ISW in Brief: The Status of Current Operations in Libya

ISW in Brief: The Status of Current Operations in Libya

by Anthony Bell

March 31, 2011

Since March 19, 2011, U.S. and Coalition airstrikes have been targeting Libyan military forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. These airstrikes have prevented Qaddafi from further attacks on Libyan civilians; however, the political dynamics and internal cleavages driving the current rebellion in Libya are still unclear. Moreover, the momentum on the battlefield continues to shift, leaving the outcome of the conflict uncertain.

In mid-February, the revolutionary fervor gripping neighboring Egypt and Tunisia took root in Libya. In the eastern city of Benghazi, protestors took up arms against Qaddafi’s regime, demanding his ouster. The insurrection spread throughout eastern Libya as one city after another joined the impromptu rebel movement. The stark contrast between the strength of the rebellion in Cyrenaica—the eastern region of Libya—and the comparative calm in Tripolitania, Libya’s west—reveals the underlying political dynamics shaping the Libyan Civil War.

The eastern Cyrenaica has long harbored deep-seated enmity towards the Qaddafi-controlled western Tripolitania. Divided by the vast Sirte Desert, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania are dominated by their capital cities of Benghazi and Tripoli respectively, and have traditionally been political and economic rivals. Following his coup in 1969, Qaddafi consolidated his power with political alliances among Tripoli’s tribes and urban elite through largess fueled by oil revenues (though the majority of Libya’s oil reserves and energy infrastructure is located in Cyrenaica). Cyrenaica remained the cradle of anti-regime sentiment, spurring periodic insurrections, riots, and coup attempts that have threatened Qaddafi throughout his forty-two year rule. Cyrenaica’s capital of Benghazi has once again become the rebels’ capital, the seat of the National Transitional Council, a loose confederation of opposition groups.

After the outbreak of rebellions across Cyrenaica in February, Qaddafi’s regime initially appeared to falter; however, Qaddafi quickly consolidated his regime’s strength and undertook a methodical military campaign to crush the rebellion. Qaddafi’s forces moved swiftly and brutally into Cyrenaica and pockets of western Libya, recapturing many rebel areas through indiscriminate attacks, leaving thousands of civilians killed or wounded. By mid-March, heavily-armed pro-Qaddafi forces had reached the outskirts of Benghazi and were poised to raze the rebel-capital and effectively end the rebellion. On March 17, the U.N. Security Council, with the strong urging of the United States, Great Britain and France, authorized Resolution 1973 (UNSCR 1973), granting member states the authority to use military force to protect Libyan civilians under threat of attack from Qaddafi’s forces.

The opening salvo of U.S. and allied airstrikes began enforcing UNSCR 1973 on March 19, preventing Qaddafi’s ground forces from assaulting Benghazi and saving the city’s rebels and civilians from Qaddafi’s promised retaliation. Coalition aircraft have since gained air supremacy over Libya and established a no-fly zone, while allied warships in the Mediterranean Sea have set up a blockade of Libyan ports to enforce an arms embargo. Thus far, the United States, Britain, France, and Italy have provided most of the Coalition’s military strength. They have been joined by forces from Canada, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Qatar, Romania, Spain, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. In all, fifteen countries initially joined the U.S.-led Coalition, but on March 27, after a week of internal squabbling, the 28-members of NATO agreed to command the no-fly zone. NATO’s takeover of the command of Coalition operations in Libya from the United States marked the beginning of NATO’s Operation Unified Protector.

Under the new command, NATO forces continue to launch daily air and missile strikes against Qaddafi’s military forces, pummeling the regime’s air defenses, command and control facilities, logistics hubs, and ground forces. In less than two weeks, Coalition airstrikes and a rebel counteroffensive have pushed Qaddafi’s forces nearly 300 miles southwest, leaving the rebels effectively in control of all of Cyrenaica. Rebel and pro-Qaddafi forces are currently fighting in areas of Sirte, Ras Lanuf, and Brega, where despite initial gains, the rebel forces are struggling to hold their ground.

There are increasing fears that a stalemate will develop between Qaddafi’s forces and the rebels. The rebels are militarily outmatched by Qaddafi’s superior forces—Coalition airstrikes are the main reason the Qaddafi regime has not overtaken the rebel offensive. The rebels are a poorly organized, irregular force of volunteers that are undisciplined, and desperately short of heavy weapons. Without outside assistance, it is increasingly unlikely that they can maintain control of terrain in central Libya. Rebel fighters will only face increasing challenges if they seek to project their forces across the 600-mile coastal highway from Benghazi to capture Tripoli.

Complicating matters, Coalition airpower may no longer prove decisive. Qaddafi’s forces have already begun employing asymmetric tactics and drawing the rebels into urban warfare where it is difficult for the Coalition to provide the rebels with effective air support. Distinguishing between pro-Qaddafi and rebel forces is increasingly difficult, as the two sides become virtually identical from the air once engaged in heavy street-to-street fighting. In response, the U.S. military has started employing aircraft more suitable for urban warfare, such as AC-130 gunships, A-10s, and unmanned drones, but this will be insufficient to decisively turn the tide.

As the conflict continues, the next steps are uncertain. U.S. and Coalition officials are intensely debating the way forward. Though several Coalition members have balked at providing weapons to the rebels, some suggest selling weapons to the rebel government, paid for with frozen-Qaddafi assets or from revenue derived from Cyrenaica’s oil fields. The potential implications of providing weapons to the rebels are made even more controversial in the face of recent reports that some rebels may have connections to al-Qaeda and other affiliated terrorist groups. Several Cyrenaican cities have deep connections to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an Islamist terrorist group opposed to Qaddafi that formally joined al-Qaeda in 2007. Libyans comprised the second largest group of foreign suicide bombers used by al-Qaeda in Iraq, the majority of whom were from Cyrenaica. U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe who is overseeing operations in Libya, recently said there were “flickers” of an al-Qaeda and even a Hezbollah presence among the rebels. As the developments in Libya continue to unfold, many questions will remain center stage, chief among them the rebels’ true identity, and whether air power alone will be sufficient to stave off Qaddafi forces.

For the latest news and analysis on these issues, follow the Institute for the Study of War & the Critical Threats Project’s Libya Conflict: Situation Update.

Anthony Bell is a Research Assistant at ISW.