Libyan rebels: Big on zeal, short on organization

AP News
Posted: Mar 16, 2011 2:04 PM
Libyan rebels: Big on zeal, short on organization

They have been big on revolutionary fervor, but short on organization and firepower. That fundamental weakness is haunting Libya's rebels as Moammar Gadhafi's forces roll back the opposition's gains and threaten to defeat it completely.

The rebel army, its ranks filled mainly by average citizens taking up arms, was never able to retool their forces from a popular uprising to an effective fighting force using the allied army units, tanks and other heavy weapons they had at their disposal. For much of the fighting, those weapons have been languishing far in the east, away from the front.

More experienced army officers told the ragtag fighters not to charge west too quickly, but they did exactly that, vowing to take the capital, Tripoli, and oust Gadhafi. Forces loyal to the regime stopped their advance and then turned onto the offensive, driving rebels back with a relatively small force _ around 5,000 troops by some estimates _ backed by the overwhelming firepower of warplanes, gunboats, tanks, missiles and artillery.

"It was unrealistic from the start," George Joffe, a North Africa expert who lectures at England's Cambridge University, said. "They had enthusiasm but they were up against a force that is better trained and better armed."

On Wednesday, the rebels appeared close to suffering their biggest and most significant loss to date, trying to cling to the strategic city of Ajdabiya under heavy shelling by pro-Gadhafi forces besieging the city, 480 miles (800 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli.

If Ajdabiya falls, that puts the entire future of the month-old rebellion in doubt.

The city is the gateway to the long stretch of eastern Libya that has been held by the opposition for weeks. With its fall likely, regime forces on land, sea and air will be able to storm Benghazi, Libya's second largest city and the de facto capital of the opposition. Gadhafi has meanwhile reclaimed most of the western half of the country, around Tripoli, with only one major city in rebel hands there.

The rebels may have made other mistakes far from the battlefield. They placed high hopes on the West coming to their aid by imposing a no-fly zone that would even the fight with Gadhafi's forces.

That never materialized. The United States and Europe have been debating a no-fly zone for weeks. Only now has the question reached the U.N. Security Council for the first time, with supporters trying to persuade reluctant members on Wednesday to back a resolution calling for the creation of such a zone.

But a no-fly zone now may do little to significantly change the course of the conflict. And even when Gadhafi's air power wasn't the problem, the rebels never solved the problem about what to do about his tanks.

The opposition organized its leadership in cities of the east unusually quickly for such an impromptu uprising, but still its leaders were little known to the outside world, which made the U.S. and other nations hesitant to deal with them or follow France's example to recognize the Benghazi-based interim government.

The rebels also seem to have overestimated hopes that residents of Tripoli would be able to rise up and shake off Gadhafi's rule as the populations of eastern cities did _ and underestimated the Libyan leader's ability to rally an effective force of supporters. Pro-Gadhafi militiamen quickly snuffed out attempts at protests in the capital with brutal attacks on residents trying to march through the streets.

But it is primarily the battlefield that may prove the rebels' undoing.

The signs of problems were there early on. On March 1, an Associated Press reporter saw pro-rebel army officers in Benghazi trying to train residents to fight _ and to restrain them from going off half-cocked.

"There are people who go out on their own, some with no previous experience with weapons and I say to them that we have to train you first," Col. Saleh Ashur told the AP. "Speaking as an officer in the army, I say you have to be organized to attack, not just to go out on your own."

But the lesson didn't seem to sink in. "I would prefer to go immediately," said Mohammed Mustafa Shabeik, a 38-year-old among the recruits. "We are not afraid, all of Libya is one hand."

Days later, the rebels seized the oil ports of Brega and Ras Lanouf, west of Ajdabiya. But rather than consolidate their gains by fortifying the area, the overjoyed rebel volunteers pushed forward with their fast moving pickup trucks and light weapons. Few of the army officers were seen among them.

The around 2,000 rebel fighters promptly ran into a devastating ambush on March 6 at the tiny coastal town of Bin Jawwad. In the fighting that followed over the next week, they were pushed all the way back to Ajdabiya. A few rebel army officers appeared at the front but had little visible effect on the chaotic volunteer forces, who wasted valuable ammunition firing in the air and scattered at the sight of a warplane in the skies above them.

A few tanks and multi-system launchers firing Grad rockets made an appearance in the final days of the battle for Ras Lanouf but they had little effect in blunting the government offensive.

None of the dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers seen in at captured bases in the eastern cities made an appearance on the battlefield.

Only as Gadhafi forces besieged Ajdabiya this week did the rebels manage to deploy a few aged warplanes they had from air bases in the east. They struck warships off the coast and hit Gadhafi forces Wednesday outside the city _ but it appeared too little too late. Opposition officials said they had held off using their warplanes, which might have made some difference earlier in the fighting, in hopes that a no-fly zone would be imposed.

Still, Gadhafi's side has its own problems. It boasts a powerful arsenal, but not a lot of manpower. It may be able to drive rebels back, but not necessarily able to occupy territory.

This raises the possibility that if Gadhafi's forces do sweep over much of the rebel forces, it will be left with an eastern Libya barely under the regime's control. The result could be a long, unsettled guerrilla conflict, with a restive population, weapons plentiful and a desert and mountain environment with plenty of hideouts.

At the same time, Gadhafi could face increased international sanctions limiting his access to cash and weapons.

Theodore Karasik, a Dubai-based security expert, says that, over the long term, the fight may not be over.

"It all depends on the amount of weapons available to Gadhafi and the amount of money he has to spend to keep fighters and tribes loyal to him," he said.