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Books on Libya

Update No: 089 - (26/04/11)

Is Misratah a Turning Point in the War? Not Quite There yet
Pro-Qadhafi forces have withdrawn from Misratah after subjecting the city; Libya’s third largest, to almost two months of siege. The withdrawal has been celebrated as a victory for the rebels; however, though it is far more likely that it represents a tactical shift by Qadhafi. The Colonel has, critically, removed a significant point of contention that could have served as an excuse for NATO to deploy ground troops. In this sense, Qadhafi has bought himself some time. The rebels have put up a valiant resistance, but the limits of their military capability, if not their valor, were evident. Qadhafi can still rely on two things in his support, weapons superiority on the ground, and money to bribe tribes. The rebels may soon start receiving oil money from the sale of a shipment of oil to Qatar, but they are still being prevented from acquiring them by NATO. In turn, the United States has announced it would deploy ‘Predator’ unmanned drone aircraft, capable of greater precision in urban warfare situations, after reducing the number of missions by its own combat aircraft over Libyan skies.

Qadhafi has decided to rely on the tribes that are still loyal to him – and those he can still bribe into ‘fidelity’. Finally, the idiosyncrasies – for lack of a better term – of the Libyan ‘Jamahiriya’ system start to make sense. Qadhafi is more sensible than his Green Book might suggest; the ‘system’ he created in the 1970’s and 1980’s after various internal coup attempts, deliberately handed the balance of power to the tribes; the Jamahiriya was never really about a ‘republic of the masses’ of course. Nevertheless, just how much Qadhafi can rely on the tribes is uncertain. Misratah itself is mixed, as it has traditionally attracted many internal migrants. The city has served as Libya’s business capital and it is home to important light and heavy industry facilities, as well as trade. The area around Misratah is dominated by the Warfalla tribe, which has been typically supportive of Qadhafi. In 1993, however, the Warfalla backed a coup attempt against the Colonel. Some of the Warfalla have also declared their opposition to the Qadhafi clan in the early days of the Libyan uprising.

The Warfalla, the largest Libyan tribe accounting for almost a third of the entire Libyan population, are also prominent members of the army and Revolutionary Committee leadership. Other tribes present in Misratah, including the ‘Misrata’ have always opposed the regime, and many of its members have fought in the uprising. The Warfalla have not been kind to the insurgents: “the people of the East are not welcome here,” said their leaders in Ras Lanuf, the de-facto border between the regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica and at the heart of the oil terminal region, which has seen a crucial part of the conflict develop. The tribal card has a weakness, in that if loyalty is being purchased, the tribes may decide to sell to the highest bidder. If the rebels start generating revenue, and if they crucially gain access to frozen Libyan funds abroad, they will be in a position to turn the tables on the regime.

The rebels claim that the Warfalla enjoy little support in Misratah itself; moreover, it is unclear to what extent the tribal militias are trained and if they will be able to pose a serious challenge to the insurgents who are still occupying strategic areas of Misratah like the port. The loyalist tribes will also rely on a continued flow of favors and money from the Qadhafi regime; they have little time to defeat the rebels. They can, in turn, focus on resisting rather than defeating the loyalist forces, knowing that the end of the regime – especially if tribal tactics are used – will come the moment it is no longer able to pay. Accordingly, NATO countries can support the rebels, not only by supplying weapons – an option that has not yet gained much favor – but by helping to counter Qadhafi’s financial support to the tribes and moving quickly to arrange oil contracts with the rebels to help them generate revenue. Meanwhile, the insurgency has gained important moral support from the visit of US Senator McCain to Benghazi. The visit itself, the fact it could be arranged, suggests that the rebels are fully in control of that city and that they are ready to set up an alternative government. This emphasizes the division that now exists between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania.

It is interesting to note that in the event of a formal and permanent split; each of these regions would have access to similar oil production potential, seeing as the wells are in the desert regions to the south. Meanwhile, Tripolitania is facing a number of difficulties that will test tribal allegiance. The economic and financial blockade in Libya is starting to have its effects – the main risk being that the rebels will be granted access to these resources, as noted above. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have fled, leaving many jobs, even essential ones like making bread, vacant. Fuel production is dropping and those Libyans who have chosen to remain in Tripoli must endure hours of lineup to fill up their tanks. Libyan tanker trucks go to fuel up in Tunisia.

The country risks total collapse. Therefore, the seeming liberation of Misratah appears to mark a shift in the Libyan war; the decision by Qadhafi to withdraw forces can be interpreted as either the first step toward the end of the war (for reasons explained above) or as the start of a new phase. There is a risk that the tribal leadership may be able to put pressure on the insurgents themselves in an effort to divide and conquer. So far, various Libyan elements, nit only from the East, have gathered and united along the common goal of eliminating Qadhafi. The situation might be similar to that which ensued in Afghanistan after the ousting of the Soviet forces and in Somalia after the collapse of the Said Barre dictatorship. Therefore, while the likelihood of an ultimate Qadhafi defeat has increased, in consideration of the various scenarios around Misratah, the war for Libya could last much longer still.

Qadhafi can still decide whether to leave ‘peacefully’ or to draw out the conflict, until NATO will no longer be able to divert the pressure to deploy ground troops. Senator McCain’s visit to Benghazi may be interpreted as a move in this direction. Of course, there is also the issue, raised in the Newnations April update, that NATO still has little understanding of the makeup of the insurgent groups. NATO has sent consultants to help train Libyan insurgents; crucially they will advise the trainers rather than participate in the training itself. This suggests that western intelligence agencies are heeding at least one of Qadhafi’s warnings, namely that the eastern insurgency includes ‘al-Qaida’ units, otherwise known as Arab Afghans, who have fought against the West in scenarios such as Bosnia, Iraq or Afghanistan in the name of Islamist ideals. Italy, France and the United States have endorsed the Transitional National Council in Benghazi; however, those fighting on the ground represent a mishmash of interests, which may well include Islamic fundamentalist ones, which NATO would be reluctant to endorse (again, the post-Soviet Afghanistan scenario). A prolonged conflict would also help solidify the division between East and West; the formation of two independent states: Cyrenaica and Tripolitania; or of a loose federated union cannot be ruled out. In this respect, the authorities of the ‘liberated’ Misratah and their actions in the next few weeks in reaching out to the Transitional Council in Benghazi or in maintaining a distance will offer more insight into the possibility of a Libyan split.

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