Monday, March 28, 2011

Getting Closer

Rebels have pushed west to An Nawfaliyah, about 60 miles from Sirte:

Rebel forces on Monday fought their way to the doorstep of Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, a key government stronghold guarding the road to the capital Tripoli.

The lightning rebel advance of the past few days, backed by powerful international airstrikes, has restored to the opposition all the territory they lost over the past week and brought them to within 60 miles (100 miles) of this bastion of Gadhafi's power in the center of the country.

So far, as I've expected, there has been little loyalist resistance to small spearheads of rebels exploiting the loyalist retreat from Ajdabiya. Sirte, also as I expected, will be the main line of resistance for the loyalists. The loyalists would improve their position by finally taking Misrata to eliminate that lure for the rebels to push west (rescuing fellow rebels holding out is a potent motivating factor for the rebels, I imagine).

This is gut check time for the loyalists. If they can hold at Sirte, they could even prepare to knock the rebels back to Ajdabiya. This could be done even under the guns of the coalition if done right. And eventually, the coalition's will to stay in force will falter. Once that happens, even if the loyalists can't retake the east, the loyalists could reclaim oil export centers west of Ajdabiya that the rebels now control.

Maybe air strikes will be enough to facilitate the advance of the armed mob of rebels into and through Sirte. But I doubt it. Can the rebels scrape up enough trained and organized troops and hastily trained and organized rebels to mount an attack on Sirte? If they can take that city from the loyalists, I'd guess that loyalist morale starts to get brittle. Then we might avoid a long civil war.

UPDATE: Oh, and if I was the rebels, I'd push a column to take Maradah and then push on to Zillah to secure their inland flank. Once at Zillah, I'd push to Waddan, which would allow them to threaten the rear of Sirte or the loyalist south around Sabha.

UPDATE: The loyalists made a stand 35 miles outside of Sirte:

Libyan rebels were stopped in their tracks on Monday as forces loyal to Moamer Kadhafi launched a fierce attack on their convoy, halting their push forward to Sirte for a second time in the day.

The rebels came under heavy fire at the village of Harawa, some 60 kilometres (35 miles) short of Kadhafi's birthplace.

I'd guess this is more of an outpost than the loyalist main line of defense, since a village doesn't provide the cover that a larger city would from coalition air attack. But we shall see.

And notice how poorly trained the rebels are:

On Sunday, the rebels had seized Bin Jawad after retaking the key oil town of Ras Lanuf as they advanced with the support of coalition air strikes on Kadhafi's forces.

But on Monday they came under heavy machine-gun fire from regime loyalists in pick-up trucks on the road from Bin Jawad to Nofilia.

The insurgents pulled back into Bin Jawad and opened up with heavy artillery.

Pick-ups flying the green flag of Tripoli and mounted with heavy machine guns opened up on the rebels who replied with multiple rocket launchers and cannon fire.

A 10-minute incoming artillery barrage panicked the thousand or so rebels along the road outside Bin Jawad, sending them fleeing in disorder.

This is what I was talking about when I said I'd put loyalists on the flanks to attack, leave stay-behind units in towns on the coast that the rebels take, and hammer the rebels with artillery when they advance too far.

UPDATE: Loyalists appear to be making Sirte their main line of resistance:

Some residents were fleeing the city of 100,000, as soldiers from a brigade commanded by Gadhafi's son al-Saadi and allied militiamen streamed to positions on the city's outskirts to defend it, witnesses said. Sirte — where a significant air and military base is located — was hit by airstrikes Sunday night and Monday morning, witnesses said, but they did not know what was targeted.

And the loyalists mined the road leading to Sirte in a display of military competence. That will slow down the rebels.

This battle will be important. If the rebels win it, there is a chance this civil war could end sooner. If the loyalists win, the chances of this dragging on for months or even years goes up.