The Accordion War: Libya's Ever-Moving Front

Phase 3: Coalition Air Strikes Begin

Coalition air strikes against Qaddafi's forces began on March 19, turning the war's tide completely. Qaddafi's superior firepower and financial resources had allowed him to cut through the underequipped and utterly disorganized opposition. But the air strikes destroyed or turned back much of Qaddafi's advancing force, allowing the opposition to push east out of Benghazi.

outside Ajdabiyah - APC.JPG

Ajdabiyah: An armored personnel carrier from Qaddafi's militias after being hit by Coalition air strikes.The spray paint reads: "Bu Shafshufah's rubbish, all for sale." Bu Shafshufah, or "Uncle Curly," is a derisive nickname for Muammar Qaddafi. By Ryan Calder

The air strikes also ended much of the regime's shelling of several contested cities, especially Misrata, Libya's largest port and third largest city after Tripoli and Benghazi.

March 22 to 26 were heady days for the Transitional Council, the opposition's interim government. First, the international coalition wiped out Qaddafi's air force. Then, along the coastal highway leading from Benghazi to Surte, they bombed his tanks and heavy artillery, leaving their charred, pancaked remains along the road. The regime's militias had no choice but to retreat. The opposition swept forward completely unchallenged through the oil towns of Ajdabiyah, Brega, and Ras Lanuf, closing on Qaddafi's hometown and stronghold of Surte. A rebel victory there appeared imminent. The loss of Surte would have left the regime reeling.

outside Ajdabiyah - car.JPG

Outside Ajdabiyah: A car that was part of Qaddafi's militias, flattened by Coalition air strikes. By Ryan Calder

Phase 4: International Indecisiveness and Domestic Confusion

The Western air strikes, especially along the highway from Benghazi to Surte, created an expectation among opposition supporters in Libya that the coalition would help pave the way for their advance to Tripoli. Coalition leaders, especially French President Nicolas Sarkozy, were hailed as heroes. The French tricolor fluttered in Benghazi's central square.

But in late March, Coalition bombing against Qaddafi's forces scaled back dramatically on the eastern front, in part because there were simply fewer targets left, and in part because loyalist fighters changed tactics to evade air strikes.

The opposition forces closing on Surte stopped in their tracks. For a week, rebels on the eastern front had waltzed down the coastal highway, cleared by coalition planes. Now, they began retreating in the face of Qaddafi's superior firepower.

"Where's Sarkozy?" asked rebels on the eastern front and unnerved civilians in Benghazi. The coalition, for better or worse, had created a set of expectations in Benghazi. Now, the view from Benghazi was that it was changing course.

As of April 2, after several days of eastward advance by the regime's militias, the front line in the east appears to be stalled around the town of Brega. In Benghazi, the mood remains nervous, as people wonder why the coalition bombing has stopped and whether this means the international community has abandoned them. Meanwhile, the fiercest battles continue to rage in besieged cities such as Misrata, from which a Turkish hospital ship evacuated wounded civilians and rebels on Sunday.

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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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