Libyan Rebel March on Tripoli Hobbled by Military Shortcomings

Libyan Leader Muammar Qaddafi
Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Photographer: Turkia/AFP/Getty Images

The Libyan insurgents’ shortcomings may limit their ability to oust Muammar Qaddafi even after allied bombing over the past six days destroyed his air force.

Opposition forces are outnumbered and lack adequate logistics and supply lines, U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, told Congressional staff members yesterday, said a person at the briefing who spoke on condition of anonymity. That’s hobbling their chances of deposing a dictator entrenched since 1969 and raising the prospect of greater involvement by Western forces, defense analysts said.

“The rebels are too disorganized to march on Tripoli and overrun it at any time soon,” Mats Berdal, a professor in the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London, said in an interview.

Rebel weakness may complicate the exit strategy from the conflict that started on March 19 with air strikes by French, British and U.S. jets. The Allies setting up a no-fly zone will run out of targets within days and unless Qaddafi is killed or suffers mass defections, the next step would be “support forces to help rebel fighters” on the ground, Berdal said.

The United Nations resolution approving the mission forbids a “foreign occupation force” in Libya. President Barack Obama has excluded putting U.S. ground troops there, while U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague has held open the possibility of deploying troops in some capacity in the future.

“There can’t be an occupation force,” Hague told Sky News in a March 20 interview. “That means you can’t have a ground invasion of Libya. It doesn’t exclude every possible type of operation.”

Allied Jets

U.S. and allied jets targeted Qaddafi’s troops today. The leader’s loyalists increased attacks on cities, killing 16 people yesterday in Misrata and six in the nearby coastal town of Zentan, opposition spokesman Abdulhafid Ghoga told reporters in Benghazi. Later, the Associated Press reported that tanks were pulling back from Misrata.

The Libya conflict, which began in February in the eastern city of Benghazi, is the bloodiest in a series of uprisings that have spread across the Middle East and ousted the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.

From Benghazi, rebels extended territorial control along the coast, gaining the oil ports of Brega and Ros Lanuf. Uprisings in western cities like Misrata and Zawiyah at one point left Tripoli as almost the only major population center under Qaddafi control.

Counter-attacks drove the rebel army units to give up some of their coastal gains, and left supporters in western cities besieged, threatening the insurgency with annihilation before foreign intervention.

‘Blinded’ by Success

“The rebels are a pretty disorganized pack and they were blinded by their early success,” Karl-Heinz Kamp, research director at the NATO Defense College in Rome, said in an interview. “My gut feeling is this could end in a stalemate.” Cretz said yesterday that the coalition acting in Libya receives daily reports from the opposition, according to the person at the briefing.

The rebels are divided, poorly supplied and untrained in using advanced weapons, said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. They also lack discipline, structure and clear support from major tribal factions outside the urban areas in the country’s east, he said.

Rebels’ Needs

“They need outside trainers and arms, but may not have the unity or politics that will allow them to accept such aid and use it effectively,” Cordesman wrote in a March 22 analysis.

The main channel for the U.S. to communicate with the Libyan rebels has been through Chris Stevens, who was the No. 2 official at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli before it was evacuated amid the internal clashes that began last month. The State Department this month made him a liaison to the opposition.

Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a spokesman for France’s Defense Ministry in Paris, declined to comment on rebel capabilities.

“We will not describe them for obvious security reasons,” Burkhard said in an interview yesterday. “We won’t give out such information because it’d fall into Qaddafi’s hands.”

Barak Seener, a Middle East expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said the Libya conflict “will go on for some time if we don’t act swiftly,” especially if the West doesn’t offer rebels logistical support, training in heavy artillery and equipment and training in communications so they can better coordinate their attacks.

‘Rag-Tag Force’

A report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies described the rebels as “rag-tag force” that “lack any substantial hardware with which to take on the pro-Qaddafi stronghold.”

The IISS report, published on March 8, said Qaddafi’s forces have “relatively modern” Russian-made T72 and T62 tanks as well as BMP1 infantry vehicles, while the rebels have “obsolete” T55 tanks.

“The rebels didn’t conquer a single place,” NATO Defense College’s Kamp said. “The people either went over to them or ran away.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a similar point to reporters in Cairo yesterday, saying there were “any number of possible outcomes.”

“Most of the uprisings against Qaddafi took place by towns and cities where people in those towns and cities rose up against him,” Gates said. “In some cases, parts of the military garrison in those cities rose up. So it wasn’t as if you had an alternative army moving back and forth across Libya.”

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