Monday, August 15, 2011

The Big Switch?

So the western rebels look like they might actually do enough harm to Khaddafi's loyalists that they could win the war:

Muammar Gaddafi urged Libyans on Monday to free the country from "NATO and traitors," as rebels in the west began to strangle a major lifeline to his capital.

Despite denials, men from Gaddafi's government were reported to be holding secret talks with rebels at a hotel in Tunisia, on a possible resolution of the 6-month-old civil war.

A dramatic advance on Saturday, witnessed by Reuters, won the rebels control of the town of Zawiyah, 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli on the coast, enabling them to halt food and fuel supplies from Tunisia to Gaddafi's stronghold in the capital.

The western rebels, just as divided as the eastern rebels, are actually fighting Khaddafi instead of preparing for the post-war by writing plans and husbanding resources for a post-Khaddafi fight amongst themselves.

And something is up:

Russia and China teamed up this week against the NATO military campaign against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. The north African nation has faced on-again, off-again arial attacks against strategic military positions since the UN Security Council issued a no fly zone resolution on March 17. The resolution was a response to Gaddafi's attacks against civilian anti-government protesters.

In a joint declaration signed in the Kremlin, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao emphasized once more the need for political solutions to the Libya crisis[.]

Even as the western rebels make real gains, the Russians and Chinese are trying to save Khaddafi.

Is this part of that effort or a sign that the western rebels are hammering cracks in the loyalist defenses?

Egyptian airport officials say the Libyan interior minister has arrived in Cairo with family members.

Nobody is talking about what this is about.

Meanwhile, the world's mightiest military alliance continues to annoy the Libyan loyalists:

NATO planes involved in operation Unified Protector in Libya have made 110 sorties over the last twenty-four hours, destroying two tanks, one anti-aircraft gun and several military vehicles of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, the NATO press office said on Sunday.

Wow. At this rate, in only a matter of decades Khaddafi might run out of military vehicles.

So the situation is that Khaddafi doesn't want to leave Libya; the Russians and Chinese don't want NATO to defeat Khaddafi; the western rebels are clawing away at Khaddafi's forces; the eastern rebels who are in league the most with NATO seem incapable of doing more than planning for the post-war without actually defeating the loyalists; and NATO's aerial intervention stopped being decisive the day that Khaddafi's forces retreated from their lunge at Benghazi in the middle of March.

Indulge me while I speculate on this. This is pure speculation nurtured by a wargamer's naturally devious nature.

What if Khaddafi knows he can't beat the western rebels as things stand? What if the eastern rebels know that there is not a chance in heck of them getting a real seat at the post-war table if the western rebels win on the battlefield?

With Russian help to keep NATO from winning, keeping a grateful Khaddafi in power, and getting the gratitude of the eastern rebels for actually keeping them from becoming irrelevant, might not the Russians and Chinese engineer a switch where the Khaddafi loyalists cut a deal with the eastern rebels? This deal would bring the eastern rebels into the government at the price of both of them turning on the western rebels, who are tribal elements that all good coastal Libyans can look down on, after all.

And NATO, with their main ally switching sides, would be in no position to rally to the western rebels. And even if there was the political will to begin a whole new war, NATO air power probably couldn't do that much to stop a loyalist-eastern alliance against the western tribal rebels.

Like I said, this is sheer speculation. If this was a game being played around a table with some beer and chips at hand, I'd totally expect it. How it plays out in the real world is another question altogether.

But that light at the end of the tunnel that I thought I saw yesterday might not be a Khaddafi defeat after all.

UPDATE: Doh! Just after hitting publish post, I noticed something important. The article about Russia and China is from June 17th. Why it popped up as if a new item I don't know. Not that China and Russia don't have the motives I suggest. But there isn't anything new going on to suggest a big switch is as likely as it would be around a game table. I still wouldn't be surprised if that happens since the underlying logic is still good, but there is apparently no new joint Russian-Chinese effort to engineer a ceasfire.

UPDATE: The loyalists have counter-attacked and appear to have driven the rebels from the city center of Zawiyah. Khaddafi still has life in him but every time he manages to take a step forward the western rebels return the favor with two steps closer to Tripoli.

I've long thought that NATO's will to fight would crack before Khaddafi's will does, even though I recognized that Khaddafi was slowly losing on the battlefield. I could be wrong. Khaddafi is losing at a faster rate these days and could exceed NATO's rate of second thoughts on the wisdom of the war.

And there still are Russia and China in the wings who'd love to deny NATO a victory in someone else's internal affairs no matter how awful the human rights situation is. Bad precedent, from their point of view.

UPDATE: Rebels claim to have captured Garyan, south of Tripoli. The western rebels appear to be on a roll. Unless Khaddafi has Russia and China working to rescue him, Khaddafi may soon need to use any chemical weapons that rumor early in the uprising said he had stowed away. Khaddafi simply can't afford to let the rebels box him in in the immediate Tripoli region with no access to outside supplies.

UPDATE: Strategypage says that although loyalists counter-attacked to retake the center of Zawiyah, the rebels are in a position to make the city unusable as a supply line. Also, the loyalists' morale is toast right now. The western rebels have become the army that the eastern rebels were supposed to become under NATO's umbrella. The eastern rebels were only useful to keep enough of Khaddafi's forces busy while the western rebels gained traction.

Libya's loyalist collapse timetable now appears to be on a faster track than the NATO will-to-fight collapse timetable. Unless something else happens, it looks like Khaddafi will go down. Something else would include, at the top, Russian and Chinese diplomatic intervention to save Khaddafi.

Or Khaddafi has to do something to--if not to reverse rebels gains--restore loyalist morale so that they can endure longer despite retreats. His forces launched a Scud short-range ballistic missile at Burayqah (Brega) but missed. That won't cut it, but that's the idea. They need something new to inspire his own side. I think Mustard gas is the only weapon that could fit the bill. It won't cause a lot of casualties, but it will be a tremendous fear weapon against poorly trained rebels. If Khaddafi has any at all, it is time to use it if he hopes to survive in power.

Or something has to happen within NATO to get NATO to again be on a path to collapse at a faster rate than the loyalists crumbling. Mass looting in Britain didn't do the trick. I'm thinking that only a major economic crisis led by a default of Italy, Spain, or Greece would work at this point.

Or there could be the big switch. What if Khaddafi reaches out to the eastern rebels as I speculated? Would the eastern rebels worry enough about being shut out of power if the western rebels march into Tripoli to agree to a coalition government with Khaddafi to free Khaddafi's forces to turn on the western rebels?

The western rebels have been the biggest surprise to me. I haven't been shocked that the eastern rebels weren't up to the task. I wondered who would be the army that NATO would count on to exploit the blockade and air campaign. Right now, the western rebels are that army and they've done it without much help from NATO.