September 1, 2011

Taking Stock of Libya’s Battlefield

No one is questioning Saif al-Islam’s flair for the dramatic. As Libyan revolutionaries flooded into Tripoli on August 20th and seized “Martyr’s Square,” Muammar’s second son and presumed heir appeared at Tripoli’s five-star Rixos Al Nasr to refute his capture. Saif proceeded to give journalists an impromptu tour of the neighborhoods still controlled by Gaddafi’s forces, ending at his father’s Bab al-Azizia compound. Bab al-Azizia fell to the revolutionaries less than 24 hours after a victory pledge.

Now facing public dissent with the family ranks, Saif has resorted to his usual antics in an unconvincing attempt to keep morale high. Following reports that Gaddafi’s wife Safia, daughter Aisha and sons Mohammed and Hannibal fled to Algeria, his younger son Saadi reached out to the National Transitional Council (NTC) in a last-minute negotiating session. Saadi could simply be buying time for his father: “We acknowledge that they (the NTC) represent a legal party, but we are also the government and a legal negotiating party.”

Saadi later told CNN, “They have already killed thousands of people and destroyed the country. I'd rather surrender myself to a real government than... to those guys."

Yet his good cop routine - “I will not carry guns against any Libyan person, and I urge the warring parties to lay down their weapons” - clashes hard with Saif’s rhetoric. “We are coming soon to liberate the green square [Martyr’s Square],” Gaddafi’s remaining fist promised "victory or martyrdom!" and ordered “everyone” to “attack everyone, day and night, until we clean this country from those gangsters and those traitors."

“We are going to die in our land," Saif said in an audio statement broadcast on Al-Rai television station. "No one is going to surrender."

Despite his war-mongering, such an outcome will be a positive development for Libya. Without drawing concrete conclusions of Tripoli’s status and Libya’s revolution in general, we remain optimistic that Gaddafi will run out of energy sooner than later. The situation is unfolding mostly as anticipated, with loyalists isolated in Tripoli and forced to retreat to Sirte, Bin Jawad and Sabha. These cities could soon fall to a coordinated military assault and negotiations with local tribal leaders. Meanwhile Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meeting with the NTC in Paris, where a “Friends of Libya” conference aims to unfreeze additional billions in Gaddafi assets.

Immediate funds are desperately needed to pay local government employees and restore water, electricity and other basic services. On a positive note, many Libyan accounts have expressed a willingness to sacrifice near-term comfort for long-term freedom.

Because of the general uncertainty surrounding Gaddafi’s inner circle, prematurely writing off a sustainable insurgency could result in costly errors. Kabul and Baghdad bear fresh scars from this blunder. In an audio message broadcast on Al-Rai TV, Gaddafi urged his remaining loyalists to “jihad” and accused the revolutionaries of raping women. Abdel Salam Jalloud, a childhood friend and fresh defector, warned the NTC that he, “believes he can gather his supporters and carry out attacks... He is delusional. He thinks he can return to power."

Nevertheless, Gaddafi’s remaining forces continue to weaken as he struggles to fund the losing end of a guerrilla war. Moussa Ibrahim, the dictator's official spokesman, recently claimed that Gaddafi "is indeed leading the battle for our freedom and independence,” and is capable of resisting for “weeks, months and years.” Ibrahim added that “all of the leader's family are fine," even though Khamis reportedly burned to death after a British Apache eliminated his Toyota Land Cruiser.

The gradual erosion of Gaddafi’s inner circle leads us to believe that a prolonged insurgency is unlikely. The trail for Gaddafi himself, while obscured, is relatively hot. Personal guards and tribal leaders in Bani Walid, where Gaddafi has recruited heavily from the Warfalla tribe, claim to have spotted him as he sent off his family to Algeria. At this point Khamis, Gaddafi’s youngest son, was tracked down outside Bani Walid and reportedly eliminated. Four of his guards were captured near Tahouna, 50 miles north, and retold of Khamis’s death in addition to his father’s presence at his compound.

"He was there for around 15 minutes," said Abdul Salam Tahra, who also claims to have witnessed Khamis burn. "He was wearing civilian clothes and a head scarf, but his face was open and very clear. His wife and daughter were with him and so was Saadi. They left in a convoy of around 25 cars and he was in a Toyota pick-up. They all left together and they went south."

Tribal chiefs from the Warfalla also confirmed to NTC officials that they received important guests in recent days and offered them their protection. Simultaneously, Saif said that he contacted tribal leaders in Bani Walid "and they all agreed unanimously that this is our country and we will defend it." This evidence has led the NTC to set up a perimeter between Bani Walid, Sirte to the east, and Sabha to the south. The revolutionaries believe that Gaddafi is traveling by unconventional paths away from the main routes, further narrowing NATO’s overhead search.

With reports of fleeing mercenaries and new oppositional gains coming in daily, and opposition morale rising in response, Gaddafi and his sons are running out of places to hide in a free Libya. Once the regime’s core is eliminated or taken into custody, the NTC has pledged to reconcile with loyalist tribes and hand over power to an elected government within eight months. The NTC holds a popular mandate to government, and restoring services will likely prove the greater challenge than catching Gaddafi.

Fears of an al-Qaeda takeover also remain minimal. While Abdelhakim Belhaj, the NTC’s leading commander in Tripoli and head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), is certainly someone to keep an eye on, the NTC appears strong enough to resist al-Qaeda’s advances. LIFG’s connection to AQ also remains suspect, and the best it can hope for is a sleeper cell within the military. AQ’s ideology is unlikely to take root in Libya’s new government. For these same reasons, NATO’s influence could be drastically reduced to avoid domestic criticism.

To fear Libya’s future is to accept Libya’s past. Never was Gaddafi’s fall going to be clean, and Saif would have eventually taken over without a revolution to stop him. Considering the odds, Libya’s masses have achieved an extraordinary amount of progress in seven months. The remnants of Gaddafi’s regime will be lucky to survive the next seven.


  1. I feel confident the Libyan people will soon be as free and prosperous as the Iraqi people.

    And the "free elections" that are promised ... the Libyan people will, of course, be free to choose not to have all their natural resources and utilities privatized by Western corporations, right?

    Thought so.

  2. I cordially invite you to check out my latest blog entry.

  3. Libya's transition to a representative government won't be easy, but Iraq's outcome may be avoided due to the revolutionary spirit.

    I am not condoning Western military or economic interests.