Libyan rebels bide their time

Here in Moammar Kadafi’s capital, embassies continue to close down. Gas lines get longer. Fear and uncertainty grow. Spring has arrived, but there are no short-sleeve shirts for sale at the market because supply lines to Tripoli are cut.

Across the country in eastern Libya, the rebel government is gaining international recognition. New groups of diplomats arrive daily in Benghazi, the rebels’ de facto capital. The rebels have begun taking steps to provide logistical support to allies in other parts of the country.

With neither side able to overpower the other militarily or meet the other’s minimum conditions for negotiations, the Libyan conflict is becoming a drawn-out affair.


Although experts are divided, time might be on the rebels’ side.

A protracted struggle “could change the minds of those within the regime who might then view Kadafi as more of the problem than the solution,” said retired British army Brig. Benjamin Barry, a senior fellow for land forces at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

“It might allow deployment of trainers and advisors to assist the rebels in better coordinating their efforts,” he said. “If this went on for months and months, then equipping the rebels could make a difference.”

Some argue just the opposite, that time could work against the rebels.

“The truth is, time isn’t on anybody’s side yet,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “If Kadafi can prevent the east from getting oil, he can consolidate power and outwait the rebels.”

Over time, the world might lose its enthusiasm for challenging Kadafi. “Interest flags, support flags and you don’t get the military backing,” Cordesman said.

Time so far has helped the rebel government regain its footing on the battlefield, thanks to NATO airstrikes launched under auspices of a U.N. resolution, and in part to what American and European officials have said are the efforts of clandestine Western trainers. France and Italy’s decision to recognize the interim government in Benghazi clears the way for possible weapons exports without violating U.N. sanctions on Kadafi’s regime.

Time may also help the rebels politically. Strengthening democratic experiments in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, both sympathetic to the rebels’ cause and long suspicious of Kadafi, could play a significant role in helping topple a regime that stands out as an anomaly in a region gripped by zeal for democratic reforms.

“If Kadafi stays … he will blow up Tunisia and Egypt, and will send mercenaries and booby-trapped cars,” former Foreign Minister Abdul-Rahman Shalqam, an opposition supporter, told the Arabic daily newspaper Al Hayat this week. “He views them as the cause” of his troubles.

This week, just days after newly appointed Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi visited Greece, Athens shut down its embassy in Tripoli and handed its interests to the staff of the Hungarian mission.

A day after Obeidi traveled to Turkey, that country’s foreign minister met with a leading representative of the Libyan opposition, Mahmoud Jibril. Malta, the third country on Obeidi’s itinerary, recently barred an oil tanker bearing its flag from arriving in Tripoli.

A months-long standoff might work against the people of Misurata, a rebel-held port city of 500,000. Misurata is under ferocious artillery barrages by Kadafi’s military, which appears anxious to crush the resistance there the same way it defeated opponents in the western city of Zawiya. Rebel leaders on Wednesday lambasted the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, saying it failed to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Misurata.

But even there, time might help rebels establish a supply chain. Over the last two weeks, at least two ships dispatched by rebels in Benghazi docked in Misurata, bringing needed medical supplies. They also delivered weapons, several contacts in the city said.

The embattled regime’s forces have been unable to blockade the city by sea.

Ships appear to be arriving at an accelerating pace, with a Turkish medical ship and a team from Doctors Without Borders also reaching the city. Over the last week, rebels in Misurata have hosted journalists who arrived by sea. A few days ago, they launched their own YouTube channel.

And despite its apparent vitality on the battlefield, Kadafi’s regime must contend with tight U.N. sanctions that have begun to strangle its economy and prevent it from rearming.

“I believe that this is his last dance; it is the dance of the slain,” Shalqam told Al Hayat. “The areas under Kadafi’s control are running out of fuel. Food supplies in areas under his control are running out.”

The Tripoli government appears to be gearing up for a multifaceted fight. On Wednesday it announced the imminent launch of an English-language satellite news channel to promote its contention that it is the victim of a conspiracy involving President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy working in collusion with Arab-language news channels and Al Qaeda.

Shalqam suggested that the regime may be miscalculating that time is on its side. But Cordesman said rebels should also be wary of assuming that they’ll become a more robust fighting force as time goes on.

“Translating a group of inexperienced fighters into a force to be reckoned with is going to take more than time and influence, and it’s not clear that’s going to happen,” he said. “You cannot add automatic rifles and get instant battalions.”