Shashank Joshi: This revolution is far more complex than we imagine

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The Independent Online

There are two misconceptions around the narrative of Libya's would-be revolution. The first is that the country is cleaved between a static east-west frontline along which rebel and government forces are clashing on equal terms. The second is that Muammar Gaddafi and his inner sanctum are besieged within Tripoli.

This is a deeply fluid revolution in which regime and rebels alike have penetrated hundreds of miles into each others' territories. The opposition-held city of Zawiya is just 30 miles west of Tripoli. But the regime still holds Surt, Colonel Gaddafi's hometown, over 230 miles along the coast and a bulwark against any rebel advance from Benghazi.

Though every pillar of his rule is crumbling at the edges – tribes, army, diplomats and ministers – Colonel Gaddafi retains not just a firm grip over his capital. He is also demonstrating the ability to direct ground forces – special forces and ad hoc militias – several hundred miles from his base, such as at an oil refinery in the middle of the country and cities on each side. Colonel Gaddafi's most loyal units are also his best equipped and trained, and bombing raids on Monday suggest he still wields potent airpower.

Though Colonel Gaddafi's delusional speech at the beginning of the week hinted at a leader without a grasp of reality, he is not without a strategy. He aims not to regain his lost territory, but to enforce a grinding stalemate that might persuade his adversaries to reach a settlement. His rant was designed to emphasise his enduring presence at the capital, countering the opposition's attempt to project an image of momentum.

Indeed, rebel groups have no viable means of pushing along the coast. They are cut off from rebel counterparts in the west and have limited offensive capabilities despite their numerical superiority. The logistical challenges of moving an 8,000-strong patchwork army across nearly 500 miles may be overwhelming. International intervention could break this impasse. The barriers to this are not military, but political. Nato could obliterate Libya's air-defence network and secure its airspace. The proximity of European military assets and the poor quality of Libyan forces render this a far-easier task than enforcing the no-fly zone over Iraq between 1992 and 2003.

But the Nato Secretary General and prominent Arab voices have demanded that it be authorised by a UN Security Council resolution. That will not be forthcoming. Veto-wielding Russia and China will be opposed to any resolution that violates the principle of non-intervention. Beijing also has had flickers of unrest at home.

The Western appetite for military operations has been dimmed after the stand-off with Serbia over Kosovo in 1999 and the morass of Iraq after 2003. It is also questionable whether a no-fly zone could preclude regime brutality inflicted by troops on the ground. The 1995 massacre at Srebrenica occurred under a UN-enforced no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Colonel Gaddafi would have to cross one of what are likely three lines before pushing a coalition to sidestep the UN: a single and compelling massacre; intensification of airstrikes; the use of chemical weapons. In the coming week, it is probable that he will calibrate his violence to pressure rebel cities around Tripoli without decisively crossing that threshold. That suggests that against the backdrop of Nato's flexing, the stalemate could drag into the spring.

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