Why Libya's Rebels Are Stalled

Confusion in the international coalition and in the opposition movement have allowed Qaddafi to march east

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Rebels along the eastern front, April 2. By Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters.


BENGHAZI, Libya -- Why has the NATO-led international coalition scaled back its air strikes in Libya's east? The likely answers have as much to do with the international climate as with events within Libya. On March 27, word spread that the rebels had taken Surte, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's hometown. Here in Benghazi, the press corps started asking around about hotels in Surte and packing its bags, readying to ride west with the rebels all the way to Tripoli.

Although the rumor of Surte's fall proved false, it underscored how fast the rebels were then advancing with coalition help. They may have been moving too fast for the international community's taste, threatening to make apparent that the air strikes had progressed beyond simply defending civilian areas into actively facilitating Qaddafi's military defeat.

Multilateral intervention is proving a tricky game. Security Council members Russia and China and key NATO members Turkey and Germany remain deeply wary about intervention. Domestic debate is mounting within France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other Western countries about "mission creep," the potential unforeseen consequences of intervention, and who exactly the opposition leaders are. NATO has taken over command and control of all coalition operations over Libya, and its leaders appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

Meanwhile, intensive back-channel negotations are taking place inside and outside Libya, with the aim of loosening Qaddafi's grip on the regions and people he controls. Leading regime figures are reaching out to Western leaders, testing the waters to see if defection makes sense. On March 31, Qaddafi's foreign minister and spy chief Moussa Koussa -- a man whose checkered past includes possible ties to the 1988 Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie -- defected. Others are likely to follow.

Spooks from the CIA are already in Libya, and more from MI6, the DGSE, and other Western intelligence agencies may follow. They'll likely try to convince leaders of major tribes and politically influential families still with Qaddafi to jump ship.

Meanwhile, as the war rages on, rebels fighting at the front don't even receive military training before they go. "How'd you learn to use that thing?" I asked one 38-year-old engineer I met in Ras Lanuf carrying a Kalashnikov. "And what kind of training did you get when you joined the rebels?"

"Training?" He laughed. "Man, I just watched someone else and figured it out on my own."

Right now, there's no military apparatus outside Tripoli with the organizational capacity to train the rebels anyway.

"And where did you go to enlist?" I asked.

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A bakery owner-turned-rebel displays his 45 year-old gun. By Ryan Calder

He laughed again. "There's no enlisting. You just find a weapon and show up at the front. If you don't have one, you wait until another rebel dies and you take his. Or you get some off of Qaddafi's dead soldiers." Indeed, I've seen groups of rebels scouring the remains of Qaddafi's bombed-out tanks and armored personnel carriers along the coastal highway, looking for usable weapons and ammunition.

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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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