The Economist, augusztus 20.
Thanks to the rapid advances of rebel forces, Muammar Qaddafi’s capital is now a city under siege
“TODAY Zawiya, tomorrow Tripoli,” cried a rebel fighter as he jumped into his open-top truck and drove across an unprotected plain stretching from a dusty mountain range down to the Mediterranean coast. The lazy idea held by critics of NATO’s intervention in Libya that the incompetence of rebel forces would ensure a stalemate looks less tenable by the day. As the Libyan civil war enters its seventh month, a tipping point leading to the eventual collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s embattled regime looks near. On August 16th a NATO spokesman declared that the colonel no longer had “an effective operational capability”.
Striking out of their stronghold in the western Nafusa mountains on August 7th with NATO’s help, the rebels quickly took Bir Ghanem on the edge of the desert, shrugging off ineffective shelling by retreating forces. A week later, sweeping along the desert highway in battered pick-up trucks at up to 80mph (130kph), they took control of most of Zawiya, a strategically vital port that is home to the last oil refinery still in the regime’s hands and straddles the road between Tripoli, the capital (30 miles away), and the Tunisian border. The rebels also seized Gharyan, a mainly Berber town 50 miles south of Tripoli that sits on the road to Algeria, a big source of arms for Colonel Qaddafi’s militias. Heavy fighting continued around Zlitan, where rebels advancing from Misrata had less success in breaking the resistance of loyalist forces.
Rebel morale is high, even though it is the holy month of Ramadan. Fighters are not expected to fast, although many still do despite extreme heat. “We feel more righteous and the devil is kept at bay—so Qaddafi’s forces are weaker,” says Bashir Ahmed, a fighter. The rebels’ ranks are swelled by young men leaving Tripoli to join their “brothers”, who have their own unit, the Tripoli Revolutionary brigade.
The rebels’ wild dash to Zawiya was a sign of their derring-do and increasing military prowess. Until recently underequipped, they now field not only brand new anti-aircraft guns, mortars and armour-piercing rifles but also looted tanks and home-made rocket launchers. The colonel’s forces—threatened by NATO’s all-seeing aircraft—rarely dare to use armoured vehicles and are reduced to defending themselves with ill-aimed rocket attacks.
If the rebels can hold on to Zawiya and take Zlitan (which will not be easy), the impact on life in Tripoli will be profound. Fuel is already in desperately short supply, and food prices are rising fast. Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, a British think-tank, says the capital is not hermetically sealed but is effectively under siege.
Mr Joshi believes that many Western analysts underestimated the fighting strength of the rebel forces and their strategic sense of direction. The eastern rebels in Benghazi are too far away to threaten Tripoli directly. But even they are showing signs of progress. Despite fears that the still unexplained murder three weeks ago of their military commander, General Abdel Fatah Younis, would lead to infighting, the strategic oil town of Brega may soon fall into their hands.
One thing is certain: the rebels are getting stronger, while Colonel Qaddafi’s position is crumbling. It may be too soon to talk of an endgame. But the overthrow of the colonel’s 42-year-old regime is getting closer. It could happen quite quickly if the defection of his security chief, Nassr al-Mabrouk Abdullah, who arrived in Cairo on a private plane from Tunisia with nine family members on August 15th, is anything to go by.
Hopes remain in some quarters for a negotiated settlement that would give amnesty to government supporters and offer an exit for the colonel and his family. According to some reports, tentative discussions, mediated by Venezuelan diplomats, have taken place at the Tunisian island resort of Djerba between representatives of the rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC) and some of Colonel Qaddafi’s ministers. The talks got nowhere. The rebels’ growing confidence that victory is near may make them reluctant to offer concessions. Abdel Elah al-Khatib, a former Jordanian foreign minister appointed by the UN as a special envoy to Libya, is talking to both sides. But his task seems a fruitless one, above all because there is no sign that Colonel Qaddafi is looking for an exit.
In a scratchy-sounding telephone recording broadcast on August 15th the Libyan leader called on supporters to “move forward, challenge, pick up your weapons, go to the fight and liberate Libya inch by inch from the traitors and NATO”. The day before, loyalist forces from his hometown of Sirte fired a Soviet-era Scud ballistic missile at Brega that overshot its target by 50 miles, landing harmlessly in the desert. Some fear that if the colonel thinks his fate is sealed he may embark on an orgy of destruction, perhaps deploying hidden stocks of chemical weapons.
The NTC appears to be placing its hopes on a general uprising in Tripoli as living conditions deteriorate and people realise the colonel is finished. Despite bullish claims by some rebel leaders that it will all be over by the end of Ramadan in less than two weeks’ time, it makes more sense to tighten the noose around the capital further and wait for events to take their course rather than fight for the city street by street in a bloody showdown.