Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi has been forced to expand his counteroffensive against rebel holdouts in the country's west in the past few days, with Zintan, a major population center 100 miles southwest of the capital, once more in open revolt.
Most news coverage in recent days has focused on the besieged town of Misurata, and for good reason. Qaddafi cut off the town's electricity and water more than a month ago, and has rained mortar and rocket fire on civilian neighborhoods and rebel positions alike for weeks. The rebels have managed to hang on to the port, which has become the city's lifeline, and yesterday rebels claimed they were making gains in street fighting against Qaddafi's forces even as a massive artillery barrage prevented aid ships from docking.
But Qaddafi, who has mostly been focused on Misurata for weeks, is now being drawn in other directions. While a few weeks ago Misurata was seen as a lone western holdout, its successful defiance of the government (with plenty of help from NATO) has inspired rebel gains elsewhere in the west. In the past week, rebels regained control of a border crossing with Tunisia in the western mountains, and local rebel militias have wrested control of a number of small towns in the area, like Nalut.
Monitor reporter Scott Peterson is now in western Libya and moving through rebel-controlled areas. In an e-mail this morning, he said rebels had told him it was safe to move to Zintan, which was reported to be taking heavy shelling from Qaddafi's forces earlier in the week. Towns like Zintan have been simmering with antigovernment sentiment since the Libyan uprising began in February, and there have been periodic clashes. But there are signs that the rebels in the west are getting more air support from NATO (a rebel in Nalut, for instance, told Peterson that he was in contact with air controllers) and they claim they're preparing to take more of the fight to Qaddafi's forces.
The real strength of Qaddafi's military at the moment is hard to gauge. He's been leaning heavily on the paramilitary brigades loyal to his sons, with the loyalty of regular army units less certain. Dozens of his tanks and missile launchers have been destroyed by NATO air power, and if he seeks to move such armor between cities, it will make ripe targets for French or British jets.
If the rebels can properly open up another front in the west, that should take some of the pressure off Misurata – and sow more doubt in the commanders and officials around Qaddafi. Stalemate has been the word of the past few weeks on Libya, and for good reason.
But stalemates can be broken suddenly and surprisingly. Qaddafi remains defiant, but international sanctions are starting to bite in Tripoli. NATO, despite the doubts of some of its members about the mission over Libya, has remained fairly steadfast and consistent in its actions. If the rebels break out of Misurata and Zintan in the west, "stalemate" will probably quickly become a word of the past.