For almost seven weeks, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's loyalists and mercenary soldiers have besieged the city of Misrata. Rebel fighters and Misrata's citizenry have suffered brutal assault after assault, but with the aid of NATO and coalition air power, they have denied Gadhafi's regime a key military and political goal: complete control of western Libya's coastal cities and towns.
Reports began to circulate on April 25 that Gadhafi's forces, after a bloody fight in a key neighborhood, had retreated to the outskirts of Misrata. The city, however, remains surrounded.
Gadhafi hasn't quit the battle, and the truth is, he can't afford to quit. Located about 130 miles east of Tripoli on the road to Sirte, Misrata is an island of rebel resistance lying deep within territory Gadhafi's regime must secure if it is to survive politically.
That's because Gadhafi is now fighting a war to retain control of western Libya, also known as Tripolitania. Libyans understand the importance of Misrata. Agence France-Presse quoted Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, a spokesman for the Libyan rebel Transitional National Council, as saying: "Misrata is the key to Tripoli. If he (Gadhafi) lets go of Misrata, he will let go of Tripoli. He is not crazy enough to do that."
For a little over two millennia, the classical Roman provincial designations of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica have lingered as popular names for Libya's western and eastern regions. Numerous commentators have suggested that Libya's civil war will stalemate and end with a 21st century resurrection of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Gadhafi would retain a rump state in the west, and the rebels would make Benghazi the capital of a New Cyrenaica.
However, the revolt against Gadhafi pits oppressed outsiders against privileged regime insiders. Misrata demonstrates that the war isn't a matter of east-west geography and a neat two-way division. So does continued resistance in the Nafusa Mountains south and west of Gadhafi's stronghold of Tripoli.
The Nafusa range is a desert escarpment and a predominantly ethnic Berber region. With a few exceptions, for four decades the Berbers have received short economic and cultural shrift from Gadhafi.
Early on, Gadhafi understood the Berbers presented a geographic threat and ethnic challenge. Regime forces began attacking the Berbers in late February. In mid-April, Berber rebels seized the Libya-Tunisia border crossing between Wazin, Libya, and Dehiba, Tunisia. This opened a supply line to Tunisia. NATO aircraft are now providing air support to the Berbers. Gadhafi's attempts to secure his southern desert flank, by bribes, harassment and outright attack, have been stymied.
In March, Gadhafi suppressed uprisings in the western cities of Zuwara and Zawiya (near the coast, between Tripoli and the Tunisian border). However, opposition simmers in the region.
Stalemate? Possibly, but go back to the map -- Gadhafi faces war on four fronts. To the east, the Cyrenaica front. To the south, the Berbers. Misrata, though surrounded, hasn't cracked. The western front (Zuwara) may be quiet, but the area requires a garrison that Gadhafi might otherwise use elsewhere.
The dictator also faces a fifth front -- what might be called a 21st century fifth column, to use the Spanish Civil War term. The London Times quoted British Defense Secretary Liam Fox as saying: "All parts of command and control are legitimate targets so long as they are attacking civilians." On April 25, an air attack hit Gadhafi's headquarters. The coalition targeted a building, but in a dictatorship, the tyrant exercises supreme control.
The coalition will soon be operating Predators. The drones represent a tiny increase in strike and reconnaissance capability. As political and psychological warfare, however, they add punch.
Last week, Gadhafi was tooling around Tripoli in a convertible and shaking his fist. Now he must cast a wary eye to the sky.