Qaddafi forces have Libya's rag-tag rebel army on the run.
Following two days in which Libya’s rebels were caught up in their own momentum and seized several critical oil towns, Qaddafi forces have counter-punched so hard the rebels are now on the run. The situation underscores the superior tactics, training, and military hardware possessed by Qaddafi's forces and the rebels' vulnerability without air support from Allied forces. Allied enforcement of the UN-sanctioned no-fly zone had been tipping the scales in the rebels' favor, but the allied jets have not been assisting the rebel forces in this particular battle.
It took more than five days of allied bombardment to destroy Qaddafi's tanks and artillery in the strategic town of Ajdabiyah before rebels rapidly advanced, chasing dictator Muamar Qaddafi's troops 300 kilometers west along the coast in a mad dash. But two days later the rebels have been pushed back to their where they started from.
Qaddafi's troops first ambushed the the haphazardly advancing column of rebel fighters, supporters and bystanders outside Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte. Then, having broken their forward momentum, outflanked them by moving through the desert, a maneuver requiring a level of discipline the rebels lack. The towns of Nawfaliyah, Bin Jawad and Ras Lanuf were quickly retaken in the rapid counter-offensive.
For a time Tuesday allied warplanes flew over the battle zone, but no air strikes in support of the rebels were forthcoming.
Map Source: Wikimedia Commons
Colonel Ahmed Bani, a spokesman for the rebels, said there was fighting at Brega, the next town east on the coastal strip that has been the theater for most of the fighting. But most rebels had pulled back even further to the strategic town of Ajdabiyah in order to regroup.
“We thought it better to make a tactical withdrawal until we can develop a better strategy for facing this force,” Bani said. “One of the defense points will be Ajdabiyah, not the only one.”
Bani also appealed for more allied air strikes and heavier weapons. “We want weapons that will be able to destroy the heavy weapons they are using against us such, as tanks and artillery.”
Dozens of rebel pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns milled around the western gate of Ajdabiyah, where confusion reigns.
“We don’t know," one rebel told reporters when asked what was happening. "They say there may be a group of Qaddafi’s men coming from the south.”
That would suggest another major flanking move through Libya's seemingly endless desert, which pins the coast road to the sea.
Cars carrying families and their belongings streamed out of Ajdabiyah towards the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Libya’s state news agency said thousands of Libyans carrying olive branches had joined a peace march towards Benghazi.
Qaddafi forces have fiercely bombarded town after town with tanks, artillery and truck-launched Grad rockets, which have usually forced rebels to swiftly flee. Lacking training, discipline, and leadership the many groups of volunteers have difficulty coordinating and decisions are often made after heated arguments. Their advances have been made without proper reconnaissance or flank protection. Courage and enthusiasm have not been sufficient - the rebel forces tend to flee in disarray when receiving sustained fire. Without air strikes from allied forces it seems rebel forces won't hold out.
“These are our weapons,” one rebel fighter told reporters pointing at his assault rifle while beating a retreat from the front. “We can’t fight Grads with them."
“Whether we advance 50km or retreat 50km... its a big country," rebel spokesman Mustafa Gheriani told reporters in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi. "They take it back the next day,”
“This revolution really is only five weeks old," he continued. "On the political front it is very organized. Normally it takes six months to train a soldier... we are talking about citizens who picked up guns to protect their homes.”
A conference of 40 governments and international bodies agreed Tuesday to press NATO for continued aerial bombardment of Libyan forces until Qaddafi complies with a UN resolution to end violence against civilians.
The Pentagon said Tuesday 115 sorties had been conducted on Qaddafi forces in the previous 24 hours, and 22 Tomahawk cruise missiles had been fired. Britain said two of its Tornado jets had attacked a government armored vehicle and two artillery pieces outside the besieged western city of Misrata. But allied leaders remain adamant they have no intention of putting boots on the ground to aid rebels despite the well known principle that air power alone is not sufficient to win a war.
UN Security Council Resolution 1973 sanctions air power to protect Libyan civilians from Qaddafi's forces, not to provide close air support to the rebels, which would require special forces troops on the ground to guide bombs to their targets. Without forward air controllers, intervening from the air in such a fluid battle zone is fraught with risks. Nor does the current regime of air-strikes appear sufficient to unseat Qaddafi and keep Libya's civil war from grinding into a bloody stalemate.