Sunday, March 27, 2011

Rommel Was Here

Rebels have pushed west of Ajdabiya against light loyalist opposition, to capture Burayqah (Brega) and al Uqayla:

Libyan rebels took back a key oil town and pushed westward Sunday toward the capital, seizing momentum from the international airstrikes that tipped the balance away from Moammar Gadhafi's military.

Brega, a main oil export terminal in eastern Libya, fell after a skirmish late Saturday and rebel forces moved swiftly west, seizing the tiny desert town of Al-Egila — a collection of houses and a gas station — on their way to the massive oil refining complex of Ras Lanouf.

"There was no resistance. Gadhafi's forces just melted away," said Suleiman Ibrahim, a 31-year-old volunteer, sitting in the back of a pickup truck.

The latter location will be known to World War II buffs as El Agheila, the location from which Rommel launched two offensives to the east to reach to the Libya-Egypt border region (or beyond).

The rebels are now heading for Ras Lanouf, they say, on the way to Tripoli.

Perhaps. I mention the World War II connection only because the North African campaign swung back and forth between Uqaylah and the Egypt border region several times as the Italians invaded Egypt; the British Western Desert Forces swept through Libya to the waist of Libya; the Germans led an offensive back to the border region and siege of Tobruk; the British attacked back to the waist; the Germans led an attack into Egypt; and then the British led the final offensive all the way through Libya and into Tunisia to link up with the Allied forces landing in Morocco and Algeria advancing into Tunisia.

Unless the rebels get outside ground help to drive on Tripoli, my guess is that the civil war could be a long one as rebels and loyalists swing back and forth between the decent size cities Sirte in the west (loyal to Khaddafi) and Ajdabiya in the east (favoring the rebels). There isn't much to base a defense line between these points and any forces out there could be bombarded by air or artillery and would likely retreat rather than sit and take it. In the end point cities, there is hope of refuge from bombardment, local support, and supplies.

Or, we (and the rebels) could get lucky, as I've often noted. I hate to cop out like that, but a magic bullet from someone close (or missile from someone at high altitude) finding Khaddafi could end this if nobody has the stature to take command. Or the loyalists could crack before the coalition bombing them can crack. If I was a betting man, however, I'd guess that the front could swing back and forth along the coast, with more efforts over time being devoted by each side to deny the other oil export resources needed to wage a long war with either air raids or ground raids aimed at the other's oil facilities.

If that happens, it will be hard not to call Libya a civil war. And then all those people here who insisted Iraq was in a civil war in 2006 and 2007, which was a mistake for America to fight in, will have even more exlaining to do.

Oh, and here's a good interactive map of the war to date from the New York Times.

UPDATE: Apparently, the rebels have occupied Ras Lanouf. There has been little resistance since Ajdabiya fell to the rebels, as I expected.

Were I the loyalists, I'd fight a delaying action along the road to Sirte, leave stay-behind teams between Sirte and Ajdabiyah, and then hit the rebels hard with artillery when they approach Sirte. Send the rebels running east again and have small loyalist units emerge from hiding spots in the coastal towns or inland (if they can avoid prying coalition aerial eyes) to hammer the retreating rebels in ambushes or blocking positions.

Right now the loyalists want to buy time until the will of the coalition to continue intervention at the current pace wanes.

UPDATE: Reporters say that rebels (50-100?) have pushed to Bin Jawad, just west of Sidrah.

UPDATE: As I said, what I'd do if I was the loyalist CINC. The open arrow is the latest reports of where the rebel spearheads are:

As the rebels move further west (the solid arrow), I'd make a stand at Sirte while attacking Misrata. I'd leave small forces on the flanks of the tiny rebel spearheads as well as small units hidden along the coast road.

With a heavy barrage of artillery fire, the rebels will likely pull back to the next town. I'd spring ambushes along that retreat route and pursue with small mobile units moving in civilian vehicles to recapture towns and prepare for another fighting withdrawal back to Sirte. The goal is to buy time. The coalition says they could be at this no-fly-plus zone for months. Khaddafi has to make sure the fight lasts longer than that.

UPDATE: Here we go:

International air raids targeted Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte for the first time Sunday night as rebels quickly closed in on the regime stronghold, a formidable obstacle that must be overcome for government opponents to reach the capital Tripoli.

If the loyalists can't hold here, I don't know if their morale can hold together with further retreats west. Especially since the loyalists still haven't taken Misrata. The rebels haven't reached positions to attack the city, yet. And honestly, unless the air attacks completely cripple the defenders, I don't know if the rebels can take the city--as in attack against determined defenders and drive the defenders back. So far, the rebels seem to be able to advance into vacuums created by coalition air power. We'll see if our air power can pave the way for a similar advance or if the rebels get sufficiently organized to actually attack.