Rebels Advance, Surround Tripoli, as Qaddafi Totters

The long slow slog of the Libyan struggle to throw off the rule of Muammar Qaddafi, accelerated this weekend, possibly decisively, with rebel forces making major advances. Tripoli was said to be ready to embrace the rebel youth when they came into the capital.

Free Libya forces made substantial advances over the weekend, coming up from Zintan to take much of Zawiya on the coast, with the help of the majority in the city that opposes dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Zawiya was the site of among the first and biggest anti-Qaddafi demonstrations, and was brutally repressed with tank and artillery fire on unarmed noncombatants by Qaddafi brigades. Since March it has been under secret police rule, but that was thrown off jointly by locals and by their allies from the Western Mountain region to the south.

Not only did they take most of Zawiya, but they went into the neighboring towns of Surman and Gharyan, where there was heavy fighting. If the Free Libya fighters can keep Zawiya, they can cut Tripoli off from arms and supplies that flowed to Qaddafi from smugglers in Tunisia along the Mediterranean. Zawiya itself has an important petroleum refinery, which could end up being denied to Qaddafi in Tripoli.

Map of receent advances.

To the east of the capital, forces from Misrata finally took the town of Tawarga, where Qaddafi forces had been based and from which they sent Grad rockets on Misrata indiscriminately, killing fair numbers of civilians. The Aljazeera correspondent in Tawarga says it is a ghost town, with the loyalist troops and inhabitants having abruptly and mysteriously fled. Misrata can no longer be shelled from that town.

A loyalist officer who was captured and then defected has told reporters from Misrata that the Tripoli regime is extremely divided and that the capital is near to falling. He said that Qaddafi’s forces consist of regular army, militiamen, and mercenaries. The mercenaries, paid well by Qaddafi with oil money he usurped from his people, surround the troops in formation and prevent them from retreating or defecting. But there have been clashes between militias and mercenaries.

Free Libya forces also took another neighborhood in the divided oil city of Brega in the east over the weekend.

The rebels and their NATO air allies have pursued a long, slow rollback of Qaddafi’s brigades. The latter had committed numerous crimes against humanity as they attempted to crush the popular urban demonstrations last March. Although there have been some unfortunate actions by the undisciplined rebels, Human Rights Watch concluded that they cannot be compared to the systematic crimes of the Qaddafi regime.

The forces in Zawiya were speaking of going on to Tripoli within a month.

Despite the doubts of the pundits, it cannot be assumed that these victories are temporary. Although it is true that some towns, like Ra’s Lanouf, have changed hands more than once since the struggle began, it is also true that the Free Libya forces have taken and held major territory even against fierce Qaddafi attacks, as with Misrata and the Western Mountain region.

Qaddafi forces do not appear to have defended Zawiya very vigorously, suggesting a collapse of esprit de corps. The same conclusion could be reached on observing the sudden decamping of Qaddafi loyalists from Tawarga, which left even the rebels puzzled. Likewise, NATO bombing raids appear to have increased in effectiveness (the road from Zintan to Zawiya is said to show signs of intensive bombardment of Qaddafi military outposts and depots), with strategic targets chosen that will help the rebel advance. For some time NATO wasted time and support by trying to hit Qaddafi’s compound and decapitate the regime, which had a low chance of success.

Despite a defiant television appearance Sunday in Tripoli, Qaddafi must have a premonition that his rule of Libya is effectively over with. His last ‘million man march’ in the capital drew only 100 people. Mysterious negotiations between his rump government and the Transitional National Council, which now has the bulk of the country, took place in Tunisia on Sunday evening. Were they discussing the terms of Qaddafi’s exile?

Posted in Libya | 20 Responses | Print |

20 Responses

  1. We must hope that when the time comes most of Tripoli will indeed convincingly embrace the rebels, and explain their past support for Qadaffi as a matter of coersion rather than conviction. That surely is something the rebels would have to accept as credible given their own history under Qadaffi. That scenario would allow for some chance of post-war reconciliation rather than score-settling.

  2. I sat for Iftar with 15 or so Libyan brothers on Saturday, and the mood was decidedly more upbeat than it has been in the past. I am so happy for them. One brother showed me google earth images of his home town and video of a nearby airbase being bombed by NATO. The optimism was palpable. They are now talking hopefully about returning home and I pray they can, although this community will miss them greatly.

