Aljazeera English is reporting that French fighter jets have destroyed 4 tanks on the outskirts of Benghazi, the center of the provisional government opposing dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The tanks were involved in a concerted attack on Benghazi launched by Qaddafi’s military Friday and Saturday.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy surprised observers by announcing that French fighter jets were patrolling Libya’s skies already. The deployment was expected later on Saturday or on Sunday, in the wake of the meeting of a 22-nation spontaneous alliance formed to meet the UN Security Council’s mandate to protect Libyan civilians from Qaddafi loyalists’ military attacks on them.
Aljazeera Arabic interviewed Brigadier Gen. Safwat El Zayat (rtd.), an Egyptian military analyst and supporter of the Egyptian revolution, on the military situation in Libya. He was asked about the report that French fighter jets had taken out 4 Libyan tanks near Benghazi. Zayat said that pro-Qaddafi armor had moved up from Ajdabiya toward Benghazi in two columns, with the intent of breaching the rebel stronghold’s defenses and occupying the city center. The 32nd Special Forces Brigade, supported by tanks and led by Qaddafi’s son, Khamis, attacked on Friday and Saturday from the southwest. Another brigade, supported by tanks and heavy artillery and led by another Qaddafi son, Saadi, attacked from the southeast.
The French were attempting to deprive these elite brigades of their armored support and so level the playing ground for the rebel defenders of Benghazi. Given this air intervention, Gen. Zayat said, the strategy pursued by Qaddafi’s military in the past week could turn out to have been an enormous error. The pro-Qaddafi forces are stretched out over hundreds of miles, far from their supply lines, and are vulnerable to aerial bombardment because they are exposed in the desert. He said that French Mirage jets could fire infrared-seeking air-to-ground missiles that would detect Libyan armor because its temperature signature differed from its desert surroundings, and so could zero in on it.
Zayat expects that the struggle could well evolve rapidly from a no-fly zone enforcement to a push to deprive Qaddafi of his armored assets on the ground. He expected pro-Qaddafi forces to beat a retreat to Sirt now that the environment is turning negative for them in the east, but points out that they are hundreds of miles away and won’t be able to retreat quickly, remaining exposed along the way. The general points out that the mission is stated as protecting civilians from military attack, and that it could become a wideranging one. What, he asked, is the difference between protecting citizens in Benghazi from the 32nd Brigade or protecting those in Misrata closer to the capital? And then how is Zintan in the western desert different from Misrata?
Given the good performance turned in by the rebels two weeks ago before Qaddafi’s sons and officers decided to riposte with armor and air strikes and to punish civilian quarters for their support of the uprising, it seems likely that if Qaddafi is deprived by the UN-backed coalition of his advantage in planes and tanks, the rebels will again advance west. Once the rebels have the momentum on their side I can only imagine that the rest of the Libyan officer corps will throw the Qaddafis under the bus and switch sides.