As the Libyan civil war staggers on and the Anglo French-led coalition forces expand their mission, the end seems no closer, the Coalition is showing signs of fragmentation and a reluctant NATO has assumed control of the Coalition military operations.
The civil war is following the pattern of the North African Campaigns of World War Two. First one side rapidly advances West, only retreat even more rapidly.
The nature of Libya lends itself to this type of battle. Although Libya occupies a large land area, most of the population is located in a narrow ribbon along the Mediterranean coast and the front line is the even narrower ribbon of tarmac that joins the towns. The large expanse of desert is almost unpopulated except for nomadic tribes and oil workers. The oil workers have fled and the nomads have so far kept a low profile, favouring neither side.
In World War Two, the flux of the campaigns was influenced by supplies of weapons and materials, particularly fuel for vehicles. Each side enjoyed dramatic advances, only to over extend their supply lines and be forced back to their start line. In the current civil war the situation is different. Without NATO air support, the revolt would have already been brutally put down by Government forces. The rebels have failed to establish a command structure and are essentially an enthusiastic band of armed civilians, lacking heavy weapons and military training. The campaign has therefore been dominated by European and American air support.
Having taken out the major air and anti-air capability and neutralized the Libyan Government’s naval assets, the Coalition forces turned their attention to close air support, attacking Government armour and artillery. This allowed the rebels to advance rapidly. Once the Government forces switched tactics and started using civilian vehicles, rather than tanks, they became more difficult targets for Coalition warplanes. The result has been a rapid retreat of rebel forces back towards Benghazi. As a headline situation, this suggests that the rebels are losing again and may not recover, but the real situation is much more complex.
The Libyan Government is subject to a blockade, preventing it from rearming and replacing spent munitions. This would not have been major problem because it is clear that a very large stock of military materials already existed and was very significantly greater than anything available to the rebels who are also effectively subject to an arms embargo. However, the Coalition air forces are now targeting Government arms dumps. Some large installations have already been destroyed and the search continues for the remaining munitions supplies and stockpiles of aircraft and vehicles. British Special Forces appear to have been operating in some numbers since the start of the crisis. Historically, these Special Forces were born during the North African campaigns of World War Two. They operated in small groups and columns, using the largely unpopulated desert to work around enemy forces and attack from the rear. A large part of their missions was concentrated on reconnaissance and locating targets for attack from the air and the sea. Since their formation in the early 1940s, these elite units have continued to keep their desert warfare skills current and have played critical roles in a number of Middle Eastern situations, far beyond their numerical power. It appears that their current missions are to search for any remaining oil workers who have not yet been extracted and searching for new targets that the Coalition air forces can attack. Having identified targets, they will also be used to illuminate targets for laser guided smart bombs and missiles. This means that, provided the rebels can survive, the Government forces will eventually be starved of the materials to continue fighting.
Today, the announcement that the Libyan Foreign Minister has fled to Britain and sought asylum is the most significant event since the civil war started. Mousa Kousa is not only a very senior member of the Gaddafi regime with a long service to the dictator, but he was also responsible for the support of international terror and the ruthless intelligence services of the regime. His defection is not only a major psychological blow to the regime, but his knowledge of where the bodies are buried could be invaluable to the Coalition forces and the rebels. When someone of this seniority defects, it demonstrates that key members of the regime are already thinking of how best to survive in a post-Gaddafi environment, and it also gives some indication of the reality behind the propaganda.
Britain and France appear to be moving towards a decision to supply arms and training to the rebels, with the US possibility joining in the supply and increasing the numbers of CIA personnel in the war zone. This would be a major expansion of a mission that has already shown mission creep.
The big question is – what would follow Gaddafi?
From the beginning there have been signs of Muslim fundamentalists at work in the rebel community. There is no guarantee that what follows Gaddafi will be any more favourable either to Western Governments, or to the Libyan people. There is also no guarantee that Libya will remain one country, with East/West partition still a very real possibility.