  3. The significance of the fall of Gharyan (actually south of Tripoli) should not be underestimated. Not only the supply road to Algeria and Chad has been cut but enough weapons and ammunition to arm 2000 fighters were captured. This is in addition to the armor & heavy weapons captured. Busloads of fresh Chadian merceneries-to-be were also captured.

    In the past 12 hours, the town of Mizdah 50km south of Gharyan has fallen. Not only this town was a military barrack and home to massive amounts of stored underground ammunition, but it controls the very last escape route from Tripoli (through Bani Walid).

    An hour ago the democracy fighters have launched an attack on Tiji, the last Qadafi military base in the Nafusa Mountains. Also reports are that the 2nd part (of three parts) to Brega has been captured. The Western part remains in Qadafi hands – but is the least defensible part.

    The amount of “softening” conducted by NATO prior to the capture of Zawiya/ Gharyan should not be underestimated. A UK heli carrier with 12 Apaches was stationed just outside of Zawiya. For six weeks NATO has been pounding Qadafi positions in the Zawiya region each and every night, sometimes with 3 shifts of strikes including daytime.

    Kudos to Human Rights Watch. But same cannot be said to the Marxist front Amnesty International who seems to concentrate on rebel infractions but shows little or no interest to tally Qadafi’s systemic abuses, such as kidnapping up to 60,000 suspects and jailing them in cargo containers under the torching sun. Torture is routine at these camps.

    The Tewarga assault was closely coordinated with NATO and took the Qadafi forces by surprise.

    Your assessment that NATO wasted precious time early on bombarding Qadafi assets in Tripoli and chasing him in his bunkers is spot on. This was a major debate within the NATO ranks with the Qadafi-hunters dominating for a while (at the cost of many lives in Brega and Miserata) until the more rational experienced soldiers managed to convince that firepower should be used to soften the targets for the rebel advance. The first camp was adamant that the campaign should not be viewed as “an airforce for the rebels”. Fortunately this faction lost the debate (due to non-performance) and NATO has been exactly an airforce for the rebels since, including French/ British/ Amazigh Legionnaires on the ground with laser pointers coordinating the attacks. There has been no discernable protest to this turn of events, except from the regime itself.

    The saga of Qadafi is over, relegated to the trash bin of history. The interesting questions though remain. What are the implications for regime change to Syria, Yemen, Algeria, and Iran. And then the 64K question: how will the liberation movement evolve upon the termination of the Qadafi regime. With the execution of Younis, this question has become quite more foggy. Would the revolutionaries take an ideological turn (to Islam) or would they defy common wisdom, rise to the challenge, shed the far too common middle eastern political baggage of revenge seeking and chaos until a strongman emerges, and arrive at a democratic half-way house where democratic forces and civil society has a chance to take root and pleasently surprise a very skeptical international community.

  4. Although it might still be possible even in the case of a clear loss of power by Qaddafi, I am more optimistic that such is a real possibility — whether by clear defeat or some negotiated exit, rather than an ongoing, low-level, disaggregated war in North Africa, destabilizing the region once again.

    To me, it seemed the most likely outcome that there would be no clear loss or victory, but a continuing form of localized fighting and long-term chaos within a weak nation-state.

  5. What does Islam say about mercenaries (if anything)? If their job is to keep the regular army from defecting, it seems that they will want to exit Libya very quickly when the end comes, because both sides will want them dead.

  6. Qaddafi forces do not appear to have defended Zawiya very vigorously, suggesting a collapse of esprit de corps. The same conclusion could be reached on observing the sudden decamping of Qaddafi loyalists from Tawarga, which left even the rebels puzzled.

    Territory is cheap in Libyan wars; ask Erwin Rommel. Keeping an advancing force from getting behind you by going back to shorter lines is much more important than controlling more territory in determining the outcome. I’ve been saying this all summer, while the confused media kept writing about a “stalemate” because there weren’t “dramatic” advances on the map. And the same observation holds true here as well. This lack of stout, static defense probably means the Khadaffy forces staged a strategic withdrawal to new lines closer to Tripoli, not that they’re beat or ready to collapse.

    Don’t get me wrong; this is clearly good news, in that it puts the rebels in a better strategic position and does serious harm to the loyalists’ resupply efforts (and, obviously, that it liberates those residents from the oppressive boot of the regime), but it’s not the turning point. It just moves the fight closer to Tripoli.

