The Accordion War: Libya's Ever-Moving Front

The three armies -- Qaddafi's, the rebels', and NATO's -- have been pushing up and down the same stretch of desert for weeks


Rebels along the eastern front, April 3. By Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters.

BENGHAZI, Libya -- Why has the front line in Libya been moving back and forth like an accordion for a month and a half? How was it that the rebels took so many towns so fast in February, and then got pushed back so quickly, until Qaddafi's tanks were rumbling through Benghazi's outskirts? And why do the towns in oil-rich, north-central Libya, along the Gulf of Surte -- towns such as Brega and Ras Lanuf -- keep changing hands?

To answer these questions, it helps to think of this war as divided into phases. There have been three so far, and we now seem to be in a fourth, which began in late March.

Phase 1: The Popular Uprising Advances Virtually Unopposed

The revolution's official start date is remembered as February 17, but demonstrations actually began in Benghazi on February 15, mobilized by youth on Facebook and other social networking sites. In Benghazi and other cities, Qaddafi's internal-security forces fired on demonstrators, causing mass outrage. Soon, demonstrations spread all over Libya. State-security buildings and other symbols of Qaddafi's rule, such as local headquarters of the Revolutionary Committees, were torched.

The regular Libyan army has long been weak, because Qaddafi -- afraid of a coup d'état -- starved it of leadership and resources, diverting them to militias that report to his sons and other close relatives. Within the effete Libyan army, only the special forces and a few other detachments have been particularly effective. But the militias, especially those under the colonel's son Khamis, are reasonably well trained, albeit largely for maintaining internal order.

Within a week, as it became clear that a popular uprising was afoot, defections from the regime and the military apparatus began. Police and state-security officials either joined the rebel movement as sympathizers or simply surrendered. Most of the militias stuck with the regime, however.


Libya's front lines as of March 27. By Reuters

In Tripoli, where many loyalist militias are based and where Qaddafi's supporters are concentrated, the security presence was too strong, and isolated demonstrations were too viciously suppressed, for full rebellion to break out.

The east, with Benghazi at its heart, liberated itself quickly. There, the defection of a few elite units from the Benghazi barracks of the Libyan army proved decisive. On February 20, 1,000 soldiers from the Benghazi contingent of Al-Sa'iqah, the Libyan special forces, joined the opposition. So did Interior Minister General Abdul Fattah Younis and General Khalifah Al-Mismari, a senior Al-Sa'iqah figure.

The Al-Sa'iqah forces in eastern Libya who joined the opposition have proven critical to its successes. They are among the few opposition fighters who are properly trained and under any kind of organized command.

In late February and early March, untrained, lightly armed rebels (thawwar) -- mixed with elements of Al-Sa'iqah -- took control of a number of towns in which state security forces had not switched sides or were weak. This was when maps on international news broadcasts showed town after town falling to the rebels.

Phase 2: Qaddafi Regroups

In early March, the regime's militias regrouped and quickly retook cities from the opposition. In Benghazi, people on the street allege that Qaddafi had finally imported enough mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa to field an effective and compliant fighting force.

Clare Morgana Gillis: After the Airstrikes
D.B. Grady: Why We Had to Go to War
Clare Morgana Gillis: The Rebel Leaders

But the extent to which foreign mercenaries are important to the regime's military effort is nearly impossible to pin down. Regardless, by early March, the regime's militias had re-armed, supposedly with newly purchased weaponry, and began a well-coordinated wave of attacks that swept back across towns defended by the disorganized rebels.

Watching Qaddafi's forces rumble almost unchecked toward Benghazi, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973 on March 17, authorizing "all necessary measures" to protect civilians. By March 18, Qaddafi's forces had finished sweeping eastward through the oil towns of central Libya and had reached Benghazi's outskirts.

On March 19, Benghazi residents streamed east out of the city. Street battles raged in the outskirts and downtown. Locals reported that Revolutionary Committee members who had been buying up light weaponry on a newly emerged black market came out from hiding and began shooting at civilians. In several days of chaos, rebel fighters patrolled the city, protecting it as best they could.

Presented by

Ryan Calder is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently conducting field research on the revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa.

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