Are Gaddafi's forces inept or invincible?
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International assessments of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s fighting power have changed with his successes on the battlefield. But are these military victories as comprehensive as the Gaddafis claim?
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s son, said the battle for Benghazi – Libya’s second-largest city and a rebel bastion – would be over “in 48 hours”. That military prophecy was made during a Wednesday morning interview.
Hours later, Libyan state television urged civilians in Benghazi to “keep out by midnight of areas where the armed men and weapon storage areas are located".
In the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, the midnight hour ticked closer Wednesday in a cloud of raw fear and brute defiance.
And then it passed, leaving a city on edge, but still free – for the duration.
Barely a month ago, when international reporters entered the newly liberated city of Benghazi on Feb. 20, they were greeted with graffiti confidently proclaiming, “Game Over”.
Days later, military analysts noted Gaddafi’s Soviet-era arms, his inept troops, defecting soldiers, and surmised that the embattled Libyan leader could not hold out forever.
What a difference a week makes. Suddenly, Gaddafi’s inept, obsolete military has begun to strike back with superior firepower, grounding the rebels' westward advance to the regime heartland, and in some key cities – such as in Zawiya and Ras Lanuf – forcing a rebel retreat.
In a matter of days, Gaddafi’s forces seem to have transformed from inept and obsolete, into a seemingly invincible army.
So have the international community’s predictions of Gaddafi’s firepower been wrong all along?
Not quite, says Gary Li, of the Defence and Military Analysis Programme at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“It’s an open debate,” said Li in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “Gaddafi’s forces have the advantage now as they have changed their methods. They started with airstrikes – with mixed success. What’s happening now is his elite brigades are using the classic ‘creeping barrage’ tactic of heavily shelling areas and gradually moving inwards. But as each side reaches the heartland of the other, both sides are finding it difficult to deal the fatal blow.”
Battle in the regime’s favour, but rebel defeat not inevitable
Despite Libyan state TV claims that Misrata, the last big rebel stronghold in western Libya, had fallen on Wednesday, rebel spokesmen and residents on Thursday said rebels still controlled the strategic city.
Similarly, Libyan state media claims that Ajdabiya, a town east of Benghazi, had been seized from rebel control have also been refuted, with hospital officials telling reporters the city had witnessed heavy fighting, but still no surrender.
Last week, James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Gaddafi’s forces were "hunkering down for the duration" and he assessed that "the regime will prevail" over the long term because of its superior military resources.
But at a press conference in London Wednesday, Brigadier Ben Barry, a land warfare specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, tempered Clapper’s assessment.
“I agree with him that the military balance is currently in the regime’s favour,” said Barry, referring to Clapper’s verdict. “But I assess that the rebels’ defeat is not necessarily inevitable.”
All eyes on morale and topography
The most critical factor, according to military experts, is the extent of rebel morale.
“Rebel morale was initially very high, but it was very brittle,” explained Li. “If the rebels suffer severe setbacks, they might not be able to retreat, regroup and recover like a professional military. Morale is very important.”
If – and only if – rebels do manage to maintain morale, the Libyan topography could work to their advantage.
A vast, predominantly desert country with huge tracts of sparsely populated distances between towns and cities, Libya – as World War II military commanders learned – is a military logistical nightmare.
Gaddafi’s forces could have problems keeping supply lines open especially since his air force lacks adequate military transportation aircraft which, in any case, are vulnerable to anti-aircraft gunfire by rebels who have accessed Gaddafi’s eastern arms depots.
Urban settings of dense, narrow streets typically favour small fighting groups enabling them to ambush heavy armoured columns.
That, according to some military experts, could account for the difficulties Gaddafi’s forces have been facing in Misrata, the country’s third-largest city.
Khamis Brigade: An elite force led by Gaddafi’s son
The last rebel-held city in the west, Misrata has come under attack by Gaddafi’s elite Khamis Brigade, a special forces brigade of regime loyalists led by the Libyan leader’s son, Khamis Gaddafi.
“The Khamis Brigade is the most elite of Gaddafi’s loyal forces. It’s a really good indicator of Gaddafi’s fighting power,” said Li, who estimates that the brigade consists of around 4,000 to 5,000 men. “Khamis Gaddafi was trained in Russia and that explains some of the classic creeping barrage tactics we are seeing in towns around Tripoli.”
But the country’s most elite brigade has been fighting a pitched battle to try to capture Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city with a population of around 500,000.
Benghazi is a much larger city, with a population of around a million and a historic reputation as an unruly, rebellious city that has produced some of Libya’s leading national resistance heroes during the colonial struggle.
“I feel Saif Gaddafi’s 48-hour boast is highly unlikely,” said Li. “It’s difficult to see how a brigade-sized force can march confidently into such a city.”
A ragtag rebel army of almost comical ineptitude
Military prophecies though have been known to wither and die in the blood and dust of the battlefield.
And the one factor that could topple military strategists’ appraisals from afar is the rebels’ fighting power.
Reporters in rebel-held areas of eastern Libya have filed stories of an almost comical level of ineptitude among the motivated, but untrained and undisciplined ragtag rebel fighters.
After nearly a month of fighting, no clear military command structure has emerged from the rebel ranks and military experts such as Li bemoan the rebels’ failure to implement the most basic of defenses such as digging trenches to halt enemy advances.
Given the daily propaganda onslaught by Libyan state television and the Gaddafi family, the regime is undoubtedly sabre-rattling to whittle away rebel morale.
Li however believes that if rebel morale does not buckle under the onslaught, they might be able to buy time at least until some form of international assistance is agreed upon.
Until such time though, Li’s military prognosis for Libya is a stalemate with a seesawing action of control and claims by either side.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the man who once touted the power of civil society and democratic institutions only to abandon his principles, may once again have to bite his words.