    • Zawiya is not just any piece of Libyan territory, though. Control of it cuts off Tripoli’s last overland resupply route and its citizens will provide lots of additional troops for the rebels. Taken together, these two factors could indeed mark a turning point in the war.

      • Indeed. I don’t mean to understate the geographic significance, just the claim that the loyalist forces are collapsing.

        I think they’ve just been forced to move.

  7. Bravo – and bravo to Juan for coming out early in defending NATO assistance to the rebels. With all due respect to G. Greenwald, but people of that ilk were simply wrong about intervention in this case, conflating Libya with Iraq. But not to re-litigate that question. Now, one hopes the rebels can continue their push to the point where Qadaffi’s remaining support cracks and he’s pushed out. The unanswered question remains what sort of regime will take its place. One hopes that the US and NATO, which have maintained a light footprint, can help with the messy process of post-war construction. The bad financial news might constrain their ability to offer aid.

    Meanwhile, am waiting to see a leader emerge. Keeping my fingers crossed…

    • The unanswered question remains what sort of regime will take its place.

      It is specifically because this question is unanswered, and has been all along, that the off-the-shelf “anti-imperialist” arguments of people like Glenn Greenwald have rung so hollow.

      I’ve seen the sort of American imperialist policy Greenwald is projecting onto the UN protective mission over Libya. It doesn’t look like this.

  8. Please tell us that the social welfare net established by Qaddafi (with oil money) won’t be dismantled and destroyed, unlike what happened in Saddam’s Iraq. I fear we already know the answer to that question.

    • You are living in the 1970s. Qaddafi himself long ago dismantled a lot of the social welfare net, especially for tribes that crossed him, in the east and in the Western Mountains. He didn’t have $40 bn. in assets stashed in the US because he was spending it on his people. Libya as an oil state should have looked like Kuwait in infrastructure and social welfare, but instead it had high unemployment and housing problems and a lot of poor people living under an arbitrary and erratic tyrant who was going off to Rome for bunga bunga parties with his friend frightwing billionaire Silvio Berlusconi. Such a leftist.

      • Heh – that gave me a good chuckle Juan and it made my day. The average rich-hating Leftist, for some inconceivable reason, assumes that whoever gets control of the oil will siphon the oil for his buddies and ultimately for the west. That only authoritarian socialists, no matter what their politics, are friends of the poor. That all of history can be reduced to the poor being exploited by the rich.

        As much I loath Ahmadinejad, he did one thing right. He is providing a monthly stipend of $40 to all adult Iranians. Of course this is not useful for controlling population growth – but allows the poor to decide what to do with this resource as opposed to idealistic and ideological self-installed and self-interested government bosses.

        I hope the new Libyan democracy writes something of this sort in its Constitution. That 50% or more of oil revenue to be evenly distributed for as long as it lasts.

        Would this answer the 70s Leftist’s concerns? I doubt it. It is not the love of the poor that drives their agenda. It is the hatred of the rich.

        • Hatred of the rich and their systematic looting and polarization of resources is driving street uprisings all over the world right now, from Egypt to Greece to Britain, and now even Israel.

          For 30 years they took everything and claimed they would create a new golden age, and they used it to make themselves too big to fail and thus blackmailed governments into bailouts. So now we’re seeing the reckoning. Where do you think is next?

        • “It is not the love of the poor that drives their agenda. It is the hatred of the rich.”

          Man, i read your comments on Libya with some interest. What a shame you felt the need to share your baseless prejudices about the left, it takes you down a notch. Im from a working class background, and have been a left voter all my life. Not because i hate the rich, but because i know from my own personal experience the real significance of politics for equality and social justice. Ive felt the effects of class inequality in my own skin! And also because i know that ultimately, more socially just societies benefit even the upper classes (read “The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett!).

          And why should we expect political measures that benefit the poor from right wingers, when its against all they believe in? Maybe to avoid an imminent social revolution, but even then most righties are too stupid and ideologically blocked to read the cards, as history can tell.

    • Your intervention would have been more useful if you had provided a link to a better map.

  9. The city of Subrata ( around 50 km west of Zawia ) has been also liberated ( 90 % ) with some mercenaries still holed up in a military base on the outskirts of the city. All that is left between the rebels and the border crossing with tunisia is the city of zwara; which also stood up with the rebels at the beginning of the uprising.

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