Muammar Gaddafi is much better armed than the often rag-tag opposition forces, but with his army carrying outdated equipment and his loyalists defecting in significant numbers, he cannot hold out for ever.
On paper, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has an army of 76,000 soldiers and 40,000 paramilitary troops. He also has 260 attack aircraft (mostly MIG 25 and 23s), 650 tanks, 2,300 artillery pieces and more than 100 helicopters (figures from Israeli site Middle East Military Balance).
So much for the official figures. In the fog of a conflict lurching steadily towards civil war, this theoretical strength is far from being a reality.
A significant number of towns (including most of the country’s eastern coastal strip) have fallen to the opposition without fighting, attack aircraft have been missing their targets (by considerable margins) and Libyan soldiers have deserted in droves.
“It’s impossible to have a precise estimate of the strength of those forces still loyal to Gaddafi,” said Jean-François Daguzan of the Paris-based Fondation de Recherche Strategique. “But if the official estimations of the forces at his disposal were correct, there wouldn’t be any insurgents left in Libya right now.”
A second factor is that that most of Libya’s heavy equipment was bought from the former USSR in the 1970s (the country was subject of an international arms embargo for most of the last four decades). Most of this equipment can now be considered obsolete compared to other modern armies.
“...his best weapons, especially the anti-aircraft weapons and aircraft, have always been run and maintained by foreign troops,” Jean-François Daguzan told FRANCE 24.
“These include Syrians, Koreans and East Europeans, among others. The Libyan soldiers have always been seen as incompetent with this superior technology.”
Ever since he came to power Gaddafi has looked to reduce the strength of the regular Libyan army in order to reduce the risk of a potential rival emerging from his own forces.
He has always looked to foster parallel security services, such as the Revolutionary Guards, people’s militias and his Islamic Pan-African Legion. These paramilitary forces, as well as the favoured members of Gaddafi’s own clan, have always been the best trained and best equipped.
Ever since he came to power, Gaddafi has relied extensively on family and clan ties to ensure absolute loyalty. But now he can only really rely on “the most loyal of the loyal, those who have absolutely nothing to lose,” according to Daguzan.
“As for the rest of his forces, it seems that half of his mercenaries have decamped, the conscript Libyan army has joined the insurgents and many senior figures have defected.”
One of these senior defectors is Omar el-Hariri, one of the main players in the 1969 coup that bought Gaddafi to power. He is now military head of the opposition National Libyan Council, according to strategic news website STRATFOR. Hariri is joined by Gaddafi’s former Interior Minister General Abdel Fattah Younis.
A slide to civil war
The final unknown hanging over Gaddafi’s regime is the fact that the opposition has been able to take so much strategic ground without air support with a motley collection of small arms including rifles and rocket propelled grenades.
“The opposition has yet to build up sufficient force to launch an attack on Tripoli,” according to analysts at STRATFOR. And experts at the IISS say satellite images indicate that the bulk of Gaddafi’s forces are strategically located about 50 kilometres south of the capital, just waiting for such an attempted assault.
Right now most of the fighting is taking place around Libya’s main oil terminals, which will prove decisive to whoever can take them and hold them. “Libya is in a state of civil war,” said Jean-Francois Daguzan. “The country is split once again between the eastern Cyrenaica [traditionally hostile to centralised power] and Tripolitania [the west].
“This standoff will take time to resolve provided that Gaddafi’s bubble of resistance holds. But he is running out of options. He knows he cannot throw in the towel and go to Venezuela in exile. There is every chance he will resist and fight to the last bullet.”
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