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One thing is clear in Libya: Rebels can't advance without air support

If international powers narrow their interpretation of the UN mandate in Libya, rebels would have a much harder time making headway against Muammar Qaddafi's forces.

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Airstrikes dried up yesterday. Why?

The reasons for the lack of support yesterday were unclear, though they followed a confusing speech in which President Barack Obama said international action here was not about “regime change” while also insisting that Qaddafi must leave power.

The UN mandate to “protect civilians” had been interpreted fairly expansively in its first week, with Qaddafi’s tanks destroyed in clearly defensive positions around Ajdabiya. But at least for a day, the mission appeared to have shifted.

Qaddafi certainly has more support in his hometown of Sirte than in Ajdabiya, where most of the population appeared to be in open rebellion against his troops, and it could be that the US or some of its NATO allies decided that assisting a rebel assault on that town would be bending the UN resolution to the point of breaking.

Or it could simply be that the weather was bad yesterday (there are frequent localized sandstorms here), or Qaddafi’s people have started using pickups and other civilian vehicles that make them harder to distinguish from the air.

This morning, rebels at the front reported renewed French airstrikes – France has been the most aggressive of the NATO members in supporting the rebellion – around Uqayla.

Libya's de facto partition enforced by air

For now the de facto partition of the country remains enforced by foreign airpower, with the line drawn somewhere in the desert between Ajdabiya and Sirte.

With the defenders of Sirte well dug in, definitely more competent and for now seemingly motivated, it’s hard to see the rebels taking that town without an assault from the air. The Pentagon says it now has AC-130 and A-10 Warthogs – slow flying planes whose cannons are designed for close air support – flying in the area, but it isn’t clear if they’ve been used yet.

It’s possible that Qaddafi’s loyalists in Sirte may abandon him, which could bring the war to an end quickly. Financial sanctions and a lack of fuel supplies are just starting to bite in Libya’s west. They could push people around Qaddafi to reconsider their support.

But there are no signs of that yet. For now, the stalemate in the desert seems certain to persist unless offensive air operations are resumed.

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