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Monday 24 October 2011

Gaddafi: How a Despot's War Was Lost

Gaddafi: How a Despot's War Was Lost
By: Basheer al-Baker
Published Friday, October 21, 2011

Slain Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi managed to hold on to power for decades and fought hard to outmanoeuvre the rebels and NATO forces. But his decision to hide in his hometown was the strategic blunder that may have spelt his bloody end.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's whereabouts had been a mystery since the fall of Tripoli on August 23. There were conflicting accounts of where he had fled after Transitional National Council (TNC) troops overran his headquarters at the Bab al-Azizia compound. Some claimed he had gone to Sebha in the desert; others speculated he had crossed into a neighboring African state to regroup his forces; and there was talk of him seeking the protection of Tuareg tribes on the Algerian border. It was considered highly improbable that he would have taken refuge in the exposed and embattled seaside city of Sirte.

But developments over the past two months, and the ferocity of the battles on the Sirte and Bani-Walid fronts, made it seem increasingly likely that Gaddafi was indeed holed up in his hometown. He himself had indicated that he was based close to the battlefronts. In his taped messages broadcast on the Damascus-based Al-Rai TV channel, he repeatedly vowed to remain in Libya, fight to the last breath, and never surrender.

Gaddafi appears to have taken the decision to fight to the end from the moment NATO forces intervened on the side of NTC forces in March. Sources close to his former entourage say that right until the fall of Tripoli, the colonel operated on the assumption that his forces could not be defeated on the ground. They were superior to the rebel forces, and were employing tactics that made NATO air power relatively ineffective in military terms. But NATO responded by moving its operations into an offensive position, enabling the rebels to take Tripoli.

Gaddafi managed to hold out for six months in Tripoli. It had seemed in the early days after the outbreak of the uprising in Benghazi on February 17 that the rebellion would quickly spread to the capital. From Gaddafi's confused responses, it appears that this nearly happened during the first two weeks. As the popular revolt intensified and spread elsewhere in the country, various parties offered to mediate agreements aimed at sparing Gaddafi the fate of ending up besieged in Tripoli. Negotiations were held on providing him with a safe exit. But the self-styled `son of the desert' opted to fight back. He quickly retook the initiative after absorbing the initial shock, and launched a military counter-offensive throughout the rest of Libya. By the time NATO stepped in at the end of March, his forces were advancing toward Benghazi, birthplace and headquarters of the revolution.

Gaddafi turned near-defeat into near-victory, employing a variety of tactics honed from decades of experience handling internal power-struggles and external conflicts. His aim was to strip the uprising of its popular nature, and turn it into a conflict between rival factions of the regime, or a mutiny by former officials. The leaders of the revolt, after all, had been among some of his closest aides. He employed a variety of strategies to achieve this.

He first sought to divide his opponents. Gaddafi did his utmost to stir up regional and tribal sensitivities and play up fears that the country could split into east and west. He succeeded to some extent in this, creating a major schism that neutralized a significant portion of the tribes and prompted some to rally to his support. But he failed to make any real inroads in the east of the country.

Gaddafi meanwhile set out to portray himself as the sole guarantor of Libya's stability, to both domestic and foreign audiences, and his enemies as the harbingers of chaos. He consistently depicted the rebels as Islamists of various kinds, and the uprising as having been orchestrated by al-Qaeda. This aroused real fears among the public in Libya, and among Arab and International players, that the alternative to Gaddafi would be a Libya ruled by extreme Islamic groups.

Thirdly, Gaddafi focused on remaining the central player in Libya with final say over the country's future, no matter how much power on the ground or NATO support his opponents gained. He enlisted the efforts of mediators from around the world � from Turkey, Russia, African and Arab countries, and France � in the service of this goal. Thus as he held out and made advances on the battlefield, envoys in Tripoli, Djerba, Tunis, Paris, and various African capitals were swapping proposals for a deal with the rebels. For the three months preceding the fall of Tripoli, discussions on a possible settlement hinged on questions of whether it would involve Gaddafi or not; whether he would remain in Libya without holding power or leave for good; and whether his sons would retain a role or all his family members be excluded in a new government.

The fourth element of the colonel's survival strategy was to bring the temple down on the heads of his enemies. Gaddafi meant it when he vowed to fight the rebellion "inch by inch, house by house, alley by alley." UN officials have attested to the massive scale of destruction wrought on Libyan towns and infrastructure. His forces' attacks on rebel-held areas were relentless, as though implicitly threatening to turn the country into a pile of rubble.

Gaddafi sought to heighten the extent of alarm about the amount of destruction that the conflict was causing. He thought that this would work to his advantage, especially if the prospect loomed of large-scale destruction of oil installations. But the NATO powers observing this suicidal behavior had different considerations. As they pressed for an escalation of the war, hundreds of US, European, Russian, Turkish, and Gulf companies readied themselves to bid for reconstruction contracts. In this climate, there was widespread talk of deals between the TNC and some Western countries promising Libyan oil in exchange for help in toppling Gaddafi.

The fall of the capital changed the course of the confrontation and left Gaddafi with two options. He could escape with some close supporters to a desert hideout and lay low for a few months to rebuild his following and buy tribal support. He would then have had to wage guerrilla warfare via pockets of his supporters elsewhere � such as the armed groups which emerged a few days ago in the Bani Slim district of Tripoli.

Alternatively, Gaddafi had the option of retreating to his birthplace and make it his redoubt, while awaiting relief from various Saharan tribes. While he chose the latter option, it became clear in the last few days of fighting for Sirte that Gaddafi only had a small number of fighters left beside him. It also transpired that the road he could have taken to flee to the desert was clear. Indeed, the head of the Tripoli Military Council, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, said on Thursday that Gaddafi had been planning to head for the NTC-controlled town of Misrata. Gaddafi could have fled, but instead chose a suicidal option.

Despite the different circumstances, post-Gaddafi Libya is already being likened by some to post-Saddam Iraq in this respect. They say that Libyans won't be able to make all their own decisions, but will find themselves bound by heavy shackles from foreign mediators.

Western experts have meanwhile taken to stressing that security will remain a major Western concern in Libya. And although NATO insisted at the start of its operation that it would be a short-term affair, there is no sign a disengagement from Libya following the despot's death. Indeed, there were reportedly discussions about NATO using Libya as a base for operations throughout Africa, and particularly in the `war on terror' in northwest Africa. Gaddafi himself set the precedent for that. In recent years, following his renunciation of his supposed nuclear program, Gaddafi became an active participant in the Western campaign against `terror,' while turning Libya into a preventive barrier against African migration to Europe.

Gaddafi may be the third Arab leader swept away by the tide of Arab revolution, but his exit differs in crucial respects from those of Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Gaddafi's downfall was bloody and ended in murder; it was brought about by Western intervention, with local, Arab, and international cover, as well as UN approval. The Libyan uprising led to enormous human casualties and physical destruction. The consequences in Libya will weigh heavily on the rest of the Arab world � especially in Syria and Yemen, where popular revolts are becoming increasingly violent, and where the appetite of foreign powers to intervene is not whetted by local calls for international protection.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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