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Accordion war: Why does the front in Libya keep moving back and forth?

Ryan Calder, former PhD student in sociology | April 4, 2011

Why has the front line in Libya been moving back and forth like an accordion for a month and a half? How was it that the rebels took so many towns so fast in February, and then got pushed back so quickly, until Gaddafi’s tanks were rumbling through Benghazi’s outskirts? And why do the towns in oil-rich north-central Libya, along the Gulf of Sirt – towns like Brega and Ras Lanuf — keep changing hands?

To answer these questions, it helps to think about this war in phases. There have been three phases so far, and we now seem to be in a fourth, which began in late March.

Chronology of the war to date

Phase 1: Popular uprising; a ragtag opposition army advances virtually unopposed

The revolution’s official start date is remembered as February 17, but demonstrations actually began in Benghazi on February 15, mobilized by youth via Facebook and other social-networking sites. In Benghazi and other cities, Gaddafi’s internal-security forces fired on demonstrators, causing mass outrage. Soon, demonstrations spread all over Libya. State-security buildings and other symbols of Gaddafi’s rule (such as the headquarters of the Revolutionary Committees in many cities and towns) were torched.

The regular Libyan army has long been weak, because Gaddafi – afraid of a coup d’état – starved it of leadership and resources, diverting them to militias that report to his sons and to close relatives. (To understand why, look east to Hosni Mubarak, abandoned by his top military brass under popular pressure.) Within the effete Libyan army, only the special forces and a few other detachments were particularly effective. But the militias, especially those under the colonel’s son Khamis, were reasonably well trained, albeit largely for maintaining internal order.

Within a week, as it became clear that a popular uprising was afoot, defections from the regime and the military apparatus began. The most prominent defector was Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Gaddafi’s justice minister. In Benghazi and many other cities, police and state-security officials either joined the rebel movement as sympathizers or simply surrendered. Most of the militias stuck with the regime, however, being under Gaddafi family control.

Here’s a useful map from the BBC of key sites referenced in this post.

In Tripoli, where many of the various Gaddafi militias are based and where Gaddafi’s supporters are concentrated, the security presence was too strong, and isolated demonstrations were too viciously suppressed, for full rebellion to break out.

The east, with Benghazi at its heart, liberated itself quickly. There, the defection of a few elite units from the Benghazi barracks of the Libyan army proved decisive. On February 20, a day of chaos, 1,000 soldiers from the Benghazi contingent of Al-Sa’iqah (the Libyan special forces) joined the opposition. So did Interior Minister General Abdul Fattah Younis and General Khalifah Al-Mismari, a senior Al-Sa’iqah figure.

The Al-Sa’iqah forces in eastern Libya who joined the opposition have proven critical to those successes the opposition military has had. They are among the few fighters on the opposition side who are properly trained and under any kind of organized command.

In late February and early March, untrained, lightly armed rebels (thawwar) – mixed with elements of Al-Sa’iqah – took control of a number of towns in which state security forces had not switched sides or had only been weakly present. This was when maps on international news broadcasts showed town after town falling to the rebels.

Phase 2: Gaddafi regroups and returns to Benghazi’s doorstep

In early March, the regime’s militias regrouped and quickly retook cities from the opposition.

Why did this happen so fast? In Benghazi, people on the street allege that Gaddafi had finally imported enough mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa to field an effective and compliant fighting force. But the extent to which foreign mercenaries are important to the regime’s military effort is nearly impossible to pin down. Regardless, by early March, the regime’s militias had re-armed, supposedly with newly purchased, up-to-date weaponry, and began a well-coordinated wave of attacks that swept back across towns defended by the disorganized rebels.

Watching Gaddafi’s forces rumble almost unchecked toward Benghazi, Libya’s second city (population 700,000), the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973 on March 17, authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. But by March 18, Gaddafi’s forces had finished sweeping eastward through the oil towns of central Libya and had reached Benghazi’s outskirts.

Phase 3: Coalition air strikes change the game; opposition victory seems imminent

On March 19, Benghazi residents streamed east out of the city. Street battles occurred in Benghazi, both in the outskirts and downtown, where locals report that Revolutionary Committee members who had been buying up light weaponry on the new black market for arms emerged from hiding and began shooting at civilians. Benghazi remained chaotic for several days. It was here that the untrained rebel fighters proved relevant, patrolling and protecting the city as best they could.

Coalition air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces also began on March 19. The significance of these air strikes in turning the war’s tide cannot be overstated. Relative to Gaddafi’s superior firepower and financial resources, the opposition’s military forces are underequipped and utterly disorganized, with the exception of the handful of Al-Sa’iqah and other trained military forces that had joined the opposition. But with the air strikes, the opposition began moving apace out of Benghazi and the east, retaking cities like Ajdabiyah, Brega, and Ras Lanuf in east-central Libya’s oil belt.

The air strikes also significantly reduced the regime’s shelling of several contested cities, especially Misrata, Libya’s largest port and third city (population 400,000), located in center-west Libya. …

Excerpted from Ryan Calder’s blog revolutionology, where you can continue reading this post.