The Libyan revolution, which but weeks ago seemed set to topple the 41-year-old era of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, now seems destined to fail. Libyan military forces loyal to the Gaddafi regime, backed up by foreign mercenaries, have dealt the rebellion a series of sharp military defeats in recent days. It was only days ago that the Western press was reporting that the rebels had encircled the Libyan capital city of Tripoli, trapping Gaddafi within. Now, it is the rebels who face encirclement and defeat, with heavy fighting being reported in Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi, de facto capital of the rebellion.
Tracking the fighting in Libya from afar has been problematic, as it has not been consistently clear which side, if either, was providing militarily accurate information. The same locations have been taken and retaken multiple times, adding to the confusion in a country that was never well covered by reliable Western media to begin with. But what is known is that the rebels were originally able to quickly seize control of the eastern coast of Libya (virtually all the country’s population lives along the Mediterranean shore) and then began an advance on Tripoli, which lies in the far western part of Libya.
Meanwhile, rebellions occurred in cities near of the capital in the west, leaving Tripoli seemingly surrounded. Heavy fighting was then reported in Tripoli itself, and it seemed for a brief time that by the time that military units loyal to the triumphant rebels could reach the capital, it might already be in the friendly hands of anti-Gaddafi rebels.
There is no longer any such optimism. A major victory for the rebels was seizing control of the city of Zawiya, as it not only sits only 30 miles from Tripoli, but was in the western part of the country, far from the rebellion’s beginnings. Last week, after heavy fighting that reportedly left the city in ruins, the Libyan military declared itself firmly in control of the city, and even gave Western journalists a tour, complete with rent-a-mob crowds cheerfully praising Gaddafi amidst the debris. The fate of the rebels of Zawiya is not known. Perhaps some were able to flee and regroup. No doubt some fell into the hands of the victorious Gaddafi loyalists. Whatever became of them, it was unlikely to be have been pleasant, or within the Western laws of war.
It seems as though the situation is roughly similar in all other areas. The towns approaching Benghazi have either been bombed by air or attacked on the ground; there are conflicting reports over which faction controls any given location at any given time. No doubt there are times when the enemy forces are in contact with each other and both claim to control the same location. The town of Brega, home to a port that exports Libyan oil, quickly fell into opposition hands after the uprising in Benghazi, but has been the scene of heavy fighting. News reports suggest that the town has been captured and recaptured several times over the last several days; with the most recent available reports saying that the opposition currently holds the town.
Time Magazine reporters in Brega have been left with only cellphone text messages as a means of communicating with their editors, but have even so been able to file gripping reports of heavy air attacks, mass casualties, and anti-Gaddafi fighters barely hanging on to strategically vital Brega. The efforts of these reporters, on the front lines with cellphone in hand, are a modern version of classic war reporting from earlier eras. And their coverage of poorly armed, barely trained soldiers heading into battle and being bombed from the air, along with the steady advance of Gaddafi’s forces on the ground, make it clear that if the rebellion is to survive in Libya, the rebels will need help.
At the very least, they will require advanced military supplies — supplies America or its European allies could easily and inexpensively provide. There is some reluctance to furnish the Libyan rebels with high-tech Western munitions; the bitter memories of the Taliban using American arms to first defeat the Soviets, and then wage war against the West, are too recent to ignore. But Libyan tanks and armored vehicles have reportedly been used to devastating effect against enthusiastic but lightly armed rebel infantry. Anti-tank weapons could make a big difference. So too could small arms and ammunition, in absurdly generous quantities.
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