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Libya: rebels without a hope?

Almost as soon as the UN-sanctioned intervention to establish a no-fly-zone over Libya had begun, journalists were speculating about how long it would take Western troops to set foot in yet another Muslim country.

While the underlying UN Security Council Resolution 1973 explicitly forbids ‘a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory’, a limited and short-term operation of ground troops is – theoretically – possible. However, the US, UK and France are taking great pains to emphasise that they do not intend to put boots on the ground. After Afghanistan and Iraq, the willingness to get sucked into another – potentially endless – war is extremely low.

Against this backdrop, many hope the Libyan rebels will finish the job of removing Gaddafi from power on their own. As in Afghanistan in 2001, airstrikes could pave the way for an advance of rebel troops towards the capital.

But are these hopes realistic?

To answer this question you have to assess the military and political capabilities of the Libyan rebels, something I have done as part of my PhD research on rebels in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), the Libyan rebels possess only very moderate military means. A couple of old Soviet-built T-55 tanks, some artillery and one jet fighter. Indicating a profound lack of military expertise, the rebels shot down their second plane over Benghazi on Saturday morning. Apart from that, they are mostly equipped with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. The rebels also rely on taxis taking their troops to the frontline. This is no match for Gaddafi’s well-equipped forces.

Therefore, even if the rebels manage to beef up their military capabilities (reportedly, the Egyptian army began to supply arms to them a couple of days ago), they will at best only be capable of holding on to their strongholds in Eastern Libya. Ultimately, this would result in a stalemate and cement a partition of the country.

However, as my research suggests, civil wars are not decided solely on the battlefield: the competition between government and rebels over popular support is also of great importance for the outcome of such a conflict. In the case of Libya, popular support for the rebels could lead to further defections of government units thereby decisively changing the military balance. The question is whether the rebels can create this support on a significant scale.

My research suggests that it is often the political leadership of a rebel movement and its population base that are the most important influences behind building popular support. Regarding the first factor, the Libyan rebels appear to be considerably fragmented over political objectives and strategy. It is unclear whether they can formulate a coherent alternative able to muster widespread support. Moreover, a combination of obscure dissidents and former members of Gaddafi’s ruling clique presently form the rebel leadership. It is questionable whether Libyans will be willing to put their fate in the hands of such men.

Finally, it is vital to remember that Libyan politics often equates with tribal politics: loyalty and allegiance runs along tribal lines. This is something that might favour Gaddafi. As the rebel strongholds of Benghazi and Tobruk have opposed the Colonel’s rule in the past, he might play the tribal card to divide his opponents. But even if he fails, tribal divisions mean it will be difficult for the rebels to create widespread national support.

The Libyan rebels therefore, seem to lack the necessary political and military capabilities to remove Gaddafi from power. Hopes that the imposition of a no-fly-zone will lead to anything other than stalemate are based more on wishful Western thinking than rational analysis.

Unless they want to get involved in a messy ground war, France, the UK and the US had better have a cunning plan up their sleeves.

Martin Ottmann

Published inInternational PoliticsLibya


  1. Nick Nick

    Who are these rebels, hardcore jihadis from other parts of the Middle East?

    Leave the lot of them to it, not worth one drop of blood.

  2. Unsy22 Unsy22

    Nick, your understanding of the situation in Libya is shocking. You previously berated Nottingham’s politics students for failing to post on a previous thread, but as an alumni of the school, I expected a more informed comment from yourself.

    Libyan protesters rebel against the systematic oppression, subjugation and brutality of the Gaddafi regime. They fight for the freedoms that you and I unthinkingly enjoy. For freedom is not free, Nick, someone always pays the price.

  3. Matt Matt

    Unsy22, that is a rather romanticised view of the nature of the rebels.

    We have seen this week with the assassination of General Abdel Fattah Younes, which was almost certainly carried out by an Islamist faction, that these rebels are more diverse than the ignorant, pink-tinted lens brigade in the west like to think.

    And this is hardly a surprise. Noman Benotman from the Quilliam Foundation has said himself that members of the Libyan Islam Fighting Group, of which he used to be a member, are deeply involved in the NTC. These are AQ aligned jihadists, who want Gaddafi’s head on a spike. These aren’t do-gooder, liberal, secular, Arab youths who we like to think we saw in great numbers in Tahrir Square.

    The truth is, we have thrown our enormous, misguided weight behind a Libyan coalition of the unknown. What happens if the NTC get to the gates of Tripoli or Siirte, and start massacring members of the Qadhadhfa tribe or other pro-Gaddafi communities? What do we do then? We have placed all of our eggs in an unknown basket, and we are surprised that it is not going well?

    If only our ‘leaders’ had been less consumed by interventionist idealism, and had listened to those saying that we must be careful in pushing to far. The protection of Benghazi, as per mandated, was fine. But the bombing of Tripoli and the insistence that Gaddafi leaves office was a massive error.

    Because of our folly, and because of our inability to stick to what has been mandated, we are now unable to get resolutions condemning the massacres that are occurring in Syria.

    We never learn.

  4. david brown david brown

    the rebels are oppressing people in the east now. they have no real support. the 5 million people living in the west support gaddafi in the main. he could not possibly arm a million people otherwise. gaddafi is keeping his best weapons hidden until the UN resolution expires in sept. He is using slow down tactics at the moment. if the rebels ever get anywhere near tripoli . they will be set on by a million people with weapons . and it is goodnight. natos little ploy a big mistake

  5. Dominic Caraccilo Dominic Caraccilo

    The quality of life and security for the citizens has been largely restored and we are a large part of why that has happened.

  6. Best is to leave the Arab world alone and let them evolve their own systems of government, dictatorial or democratic. The first emperor of China was probably as jutty as Gadaffi but without foreign interference, China did evolve until the last centuary when USA backed the Chiang Kai Sek regime. The Arab world will take a long time to evolve. Any interference will only delay it and causes more misery to its people. Please leave them alone.

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