Libya rebels push west again, but Sirte awaits

In the past 24 hours, Libya’s rebels have made stunning territorial gains. But Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s stronghold of Sirte won't be so easy to take.

Youssef Boudlal/Reuters
Rebels celebrate after recapturing the town of Ras Lanuf from forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Sunday. Libyan rebels took back control of the town of Bin Jawad, 330 miles east of the capital Tripoli, and said they would push on soon towards Muammar Gaddafi's stronghold of Sirte.

In late February, the Libyan revolution was evolving at breakneck speed. After ousting Muammar Qaddafi’s forces from Benghazi and the rest of the country’s eastern population centers, untested young fighters piled into trucks and private cars and surged west.

Rolling into Bin Jawwad on Feb. 28 and knocking on the doorstep of Mr. Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, there was patriotism, optimism, and a steady conviction that the mercurial dictator was days away from death or exile.

Then came the counterattack from an enemy the rebels couldn’t see.

The shabaab (youths) were ambushed by Qaddafi supporters secreted inside Bin Jawwad, driven out of the oil town of Ras Lanuf by withering rocket and tank fire that killed dozens, and knocked all the way back to Ajdabiya, the gateway to Libya’s liberated east.

Now this ping pong match of a war along Libya’s coastal desert has shifted back in the rebellion’s favor, thanks to a week of French, UK, and American air assaults that have shifted the burden of fear onto Qaddafi’s forces.

Qaddafi’s air cover has been removed from the equation and the desert roads that his tanks and missile launchers once prowled with impunity have turned into a turkey shoot for British Tornadoes and French Mirages.

Thanks to international action, the rebels have returned to Bin Jawwad a month after their retreat. And now, as then, there’s euphoria that Sirte, the gateway to the Libyan west, is within their grasp.

Qaddafi's hometown

But that euphoria should be tempered. Qaddafi’s hometown is filled with members of his extended family and tribe, the Gaddafa, a once minor group who have grown rich and influential thanks to his patronage.

While there have been scattered rumors of anti-Qaddafi protests in Sirte and accurate information is hard to come by, there are undoubtedly many die-hard supporters of the regime in town. Qaddafi’s best units, including the 32nd Brigade led by his son Khamis Qaddafi, have sent reinforcements to Sirte and it’s been a staging ground for attacks into the east.

To be sure, the spirit of Qaddafi’s fighters was as broken as their tanks were by the international coalition's assault around Ajdabiya. When the survivors of Qaddafi’s force finally cut and ran on Saturday morning, panicked crews abandoned their tanks, and some shed their uniforms.

They are now hunted by an unseen enemy that they have no reply for, much as the rebels were a little over a week ago. Between Ajdabiya and Sirte are 300 miles of desert, oil installations and hamlets that afford Qaddafi’s forces – reliant as they are on resupply from outside – few places to hide.

WWII parallels

That Qaddafi's push against the rebels crumbled so quickly after it beat the rebels back so rapidly just weeks ago is not so surprising. In fact, it mirrors in a much smaller and faster way the vicious North African campaign of WWII. In late 1940, it took British forces about two months to push the Italians back from the Egyptian border to Ugaila, a town between Brega and Ras Lanuf that the rebels reclaimed this morning.

After Erwin Rommel and his Africa Korps landed at Tripoli in February 1941, they fought a two month offensive that pushed the British and Commonweatlh forces almost all the way back to the Egyptian border, where they were besieged at Tobruk. The British forces held out at Tobruk for 8 months, and when the siege was broken, it took just two months for Rommel to lose all that territory again.

Today, Sirte is Qaddafi’s key stronghold. The rebels have learned hard lessons in the past month, and their leaders say heedless advances into rocket and missile fire that killed so many of them in early March won’t be repeated.

Fresh ammunition

They’ve won fresh ammunition from the stockpiles Qaddafi’s forces abandoned at the roadsides, and whatever the size of the rebellious elements in Sirte, they will certainly have taken heart from the past two days events.

Around Misrata, the last western town still in open rebellion against Qaddafi, French warplanes destroyed five government fighter jets and two helicopters yesterday.

An Al Jazeera reporter who somehow made his way into the city today reports that the siege of that town has left hundreds of civilians dead and hardened locals’ fury at Qadafi’s regime.

But now the question is how committed Qaddafi’s loyalists remain. The international air power that’s been used with such great effect will be politically much harder to employ in Sirte, since attacks on the town itself run the risk of civilian casualties.

The rebel army’s hope now lies in Qaddafi’s commanders and rank and file seeking to cut deals in the face of his stunning loss of territory in the past two days, and whether the citizens of cowed cities like Tripoli and Zawiya, ruthlessly suppressed by his forces so far, will try to rise again.

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