, abandoning their weapons. All that will be left for the rebels to do is to get through to Tripoli with cries of victory and “kill the vermin” in its lair. Some Arab or Muslim peacekeepers could then be sent to Libya to keep order and the EU will start providing aid in building democracy with varying degrees of success so the refugees can eventually be sent home. Oil production will continue, part of Gaddafi’s billions will be distributed to the people and the US military will try to stay as far away from all this as possible since for the most part Libya has no strategic value for it.