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Closing in on Tripoli

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
IN PUBLIC parks in rebel-held eastern Libya the removal of the “Brother Leader” has become a game played by children. They roll a giant rubber die, then skip after it across a printed plastic sheet on a prescribed route from Benghazi via Misrata and the Nafusa mountains to Tripoli, the capital, where a grinning Muammar Qaddafi sits on bags of money on top of a crowded prison. A player explains, “If you fall on Qaddafi’s forces you have to go to his jail. Get the rebels to free you.”

In reality, the task is a little trickier. Yet the rebels are making good progress. The front lines are moving in one direction only: slowly but steadily towards Tripoli, where the colonel is believed to be.

Several thousand rebels in the Nafusa mountains south of Tripoli have changed tactics in recent weeks from defensive to offensive operations. They have advanced into the Jifarah plain, capturing the power station at Shakshuk, and pushed to the outskirts of Bir Ghanam, 80km (50 miles) from Tripoli. The current front line runs through a gypsum factory. In the daily exchanges of fire the rebels use newly acquired European-made Milan anti-tank missiles. Helped by NATO air strikes, they have captured villages near Zintan and are planning to attack Gharyan, a well-fortified gateway to Tripoli, despite setbacks.

Farther east, near Misrata, the front line has moved 36km closer to Tripoli and within 10km of Zliten, the biggest city on the road to the capital. The rebels, who have sustained heavy casualties, expect when they enter Zliten to repeat the house-to-house combat that won them Misrata.

Until recently most of the regime’s troops were said to be scared conscripts. The rebels are now encountering more regular soldiers but they too, when captured, speak of low morale. “They don’t want to fight any more,” says Salim al-Zofri, a rebel commander. “Their hearts are not in this.” Colonel Qaddafi’s men have better weapons than the rebels but often make poor use of them. They fire long-range Grad rockets directly and horizontally at their enemies, usually to no effect.

The rebels say they have learned from past mistakes. They no longer make forays into open ground where they were previously bloodied. Now they build dugouts and bunkers, using cargo containers sunk into the ground. Recently they have been advancing about a kilometre a day.

Relative quiet has returned to Misrata itself. Residents are going back to the battered buildings in the centre, which was the scene of the fiercest fighting in the spring. Power, water and food are in plentiful supply once again, thanks in part to generous business leaders. “We fight here”, says Fauzi al-Karshaine, a financial supporter, “because we know that if we do not kill [Qaddafi], he will kill us.”


The rebels are not a national army and their units remain local, focused on liberating places they know. Tensions have arisen between rival militias and the chain of command is far from clear. But as long as the enemy is called Qaddafi, they will pull together. Morale is high.

Supplies are improving by the week. Rebels in the Nafusa mountains receive weapons on small planes landing on back roads and have built a simple funicular, powered by a tractor engine, to supply fighters on top of a ridge. Elsewhere, packed rations similar to airline meals are distributed by minibus: saffron rice, chickpeas and onions, with chicken or mutton. In Misrata a large field kitchen is sending out meals to the troops. A pizza service delivers to the front line around the clock. On the way to the capital

Co-ordination between the rebels and NATO is a bit smoother than it was. To the east of Misrata, the front lines round Brega, which the colonel still holds, are under sustained fire from European fighter planes which have hit the town and its oil infrastructure dozens of times so far this month. Taking Brega is believed to be critical to defeating the colonel. If or when it falls, so will the towns of Ras Lanuf and Sidra, and thereafter the rest of the coastal road. The rebels would then have control of Libya’s oil-export hub.

Economics is playing an increasingly important role in the conflict—and is also the rebels’ greatest vulnerability. As they slowly begin to build an independent economy, the revolutionaries are curtailing the colonel’s access to supplies. They benefit from an influx of competent expatriates and from strong Western diplomatic pressure on their behalf. Oil is all-important. Since rebels disconnected the regime’s last pipeline to its only refinery, the colonel’s troops on the front line have reported fuel shortages. Civilians in Tripoli have to queue for a week to get petrol. When deliveries arrive they often go straight to the army.


NATO stops vessels travelling to western Libya under new EU sanctions that target six regime-controlled ports. A large tanker, the Cartagena, recently tried to discharge 37,500 tonnes of fuel in Tripoli, but eventually dropped anchor off Malta.

Some small shipments are still arriving overland from Tunisia and Algeria. Both fear reprisals from Colonel Qaddafi if they cut him off completely. But Tunisia is fast shifting its position (see article). Qatar is said to have promised to rebuild Tunisia’s tourism industry if it cuts all ties with the colonel. Earlier this month Alubaf Bank in Tunis provided a letter of credit on behalf of a Libyan importer for fuel shipments. But after a visit by rebel leaders, the bank withdrew the facility.

Algeria is now the regime’s main source of fuel. According to Western intelligence, Algeria’s fuel imports have been well above seasonal norms, heightening suspicions that it is acting as an intermediary. Senior French, British and American diplomats have travelled to Algiers in recent weeks to complain. Last week Algeria sent its own delegation to Benghazi. A senior rebel says it was received “courteously”. In any event, as the rebels advance farther towards Tripoli, the road link to the Algerian border may be cut.

Equally important for the rebels is producing oil in their half of the country. It would give them a steady source of revenue. In theory, they control some of Libya’s main fields. But Sarir and Mislah were damaged early in the conflict, and the regime has destroyed a pipeline booster station halfway to the port in Tobruk from where oil is exported for refining. Rebel-friendly officials from the Arabian Gulf Oil Company, an arm of the national oil company, have visited Britain to find parts to fix the damage. But no Western oil firm is so far willing to visit the area and install them. The rebels are now training a special force to protect the pipelines and Qatar has offered help to sell the oil.


