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'├ętat -- 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.

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.

Why the War Stalled

There are three major reasons for why this has become an accordian war. The first is that Qaddafi's forces are stronger than the rebels, but the coalition is stronger than Qaddafi. There has been back-and-forth movement because of a radical imbalance between the three parties to the conflict: the opposition forces, Qaddafi's forces, and NATO air power. When the rebels are up against little resistance, as in phase one, they advance quickly. When Qaddafi's forces mobilize their full strength, as in phase two, the loyalists advance quickly. In phase three, when the coalition unleashed air strikes in advance of the rebel line, the rebels again took the momentum.

not exactly battle-hardened.JPG
Not exactly battle hardened. By Ryan Calder

The second reason is geography. As someone who has seen it, there is a whole lot of nothing in north-central Libya, where most of the back-and-froth has taken place. The oil towns in the 300-kilometer stretch between Ajdabiyah and Surte are small developments purpose-built for engineers and technicians. Walking around them feels like walking around a low-end retirement community in the U.S.: reasonably well-manicured shrubbery sits in front of identical cubical home after identical cubical home. Each community houses a few thousand oil workers, all of whom have now evacuated, leaving the towns deserted. There's not much space for intensive urban warfare. Between these oil towns are long stretches of desert highway, with nothing else but the occasional rest stop, refinery, or oil harbor. There's nowhere to fight. Thus, when one side or the other advances through this area, it advances fast, behind a barrage of rockets, mortars, and bombs.

The third reason is that when the rebels retreat, they retreat fast. Although they contain a few well-trained military units, the vast majority are civilians with no military training whatsoever. "I'd never fired a gun in my life before this revolution," one 25-year-old fighter from Al-Marj told me. "If Qaddafi found you with so much as a bullet, he'd throw you in jail."

The rebels' rapid retreat is not so much a function of cowardice as of the fact that, when Qaddafi's shells begin falling, there's not much they can do. Even the best of what little artillery the rebels have cannot fire as far as Qaddafi's better, more numerous, and better organized artillery pieces. In such situations, amateurs with machine guns and light anti-aircraft guns mounted on their pickup trucks, whether brave or not, have little to contribute.

So when the rebels retreat in the face of enemy fire, they retreat fast. When shells start to land within earshot and Qaddafi's forces appear to be advancing, a line of Toyota Hilux pickup trucks and ordinary passenger cars -- Hyundais and Kias and Chevys and ancient Datsuns that barely putter along -- pull U-turns and start streaming away from the front.

Zack Gold and Xavier Mas de Xaxas contributed to this article