What is going on in Libya?

The chaotic goings on in Libya expose the weaknesses in modern journalism.  I am particularly disappointed in the BBC, whose radio news is one of my main sources.  The modern journalists job, it seems, is to relay the latest dramatic report, and pass on the odd rumour.  Analysis isn’t their job.  And the biggest crime of all is to report news that is out of date, no matter that it may be more accurate than earlier reports.  24 hour news coverage simply tries to substitute quantity for quality.  I can only stand it for short periods.  The BBC was particularly weak in reporting what happened at the western oil town of Brega yesterday.  This morning I found the best coverage in the Independent, though I have to say I didn’t do a thorough search.  There was a reasonable overview in the FT as well (behind the paywall…).  This matters because what is actually happening informs public policy decisions back here.

The situation appears to be quite chaotic.  The Gaddafi forces clearly have strong grip on Tripoli.  They have some reasonably well organised forces, with access to some heavier weapons, including some air power.  They have control on some other towns too, including Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi’s home town, which is on the coast roughly halfway between Tripoli and the second city, and main rebel stronghold, of Benghazi.  But we shouldn’t exaggerate their strength.  Air attacks seem to be occasional sorties by single aircraft.  In their attack on Brega they needed to use civilian cars.  Mostly they seem unable to dislodge determined resistance from even lightly-armed irregulars.  That is just as well, because the rebel forces lack organization and weapons.  The regular army seems to have dissolved, and probably wasn’t up to much in the first place.

The Gaddafi forces seem to be consolidating.  The main priority for them, apart from continuing to hold Tripoli, is to retake the towns to the west of Tripoli up to the Tunisian border.  This seems to be slow going.  The attack on Brega was interesting because it is in the west of the country, not all that far from Benghazi.  The rebels managed to get in reinforcements, and this seems to have held them.  They may make another attempt today.  Apparently they want to control the airfield, no doubt so that they can get reinforcements and supplies from Tripoli.

What this seems to boil down to is stalemate.  Gaddafi is militarily too strong to dislodge what he holds, but too weak to extend his control very far.  Never mind taking new ground, he probably hasn’t go enough loyal forces to hold much more than he already does.  Meanwhile the economy has collapsed and Gaddafi is politically isolated.  No doubt he has lots of weapons, fuel and ammunition in Tripoli – and cash to pay the mercenaries – but it is difficult to see how he can get reinforcements or replenishments. This means that things could get very ugly in Tripoli, as Gaddafi forces throw their weight around, commandeer food for themselves, and so on.  They will only be defeated when their morale collapses.

So what are we to do?  Military intervention would be very messy.  NATO forces have the competence, but would be very messy politically – getting them out would be difficult as they would be left with the baby in hand.   Arab or African forces would be less politically difficult, but I question their ability to avoid many civilian casualties.  A no-fly zone looks a non-starter; it would take a lot of resources to implement, while not making all that much practical difference.  Isolating Gaddafi will help, but what is needed is some way to break the spirit of his forces.  I don’t know if there is a way to offer his mercenaries or other loyal forces an easy exit – but this could reduce their will to fight.

But in the end, we in the west need to accept that we do not rule the world, and nor should we.  Events will have to take their own course; we can only limit the human suffering at the margins.

Update: 4 March 2011

As usual, some very good coverage in the Economist this week, as consensus settles on the situation being a military stalemate.  The Economist points out that the real significance of the Gaddafi airpower is the ability it gives them to transfer their forces from place to place, and to attack groups of fighters crossing the desert between the main towns.  I think they are exaggerating Gaddafi’s airpower somewhat.  Air forces (and especially combat aircraft) are notoriously difficult to keep in airworthy condition.  The regime may not have the capability to fly more than a few of their aircraft at a time, without external help.  His diplomatic isolation is critical here.