SummaryThe inaugural meeting of the National Libyan Council on March 5 may have provided some clarity over who is trying to take charge of the Libyan opposition, but it cannot solve the rebels’ basic problems of geography compounded by a lack of military capability.
Any attempt by the Benghazi-based rebels to mount an invasion force against the remaining strongholds of Moammar Gadhafi in western Libya will require foreign military support, which has not only yet to materialise, but also would not guarantee the success of a rebel invasion.
For now, the National Libyan Council will be forced to merely hold its ground as it lobbies foreign capitals for support in its efforts to oust Gadhafi and unify the country under its fledgling leadership.
As the rebellion in Libya enters its third week, the first steps toward any unified opposition force in eastern Libya have been taken. Though the creation of the National Libyan Council, an umbrella group of local opposition leaders that will be headquartered in Benghazi, was first announced Feb. 26, it was not until its inaugural meeting March 5 that any sort of clarity over who is actually running it emerged. Based in the de facto eastern capital, the National Libyan Council claims to be the sole representative of all of Libya and has an ambitious plan to mount an invasion of Tripoli and unite the country under its leadership. Geography, compounded by a lack of organisation and materiel, will make this goal highly elusive, however.
The Rebel Council
Former Libyan Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who defected from the government Feb. 21, was the first man to announce the creation of the current council on Feb. 26. At the time, Abdel-Jalil described it as a “transitional government” that would give way to national elections within three months. One day later, a Benghazi-based lawyer named Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga held a news conference to refute Abdel-Jalil’s claims. Ghoga claimed to be the spokesman of the council himself, explicitly stating that it was not a transitional government of any kind, and that even if it were a transitional entity, Abdel-Jalil — who Ghoga derided as being more influential in Al Bayda than the rebel headquarters of Benghazi — would not be in charge of it.
Abdel-Jalil clarified his comments Feb. 28, saying he did not literally mean the council was a transitional government, but for the next six days, both men proceeded to make proclamations and give interviews about the council’s plans without any signs of coordination with one another. They expressed the same goals — to invade the government-controlled areas in the west should local opposition forces not first liberate themselves, to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and to maintain the unity of Libya with Tripoli as its capital — and issued the same warnings against foreign military intervention, a sensitive subject in a country with Libya’s colonial past.
But the Libyan opposition forces likely lack the logistical and maintenance capabilities to project what armour and limited air-defence capabilities they have across the coastal desert stretch separating western Libya from the rebel stronghold in the east. Consequently, both Abdel-Jalil and Ghoga publicly sought alternate forms of foreign military assistance that would not involve an actual invasion force. In particular, they advocated the use of U.N. Security Council-authorised foreign airstrikes against pro-Gadhafi military installations.
Throughout this period, it seemed as if there were two rebel councils operating in the east and claiming Benghazi as their capital. One was loyal to Abdel-Jalil, who has a bigger power base in Al Bayda, and the other was loyal to Ghoga, a Benghazi resident who was arrested Feb. 19, shortly after the outbreak of the rebellion, though he was released a few days later. This personality clash has, at least for now, been resolved; after its March 5 meeting, a statement issued by the “Interim Transitional National Council” — the National Libyan Council’s formal name — named Abdel-Jalil as the head and Ghoga as the spokesman. The statement also decreed the formation of a foreign affairs department and a military division, tasked with cultivating ties with the international community and organising an eventual invasion of Tripoli, respectively. It listed the nine people who attended the meeting as well, omitting the full list of 31 members due to security concerns.
The March 5 statement declared that the council derives its legitimacy from the series of city councils that have run the affairs of the “liberated cities” in the wake of the February uprising that turned all of eastern Libya into rebel-held territory. The statement promised membership to all Libyans who want to join and asserted that the council is the sole representative of all of Libya. Indeed, the council claims members in several cities that lie beyond the rebel-held territory in the east, including Misurata, Zentan, Zawiya, Zouara, Nalut, Jabal Gharbi, Ghat and Kufra.
In addition to Abdel-Jalil and Ghoga, another leading figure of the new council will be Omar El-Hariri, who has been tapped as the head of the military affairs department. El-Hariri is better known for having participated alongside Gadhafi in the 1969 coup that overthrew the Libyan monarchy and brought the current regime in Tripoli to power. El-Hariri later fell out of favour with Gadhafi and, like several other Libyans who have a similar story of alliances with Gadhafi turning sour, is now reportedly part of the effort to oust the longtime ruler.
Absent from the council members included in the written statement is Gen. Abdel Fattah Younis, Libya’s former interior minister who was also one of the original members of the Revolutionary Command Council that staged the 1969 coup. Younis was one of the highest-profile defectors in the early days of the Libyan revolt, having joined the opposition after being dispatched to Benghazi to quell the uprising. Though he continues to be reported as a council member by some, there is no confirmation as to the status of Younis, who still commands a significant degree of loyalty among certain swathes of the eastern Libyan population, where his tribe — the Obeidat — resides.
