The Libyan chapter of the Arab Revolt of 2011is turning out to be its most decisive and protracted. This confounds the advance calculations made in Washington, London and Paris. They presented it as a non-war in order to press forward before the appropriate forces were allocated and precise targets set.
Muammar Qaddafi and his military commanders quickly grasped these shortcomings and adapted their responses, leaving the Western opposition trailing behind.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that the gap between coalition claims and reality was glaringly apparent as early as Day Four, Tuesday March 22:
The US, Britain and France announced then that their air strikes had driven pro-Qaddafi forces out of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi (Libya's second largest town). Forcing them to retreat south to Ajdabiya had saved the rebels from defeat and ensured their continued control of eastern Libya (Cyrenaica).
That day, however, large numbers of Qaddafi's soldiers were seen on Benghazi's main Gemal Abdel Nasser Street.
Thursday night, March 24, as this issue closed, our sources can confirm that the Libyan Army's Saadi and Khamis (32nd) Brigades are still in Benghazi. Shortly before the air strikes began, they were reinforced by an artillery brigade armed with self-propelled 155 mm guns and a tank brigade – four brigades in all, together with some 1,500 fighters of the Warefla Tribal Federation of Libya.
Four pro-Qaddafi brigades embedded in Benghazi
Since the four brigades and fighters are ensconced in and around Benghazi city buildings, Western aircraft are unable to strike them without harming hundreds if not thousands of civilians. The rebels have no vestige of the combat capabilities necessary for taking on these government troops.
So the only way to degrade Qaddafi's Benghazi-based forces was to strike their supply convoys. This tactic was initially effective: The convoys stopped rolling. However, they were quickly replaced by a big smuggling network set up by the Warefla tribes.
By now, it is clear to Western coalition commanders that nothing will winkle Qaddafi's troops out of Benghazi but a major ground operation backed by superior tank strength – a tactic that would require a fresh Security Council mandate.
By Wednesday and Thursday March 23-24, the Libyan ruler was seen to have adapted his Benghazi strategy to other cities. Hence, his ruthless assault on Zintan and Misratah in the west, which had two main objectives:
1. To prevent opposition forces allied with the rebels from resuming armed operations against government forces in those key cities. By their presence, Qaddafi also sought to strengthen his control of Tripoli, the capital.
2. Once inside those cities, his troops would use them as human shields to ward off coalition aerial and missile strikes.
No way to defeat Qaddafi without substantial ground forces
By means of this strategy, the Libyan ruler has lengthened the war. He has made it necessary for the opposition and its Western champions to conquer a number of Libyan cities, converted now into his military bastions, if they wish to defeat his armed forces.
The Western coalition, for its part, went into Operation Odyssey Dawn on March 19 with four main objectives:
To degrade Libyan air defenses in order to create a safe environment for a no-fly zone; to disrupt the regime's command and control centers; to restrict the ability to deploy its air force; and to establish a no-fly zone over northern Libya to hamper government operations there.
By the end of this week, those objectives had only been partially achieved.
Qaddafi's counter-offensive and his armed forces' freedom to move almost unhindered from point to point in all of western Libya and part of the east indicate that one of his most important tactical advantages was not addressed in the first stage of the coalition's operation: the ability to move contingents and supplies over long distances.
The Western coalition therefore faces a long and protracted military struggle against Qaddafi's forces that will call for more and larger air, sea and ground forces for any chance of success as well as a new set of targets different from those set for the first stage.
Digging in for guerilla war
Stage Two will have to focus on dislodging the pro-Qaddafi brigades dug into urban areas of Libya's key cities by far more aggressive and politically unsavory methods including a scorched earth campaign from east to west. This will necessitate a broad interpretation of the UN resolution mandating the campaign.
Allied forces will have to target regime elements not actively involved in attacking civilian areas for the purpose of depriving Qaddafi of reserves for reinforcements and crushing his rearguard as well as his front line.
The allies will need both a defensive and offensive infrastructure to stand up to a potential guerrilla war. Rebel forces will have to be slapped into military shape.
Without moving forward and embarking on these steps, the Western coalition is sentencing itself to a standoff in the Libyan war: The rebels may retain sections of Benghazi, but Qaddafi will retain the ability to strike them at will – not only from Tripoli and Misratah but also from central Benghazi and West Ajdabiya, which they hold today.