Tuesday, April 26, 2011

All Quiet on the Ajdabiya Front

As Libyan loyalist forces try to capture Misrata (or at least the port to cut off the rest of the city) and attack Berber border towns along the Tunisian border to lock them down, the loyalists seem to be digging in at Buraqyqah (Brega) with the rebels just east of the town, screening Ajdabiyah:

Around Brega, the Libyan army reinforced its positions and dug in its long-range missile batteries to conceal them from attacks by NATO planes, a rebel army officer said on Tuesday.

Comments by rebel officer Abdul Salam Mohammed suggested Gaddafi now had clear control of the fought-over town.

"There are 3,000 government troops in Brega and the next two towns. They have been building up their presence," he told Reuters on the western edge of the town of Ajdabiyah.

"We are controlling the area from here to al-Arbeen (halfway to Brega) but they still have snipers in the area, hiding in the desert behind the sand dunes, and they are active," he added.

Capturing Misrata and securing the border with Tunisia are more important than trying to capture Ajdabiyah to threaten the rebel heartland. So unless Khaddafi has more ground power than I think he has, I expect the loyalists to hunker down and bloody the nose of any rebel advance west on Burayqah.

If I was in charge of the loyalists, after capturing Misrata I'd devote forces to attacking and capturing the rebel oil assets in the southeast of Libya, which is outside the no-fly zone and outside of effective surveillance by NATO.

UPDATE: Austin Bay outlines the defensive nature of Khaddafi's forces lately, as they endure NATO air strikes and try to nail down the western side of Libya:

Stalemate? Possibly, but go back to the map -- Gadhafi faces war on four fronts. To the east, the Cyrenaica front. To the south, the Berbers. Misrata, though surrounded, hasn't cracked. The western front (Zuwara) may be quiet, but the area requires a garrison that Gadhafi might otherwise use elsewhere.

The dictator also faces a fifth front -- what might be called a 21st century fifth column, to use the Spanish Civil War term. The London Times quoted British Defense Secretary Liam Fox as saying: "All parts of command and control are legitimate targets so long as they are attacking civilians." On April 25, an air attack hit Gadhafi's headquarters. The coalition targeted a building, but in a dictatorship, the tyrant exercises supreme control.

The coalition will soon be operating Predators. The drones represent a tiny increase in strike and reconnaissance capability. As political and psychological warfare, however, they add punch.

Last week, Gadhafi was tooling around Tripoli in a convertible and shaking his fist. Now he must cast a wary eye to the sky.
Although the eastern rebels don't seem able to pose a threat to Khaddafi's regime, Khaddafi does not have the western portion of Libya locked down. Misrata is the obvious hole in his territory. But there are other areas that are in revolt or that require scarce manpower to hold lest they openly revolt.

The question is, does this unrest within his own bastion constitute enough of a threat to crack the resolve of the loyalists around Khaddafi? I've long held that air attacks alone don't defeat an enemy. But while NATO is only attacking from the air, there are rebel ground forces (armed civilians) resisting Khaddafi at the same time. The air attacks by NATO alone can be endured, I think, for longer than NATO can muster the will to bomb and endure the cost of the campaign.

But while NATO's will to bomb lasts, rebels surely take heart and resist. And as long as the rebels in the west resist, there is a chance that the loyalists will crack and either bring down the Khaddafi regime directly or desert to save themselves under the constant fear of losing.