Gad­hafi’s five-front war

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

For al­most two months, Libyan dic­ta­tor Moam­mar Gad­hafi’s loy­al­ists and merce­nary sol­diers have be­sieged the city of Mis­rata. Rebel fight­ers and Mis­rata’s cit­i­zenry have suf­fered bru­tal as­sault af­ter as­sault, but with the aid of NATO and coali­tion air power, they have de­nied Gad­hafi’s regime a key mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal goal: com­plete con­trol of west­ern Libya’s coastal cities and towns.

Re­ports be­gan to cir­cu­late on April 25 that Gad­hafi’s forces, af­ter a bloody fight in a key neigh­bor­hood, had re­treated to the out­skirts of Mis­rata. The city, how­ever, re­mains sur­rounded.

Gad­hafi hasn’t quit the battle, and the truth is, he can’t af­ford to quit. Lo­cated about 130 miles east of Tripoli on the road to Sirte, Mis­rata is an is­land of rebel re­sis­tance ly­ing deep within ter­ri­tory Gad­hafi’s regime must se­cure if it is to sur­vive po­lit­i­cally.

That’s be­cause Gad­hafi is now fight­ing a war to re­tain con­trol of west­ern Libya, also known as Tripoli­ta­nia. Libyans un­der­stand the im­por­tance of Mis­rata. Agence France-Presse quoted Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, a spokesman for the Libyan rebel Tran­si­tional Na­tional Coun­cil, as say­ing: “Mis­rata is the key to Tripoli. If he (Gad­hafi) lets go of Mis­rata, he will let go of Tripoli. He is not crazy enough to do that.”

For a lit­tle over two mil­len­nia, the clas­si­cal Ro­man pro­vin­cial des­ig­na­tions of Tripoli­ta­nia and Cyre­naica have lin­gered as pop­u­lar names for Libya’s west­ern and east­ern re­gions. Nu­mer­ous com­men­ta­tors have sug­gested that Libya’s civil war will stale­mate and end with a 21st cen­tury res­ur­rec­tion of Tripoli­ta­nia and Cyre­naica. Gad­hafi would re­tain a rump state in the west, and the rebels would make Benghazi the capi- tal of a New Cyre­naica.

How­ever, the revolt against Gad­hafi pits op­pressed out­siders against priv­i­leged regime in­sid­ers. Mis­rata demon­strates that the war isn’t a mat­ter of east-west ge­og­ra­phy and a neat two-way divi­sion. So does con­tin­ued re­sis­tance in the Na­fusa Moun­tains south and west of Gad­hafi’s strong­hold of Tripoli.

The Na­fusa range is a desert escarpment and a pre­dom­i­nantly eth­nic Ber­ber re­gion. With a few ex­cep­tions, for four decades the Ber­bers have re­ceived short eco­nomic and cul­tural shrift from Gad­hafi.

Early on, Gad­hafi un­der­stood the Ber­bers pre­sented a geo­graphic threat and eth­nic chal­lenge. Regime forces be­gan at­tack­ing the Ber­bers in late Fe­bru­ary.

In mid-April, Ber­ber rebels seized the Libya-Tu­nisia bor­der cross­ing be­tween Wazin, Libya, and De­hiba, Tu­nisia.

This opened a sup­ply line to Tu­nisia. NATO air­craft are now pro­vid­ing air sup­port to the Ber­bers. Gad­hafi’s at­tempts to se­cure his south­ern desert flank, by bribes, ha­rass­ment and out­right at­tack, have been stymied.

In March, Gad­hafi sup­pressed up­ris­ings in the west­ern cities of Zuwara and Zawiya (near the coast, be­tween Tripoli and the Tu­nisian bor­der). How­ever, op­po­si­tion sim­mers in the re­gion.

Stale­mate? Pos­si­bly, but go back to the map, Gad­hafi faces war on four fronts.

To the east, the Cyre­naica front.

To the south, the Ber­bers. Mis­rata, though sur­rounded, hasn’t cracked. The west­ern front (Zuwara) may be quiet, but the area re­quires a gar­ri­son that Gad­hafi might other­wise use else­where.

The dic­ta­tor also faces a fifth front, what might be called a 21st cen­tury fifth col­umn, to use the Span­ish Civil War term. The Lon­don Times quoted Bri­tish De­fense Sec­re­tary Liam Fox as say­ing: “All parts of com­mand and con­trol are le­git­i­mate tar­gets so long as they are at­tack­ing civil­ians.” On April 25, an air at­tack hit Gad­hafi’s head­quar­ters. The coali­tion tar­geted a build­ing, but in a dic­ta­tor­ship, the tyrant ex­er­cises supreme con­trol.

The coali­tion will soon be op­er­at­ing Preda­tors.

The drones rep­re­sent a tiny in­crease in strike and re­con­nais­sance ca­pa­bil­ity.

As po­lit­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare, how­ever, they add punch.

Two weeks ago, Gad­hafi was tool­ing around Tripoli in a con­vert­ible and shak­ing his fist. Now he must cast a wary eye to the sky.

Austin Bay is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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