Shashank Joshi: Leader cannot survive but road ahead is strewn with danger

The tipping point may be weeks away, with a bloody palace coup no less likely than Gaddafi's smooth exit from Libya

When the history of the Libyan Civil War is written in coming years, the Second Battle of Zawiyah will feature prominently among its pivotal moments. The recapture of the strategic town just 30 miles from Tripoli, along with the capitulation of Gharyan to the southeast, throws a noose around the capital. When Zlitan falls to the east, that will leave the regime effectively besieged. These advances shatter the idea that the war is in stalemate, and will give fresh impetus to Nato to push past its September deadline.

Victory at Zawiyah is a double blow. It sits atop a key coastal road from Tunisia to Tripoli, over which arms and millions of litres of fuel may have been transferred daily. That will dry up fast, but the regime is also likely to quickly lose its only functioning refinery, on the edge of town. All four direct oil and gas pipelines to Tripoli have been severed. On the border with Tunisia, the town of Ras Jdir may also have fallen, which would enable the Tunisian government to give up all pretence of dealing with Gaddafi and begin supplying opposition fighters.

Are we at the endgame? There is now no prospect of Gaddafi surviving, and Tripoli has already ceased to function as an ordinary city. But the road ahead is strewn with danger. First, rebels must hold the city in the face of pockets of resistance and continued artillery bombardment. Then, moving eastwards will fray their supply lines, put them in range of rocket attack and leave them vulnerable to attacks on their flanks. The outskirts of Tripoli may be reinforced with elite units.

But actions speak louder than words. Even before the breakthrough, rebel and regime representatives met on the Tunisian island of Djerba to explore options for exile. Each side may vigorously deny any suggestion of compromise, but government insiders know the game is up. That's precisely why, yesterday, Gaddafi's interior minister appeared in Cairo with nine members of his family. The tipping point may be just weeks away, with a bloody palace coup no less likely than Gaddafi's smooth exit from the country. As one Libyan activist put it on Twitter, "Eid could be a massive celebration indeed".

The writer is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute

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