A battle is currently being fought in Libya over the town of Brega, which could turn out to have strategic importance for the rebel forces.
This battle has been underway for days now, and may continue for days to come. The American media has so far been ignoring this development in the Libyan revolution, perhaps due to lack of solid information from the frontlines.
But it deserves a bit more attention than it has so far been getting.
Brega is a coastal town, but more importantly it is an oil depot which ships the oil out from central Libyan oil fields. Control of the town during the whole Libyan conflict has switched hands from Libyan government forces to the rebels, and then back to the loyalist forces once again — but most of this happened in the early lightning push by the rebels, and the forceful response by the government troops, in the first weeks of the fighting. Since then, it has remained in the loyalists’ hands as the easternmost city they hold. Which puts Brega on the frontlines of the fight.
The Libyan war has been called a “stalemate” so often by the media that they’ve now stopped paying attention, for the most part. But this facile label isn’t entirely true. The rebels have been quietly building up and training their forces, and have had both major and minor victories in the meantime. Holding the western city of Misrata has been the most spectacular of these to date, but in recent weeks the rebels have opened up a corridor in the mountains southwest of Tripoli, and have been advancing towards the capital in fits and starts. These pockets of resistance in the western part of Libya may eventually be the most important militarily (if they manage to advance all the way to Tripoli’s outskirts), but the eastern half of the country may prove to be more important to the rebels’ overall chances of success, in strategic terms. Because whoever controls Brega will control the oil the town can ship out. Which would be a huge source of income for the rebels. And this war may wind up being one of attrition, in the end.
Reports from the battlefield are sketchy, at best. Wild claims by both sides are made and then quickly refuted. The rebels claimed they held Brega after the first day of fighting, and that they had routed the loyalists who were in retreat towards the next coastal town to the west, Ras Lanuf. The Libyan government claimed it had killed over 500 rebels, without any sort of proof. After the dust settled on the battling propaganda, it seems that the town is now still held by government troops, but they are currently under siege by rebel troops which have surrounded the town. The government forces have pulled off at least one successful ambush of the rebels, by either (reports are sketchy) dressing as rebels in a vehicle with rebel markings to get close enough to attack the rebel forces, or by spies infiltrated into the rebel ranks who broadcast their location via satellite phone to the government troops. The rebels have also run into minefields laid down by the loyalists, which have been brutally effective.
The initial attack by the rebels was reportedly made by both sea and land (and, one assumes, N.A.T.O. air cover as well). If true, this is a more complex and coordinated military operation than the rebels have so far shown the ability to carry out. Which shows the improvement in the rebel forces, and the effect of training. It also shows that the rebels now have access to a military supply chain which did not exist in the heady first weeks of the war. Pictures of the advance on Brega show heavy artillery and other modern weapons, instead of ancient rocket launchers hastily attached to pickup trucks with what seemed to be nothing more than bailing wire. The unspoken assumption is that the rebels’ friends in the rest of the world have found a way to get such equipment to the battlefront. Which, again, could be key in the longer war.
Brega stands at roughly the midpoint of importance between the larger Libyan coastal cities of Benghazi and Sirte. Benghazi, to the east, is the rebel “capital,” where the transition government has set up shop. Sirte, to the west, is a Ghaddafi loyalist stronghold. For the rebel forces in the east, the entire war’s fighting has taken place on the hundreds of miles of coastal road between these two cities. In the initial mad dash across the desert, the rebels made it all the way from Benghazi to the outskirts of Sirte — through Ajdabiya, Brega, and Ras Lanuf. But here they were halted by the superior loyalist forces. When the rebel wave broke, it almost collapsed entirely. The loyalist tanks quickly swept back eastward, making it through Ajdabiya all the way to the outskirts of Benghazi — where they, in turn, were stopped by N.A.T.O. jumping in the fray. After being forced to retreat to Benghazi, the rebels fairly quickly succeeded in retaking Ajdabiya. But the loyalists held on to Brega, and the war’s frontline has been between the two towns ever since.