Challenges to a Military Campaign
El-Hariri will have perhaps the toughest job of anyone on the council, having been tasked with creating a coherent command structure that can unify the various local militias. The militias have either been actively engaging forces loyal to Gadhafi in places like Marsa el Brega and Ras Lanuf or training for such an eventuality in the areas east of the line of control. The most notable of these local militias, created Feb. 28, was heretofore represented by the Benghazi Military Council and linked to the Benghazi city council, which forms a crucial portion of the new national council. There are other known militias in eastern Libya, however, operating training camps in places like Ajdabiya, Al Bayda and Tobruk, and undoubtedly several other locations as well.
It is important to note that little of the territory that has fallen into rebel control thus far appears to have actually been occupied through conquest. The military and security forces in the east largely either deserted or defected to the opposition. Defections brought not only men and arms, but also the territory those troops ostensibly controlled. Defections by the military and security forces in the west are the easiest way for the National Libyan Council to achieve its goals. This has already happened in several western pockets, and a continuation of this trend would help the opposition’s logistical problems; having a base of operations in the west from which to supply and sustain whatever manpower it is able to deploy to that location profoundly simplifies the challenge of sustaining combat operations.
Most fighting, particularly in the main population centres between Benghazi and Sirte, appears to have been relatively small, lightly armed formations conducting raids, rather than either side decisively defeating a major formation and pacifying a town. It is not clear that either side is willing to risk a large portion of its forces in an uncertain and potentially costly operation to — at best — engage forces dug into defensive positions in urban terrain and then pacify a hostile population.
Skirmishes like those that have occurred will likely continue, but the fighting will be done with only the ammunition and supplies each force carries with it. Limited combat in the area around Marsa el Brega and Ras Lanuf — or elsewhere, if the vague line of control shifts somewhat — can and will persist. But the prospect for decisive combat, a military-imposed end to the conflict and the unification of Libya by force remains a distant one without a realignment of political loyalties and the defection of military and security forces in the east or west.
Seeking Foreign Military Assistance
The National Libyan Council has expressed an interest in outside military support to alter the military balance. Though any insertion of troops would be viewed as a hostile manoeuvre even by the Libyan opposition — as demonstrated by the brief detention of eight British Special Air Service troops who landed their helicopter unannounced in eastern Libya in order to meet with Abdel-Jalil — foreign airstrikes would not. This is, in part, the task that has been presented to the council’s “executive team,” also known as the “crisis committee,” charged with running the council’s foreign affairs department. The executive team currently consists of only two people: team leader and Abdel-Jalil ally Mahmoud Jebril, and de facto Foreign Minister Ali al-Essawi, the former Libyan ambassador to India who quit in February when the uprising began.
Talk in Washington, Paris, London, Rome and elsewhere of implementing a no-fly zone has been noncommittal thus far, though France and the United Kingdom have expressed an intention to push the issue at the U.N. Security Council. There has been talk of utilising the Arab League’s support for such a possibility, as the United States has expressed little desire to get involved in airstrikes, a position shared by the Europeans. In any event, a no-fly zone would be largely symbolic even if it were to be implemented. While combat aircraft and helicopters have been an advantage for Gadhafi, government airstrikes on rebel positions have been less than decisive. Simply put, Gadhafi cannot pacify the east with what air force he has left, and foreign airstrikes to suppress the Libyan air force would not be any guarantee that the opposition could successfully march on Tripoli.
Another option that has been openly discussed, especially by the U.S. government, involves supplying weapons to the rebel forces. Though a March 7 British media report alleged that Washington has asked Saudi Arabia for help in carrying this out, the United States’ public stance has been that it prefers to first have a better understanding of whom it would be supplying with weapons before it rushes to arm any rebel militia. Multiple STRATFOR sources, meanwhile, have reported that Egypt is preparing a plan to support rebel forces in both eastern and western Libya and that Cairo has obtained the acquiescence of the Tunisians in this regard.
Even with foreign airstrikes, a no-fly zone or additional weaponry, problems for the Libyan opposition would remain. The first relates to the fractiousness of Libyan society, historically divided by tribal loyalties and governed for the past several decades under a political system that promoted local governance more than a truly national system of administration. Ironically, this legacy of Gadhafi’s regime helped the individual eastern cities to rapidly establish local committees that took over administration of their respective areas, but it will create difficulties should they try to truly come together. Rhetoric is far different from tangible displays of unity, and as the rivalry between Abdel-Jalil and Ghoga showed, this remains a challenge in eastern Libya.
The second is based on geography and military capability and is equally challenging. The Libyan opposition still does not have the basic military proficiencies or know-how to project and sustain an armoured assault on Tripoli; if it tried, it would run a serious risk of being neutralized on arrival by prepared defenses. Even Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte — almost certainly a necessary intermediate position to control on any drive to Tripoli — looks to be a logistical stretch for the opposition. An inflow of weapons may help but would not be the complete solution. Just as the primary factor in eastern Libya’s breaking free of the government’s control lay in a series of military defections, the occurrence of the same scenario in significant numbers in the west is what would give the newly created National Libyan Council its best chance of overthrowing Gadhafi.
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