Starting the flow again is important because the rebels have few other sources of income. Ali Tarhouni, their finance minister, says: “I’m running a war economy and I’m running it on empty.” Another senior rebel reckons that between $3 billion and $5 billion is needed in the next few months. Outside powers promised money, but only a fraction has arrived so far. Kuwait, in particular, has not lived up to its promises, which in turn has made other countries less willing to contribute.

There is an easy way out: Western governments could release frozen Qaddafi funds to the rebels. But British government lawyers say that would invite legal challenges from the regime and might well end with a judge issuing an injunction.

Rebel leaders have underwritten the salaries of government employees and are paying generous subsidies to boost public support for the revolution. But if they go broke before they can get rid of the colonel, it could undermine their legitimacy. Public expectations are enormous and prices keep on rising. Before the revolution, milk cost 1.25 dinars a can; now it is 2.25 dinars. The dollar went from 1.5 to 1.8 dinars in the first ten days of July. Supermarket shelves are stacked, but important decisions are on hold. Rubbish collection is minimal. Schools are closed. Vaccines are in short supply. Power flickers on and off.

Even so, there are good reasons to think that public disappointment will not boil over. Eastern Libyans now have plenty of opportunities to let off steam. And they are still basking in the glow of newly won freedom: their sense of pride and patriotism is overwhelming. A cheese spread at a hotel buffet is inscribed “Libya hurra” (free Libya). All banknotes are defaced (but still valid), except five- and ten-dinar notes, the only ones without a picture of the colonel.

Two new television stations are on air and 120 newspapers and magazines compete for attention. Most of them have no advertising and are published with their owners’ savings. Many will eventually disappear, but pluralism seems assured. Women still mostly cover their hair, but neither in the east nor in the Nafusa mountains is Islamism much in evidence. In Bir Ghanam few of the 40 front-line fighters at the gypsum factory pray regularly.


Lack of political unity may be a bigger worry. The National Transition Council (NTC) is staffed by lawyers, engineers, economists and academics. They are led by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, a calm and consensual technocrat. But some hot-headed revolutionaries on the street interpret the NTC’s deliberative style as weakness. Accusations of collaboration with the regime are flung around, and splits and factionalism are undermining the council’s ability to govern. Yet almost nobody in rebel territory would rather be in Tripoli.

How and when might Colonel Qaddafi be toppled? So long as Tripoli is under full regime control, an end is not imminent. But this is not a stalemate, as so often reported. The colonel is caught in a ratchet and it is tightening. For the moment the rebels have too few men to attack Tripoli directly from the Nafusa mountains. And the colonel still has lots of money. Diplomats talk of entire containers filled with cash in his Tripoli compound for emergencies like this. Chadian mercenaries continue to arrive in Tripoli. Moreover, the colonel is accustomed to operating under conditions of scarcity; his regime survived UN sanctions in the 1990s. He has reactivated well-trodden smuggling networks and routes.

Still, the regime is getting weaker by the day and is losing on the battlefield. What might the colonel be thinking now? Those close to him say he prides himself on his patience. He hopes to sit out this crisis as he has sat out others. And he hopes his enemies will eventually fall out—which at present they show no sign of doing. If anything, the West, Russia, Turkey, the Gulf states, Libya’s neighbours and even former allies in Africa are moving closer towards a common position: Qaddafi must go.

Inside Libya he still has friends: especially in the sandy south of the country, where the tribes who support him are strong. In Tripoli, a vast modern city, tribal links are much weaker. Tribal elders have patronage networks and occasionally convene social gatherings, but these are without political flavour. Metropolitan Libyans draw their identities from other sources.


Some diplomats still suggest that the colonel might eventually be persuaded to leave of his own accord. But his indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity has made this even less likely. Nor is it clear who would try to persuade him. Those around him are too frightened. Tribal elders might have his respect. Nelson Mandela would. But even then, “It’s unthinkable”, says someone who has observed him at close quarters. His sons may try to leave Libya or retire to semi-house arrest in the desert. But the colonel sees himself as inseparable from the Libyan nation. He is not mad, as some claim, but he does believe the mumbo-jumbo he has been telling his people for the past 42 years, including that he is the brother of all Libyans. He may not mind dying in the fight he has long prepared for.

Alas, rebel plans for what comes after the colonel’s fall are minimal. They have set up what they call the Tripoli Taskforce, which is supposed to secure the city, provide protection for government officials and keep looters away from museums and archives. It is also meant to prepare demobilisation and disarmament centres for the regime’s soldiers. But progress is uncertain.

The formation of a new government could go dreadfully wrong. Many revolutionaries on the streets of Benghazi desire a wholesale clean-out of the old regime. But the NTC is woefully unprepared for government, its members lacking all relevant experience. Furthermore, the blanket exclusion of the entire Tripoli-based elite would divide the population.

The inexperienced revolutionaries, if and when they take over, will face particular difficulties. Libya is a paradox. A highly centralised country, it has few strong institutions. Colonel Qaddafi insisted on total control to the point where he barely tolerated the state structures working on his behalf. His nomad style of government has left Libya without the infrastructure that Egypt’s and Tunisia’s successful revolutionaries could take for granted.


More than any other recent Arab leader, Colonel Qaddafi embraced Louis XIV’s credo: “L’état, c’est moi” (I am the state). For the colonel this may have been fatal. He could perhaps have bought off the angry populace with oil money had the state machine been more able. For his successors, it amounts to a final curse.

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