By doing so, the loyalists cut off the rebels’ access to the oil shipments (and the money flow, as well). But Ghaddafi has his own logistical problems in that regard. When the war began, the world’s banks cut off access to Libyan deposits, which left Ghaddafi with only what he had stashed away for just such a rainy day (so to speak). Reports of how big a stash of cash Ghaddafi had available differed, but most agreed he had enough money for months — to get through the summer, at least. That time may now be running out, as the Libyan government’s cash reserves must be dwindling fast.
The other logistical problem Ghaddafi may be facing is a shortage of military supplies. He is cut off from the world by land and sea, but may still be bringing in supplies overland from the south, from other African countries. He may also be bringing in mercenary fighters via the same route. This is mostly speculation, as (once again) facts are hard to come by in the midst of a war, it should be admitted. But even if Ghaddafi does have this conduit open to him, it depends on a dangerous (for him) equation. Because in order to receive shipments of ammunition (or of foreign fighters), Ghaddafi’s got to ship out an equal amount of money. Since his money’s not going to last forever, this will not continue indefinitely.
Taking the long view strategically, the rebels seem to be in much better shape than Ghaddafi. The rebels are being resupplied with ammunition and equipment, they just got diplomatic recognition from the United States, and they may soon be able to tap into the tens of billions of Libyan dollars frozen in Western banks since the war started. The rebel troops seem to be better trained and more serious these days than the “ragtag band” which raced across the desert to the west (and just as quickly retreated east) in the opening days of the war. Plus, they seem to now have the momentum militarily, even if it is a slow momentum to watch unfold.
The loyalist forces, on the other hand, are reportedly demoralized (although such reports have to be taken with a grain of salt due to the prevalence of propaganda by both sides so far). Their ammunition hasn’t seemed to run out yet, but the stockpiles must be getting smaller by the day — and these stockpiles continue to be pounded by bombardment from N.A.T.O. planes. If Ghaddafi starts running out of money, one wonders how many loyalist forces will continue fighting without getting paid. The government is almost completely isolated diplomatically on the world stage. And the loyalist troops haven’t had a major victory in months, while they’ve lost Misrata, Ajdabiya, and an entire corridor in the mountains southwest of Tripoli. Losing Brega would be another major blow to their efforts to hold territory.
Victory certainly isn’t assured for the rebels, by any stretch of the imagination. They may not even be successful in their attempt this week to take Brega. Also, a very big fear the rebels now have is that they’ll take Brega, but that the loyalists will destroy the oil shipping facilities as they leave. For now, the rebels have the city besieged (at least, according to them). If the rebels do manage to take the city, then Ras Lanuf could quickly fall into their hands as well (it’s a tiny place, unlike Brega). But Sirte is likely to remain in government hands until the end of the conflict, due to it not only being a military centre but also a centre of political support for Ghaddafi himself.
Even so, the battle for Brega may be a crucial one. While it is way too early to speak of “turning points” or “tipping points,” victory in Brega would undeniably be a boost for the rebel effort just on a psychological scale. It would be a major military victory for the rebels as well. If the oil facilities can be quickly repaired and put back into service, this could be vastly important for the nascent rebel government, because it would provide a solid future source of income. With such a money source, the rebels’ position to survive a slow war of attrition with the loyalists will improve dramatically.
The battle for Brega is not “the battle for Libya.” It may later be seen as a turning point, but it just as easily could miss being decisive in any way. One thing is for certain, though — the world’s media should be paying a little less attention to Rupert Murdoch’s wife right now, and a little more attention to what is going on in Libya.
[Note: The best source of day-to-day information about the Libyan conflict is, unsurprisingly, Al Jazeera’s Libya Blog page, which aggregates all reports they can find on Libya. You have to read between the lines of both the loyalist and rebel statements, but it is the most complete source I’ve found yet.]
Chris Weigant blogs at:
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
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