Libya: High On Spirit, Low On Strategy – Analysis


In just over two months of fighting, the Libyan rebels have proven to be very high in spirit, but low on strategy. Last weekend, they were made to believe that they had won in the besieged city of Misrata, under the watchful eye of Nato commanders. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was ostensibly withdrawing his troops from the war-torn coastal city, delegating tribal leaders, rather than government authorities, to negotiate with the rebels. The rebels cheered victory, celebrating Gaddafi’s withdrawal as recognition of their de facto control of the city.

The decision to rely on tribal leaders was seen as a symbol of helplessness on behalf of Gaddafi. Many hoped that he has finally accepted the reality that dialogue, rather than violence, was the only way out of the Libyan revolt. If they won the upper hand in Misrata, Libya’s third largest city, many believed that similar victory could be achieved in other places like Ajdabiya — or in Tripoli, the jewel in the Libyan crown.

All sides agreed to a 48-hour deadline — which was scheduled to expire last night — for reaching a political solution. Tribal leaders were eager to play along, swallowing the bait while hoping that through dialogue they can lift the siege over Misrata and restore life to its port which, like everything else in the city, has been closed for 60 days. The truce, and in fact the entire scenario, was apparently nothing but a battle trick that Gaddafi brilliantly pulled, raising a white flag with one hand and opening fire on the rebels with another.

No sooner had the tired rebels laid down their arms to brace themselves for dialogue than heavy random shelling started on Sunday. Gaddafi mercilessly struck the city centre, shelling different residential areas in Misrata with multi-barrelled rocket launchers. Reportedly, no less than 30 people were killed and 85 injured from among both the rebels and civilians in 48-hours of bombing. The rebels were furious, rightly feeling betrayed yet again by Gaddafi.

Upper hand

Guerrilla warfare, at the end of the day, is a science that ought to be studied from the many examples of history. Gaddafi certainly has read a lot about the subject, given that his hero Che Guevara authored a manual in 1961 entitled La Guerra de Guerrillas, which has become a guidebook for leftists and revolutionaries around the world.

That explains why to date he continues to have the upper hand in the Libyan revolt. During the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949), for example, Mao Zedong put it best: “The enemy advances, we retreat. The enemy camps, we garble. The enemy tires, we attack. The enemy retreats, we pursue.” Chairman Mao said nothing about “the enemy promises to retreat, we immediately believe what Gaddafi is saying”.

Sadly, when Nato, at the urging of France and the US, decided to wage this war in March, they armed the rebels without giving them proper training or instructions about what guerrilla warfare is all about.

Clearly, because of logistics, this was the only option they had on the table, but the results today are a tremendously high death toll, whose burden must be shouldered by London, Paris, Washington — and of course, Gaddafi himself.

As of April 20, the rebels estimated the death toll at 10,000. The Nato strikes have succeeded perhaps only at getting more officials to defect from Gaddafi’s inner circle. Apart from that, they have made life only more difficult for the rebels, resounding throughout Libya and the Arab world as a thundering failure.

Ground manoeuvres

Nato’s lack of strategy and vision were brilliantly mirrored in a recent PR stunt: an Op/Ed authored jointly by US President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron. The three leaders firmly say, “It is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gaddafi in power. So long as Gaddafi is in power, Nato and its coalition partners must maintain their operations so that civilians remain protected and the pressure on the regime builds.”

That strategy, therefore, means continued arming of the rebels, more defections within the regime, multiple sanctions, and more bombing. It does not include helping the rebels create a proper alternate political structure that can replace Gaddafi’s medieval one in Tripoli. Nor does it include a proper manual for the rebels on how to manoeuvre on the ground as Gaddafi becomes more ruthless day-by-day.

The three leaders added: “For that transition to succeed, Colonel Gaddafi must go, and go for good.” If one were to read between the lines, however, it is clear that all three leaders have absolutely no clue on how and when that can be done. UN Security Council Resolution 1973, after all, does not authorise toppling of the Libyan regime, and they know it. Silence, therefore, or a proper suggestion on how to move forward, would have been much better for the rebels than a joint article by the prime minister of Britain, and the presidents of France and the United States.
This article appeared in Gulf News on April 25, 2011.

Sami Moubayed

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria. He is also a writer, political analyst, and historian, based in Damascus. His articles on Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria appear regularly in The Daily Star, Asia Times, Al-Hayat, Gulf News, al-Ahram Weekly, and The Washington Post. He lectures frequently at the Assad National Library on the founding years of the Syrian Republic, in association with the Friends of Damascus Society and appears regularly on Syrian TV, Al-Jazeera, and BBC.

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