Why Libya's Rebels Are Stalled

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


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.

Later, a 39-year-old bakery owner from Benghazi who also makes a mean bowl of bean soup, showed me his Russian-manufactured Kalashnikov. It was made in 1976.

In particular situations -- such as street battles within Benghazi against Qaddafi's Al-Fadil Brigade, or in occasional skirmishes with the Revolutionary Committees -- these ragtag fighters and their aging weapons have proven effective on an individual level. Many have demonstrated incredible courage, such as Mahdi Ziu, an overweight father of two. On February 20, Ziu loaded his car with propane and drove it into the heavily defended gates of Benghazi's main military base. Everyone in Benghazi remembers Mahdi as a hero who, in the uprising's bloody first week, saved his comrades' lives and helped turn control of the city over to the rebels.

But I've seen rebels hightailing it too. A few days ago, at the front lines 20 kilometers east of Brega, I was interviewing a 19-year-old unemployed "rebel" who lives at home with his parents. He didn't appear to be armed.

"Do you even have a gun?" I asked. "Yeah -- well, you know how it is. There's about one Kalashnikov for every four or five of us rebels," he said. "Mine's in the car."

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Rebel without a gun. By Ryan Calder

We heard a shell land several miles away. As column of black smoke rose slowly over the horizon, the young man and his comrades jumped in their cars and fled, even before the gang of foreign photographers with me stopped clicking their shutters.

These are the ragtag rebels: groups of four or five buddies who carpool to the front in their own cars, high-school teachers and high-school dropouts, petroleum engineers and shepherds and bakery owners, packing their own lunches of macaroni and beans, wearing construction helmets and plastic safety goggles for protection, and carrying the Kalashnikovs they managed to buy on Benghazi's streets.

When the shells start to land, most of the rebels leave the fighting to the trained forces; small pockets of which defected from local army units, some of them from Al-Sa'iqah, the Libyan special forces. There's not much for them to do anyway. Those at the very front lines are better equipped, better trained, under organized command, and know what to do in the face of enemy fire. Lacking training, weaponry, and command, the ragtag rebels are mostly useless in these situations. There's no point for them to stick around and risk getting blown up, so they don't.

Zack Gold contributed to this article