Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Rebels Reach Tripoli & Encounter a Mongol Retreat

The Libyan drama reached new heights on Sunday night when rebels poured into the capital city, Tripoli, where Muammar Gaddafi and his close supporters have held out since the beginning of the conflict. It almost seemed as though the rebels had entered a vacuum, as pro-Gaddafi troops and supporters retreated into the neighbourhoods and districts of Tripoli where they could dig in and maintain their resistance to the sweeping changes that have gripped the country since early this year. 

For six months since the revolt in Benghazi, battles have raged across the landscape in a back and forth series of retreat and attack performed by both pro-Gaddafi troops and the rebels alike. The attack on Tripoli, which came from all sides, including the sea, took pro-Gaddafi supporters by surprise - but it stands to reason that pro-Gaddafi forces would have anticipated an attack on Tripoli commencing at some stage, and would have made plans to receive such an attack.

At first, this retreat, absorb and attack strategy seemed to be the core strategy of the pro-Gaddafi camp. Like many militaries, using the mongol retreat strategy makes sense in two ways. Firstly, it damages the psychology of over-eager combatants who confuse the retreat with surrender and are taken by surprise when the mongols would, after days of retreating, turn around and attack. Secondly, where the enemy is severely resource limited, they expend a lot of resources in the chase and extending the series of attacks and retreats is guaranteed to wear down their available resources. This strategy made sense at the outset, when weapons and fuel shortages amongst the rebels was in question, and their untrained, young, rag-tag groups showed a great deal of inexperience in the field.

Yet over the past six months, the rebels have been financed, trained, equipped and supported by NATO-led forces in their campaign to reach Tripoli. They have advanced, retreated and re-advanced upon the cities that line the route to Tripoli, and have finally reached the city. Yet the absence of any resistance as they entered the city may be a consequence of two factors - firstly that they took the city by surprise, and secondly that pro-Gaddafi forces inside Tripoli may well have gambled upon a back-up plan that would meet the inevitable rebel advance into the city with a plan to absorb them into the city, frustrate them through urban warfare on unfamiliar territory and eventually surprise them somehow through a hidden attack. Gaddafi's son Khamis, who commands feared ultra-loyal Gaddafi troops, may be the one upon whom these hopes are resting. 

After claims that two of Gaddafi's sons had been captured on Sunday, it now seems that Saif El Islam was not captured in the first place, and Gaddafi's other supposedly captured son - Mahomed - has 'escaped'. Saif El Islam made a showing to the press, who are located in the Rixos hotel (a hotel that is very near the Gaddafi compound), surrounded by small groups of supporters who cheered him on, giving the impression that he was freely operating within the city. However, it is clear, that his freedom is now restricted to the areas in which his family still enjoys support, and it would have been relatively easy for him to make an appearance at the Rixos hotel in which the press is located. Indeed, it is convenient that the international press were located so close to the Gaddafi compound, as it complicates efforts to attack the compound without restraint. A misfire here or there could result in the deaths of journalists, which would draw international condemnation for whoever misfires in their direction. Moreover, even after the Libyan state television station has been captured by rebels, Gaddafi's son's can still enjoy access to the international press, and spread misinformation and create confusion over the unfolding saga to their ultimate advantage. They have the dual benefit of a human shield, and access to the international press.

It seems unlikely, however, that the pro-Gaddafi strategy is to win against the rebels. Instead, it seems that their strategy is to drag out the conflict for as long as possible, so that it becomes either unbearable or slows into a stalemate. Already, pro-Gaddafi fighters have been reported to be using heavy artillery againt the rebels. Their objective is not a 'victory for the people' as their rhetoric espouses. Rather, their goal is totalitarianism at all costs. It does not matter whether Libya splits into two, or into myriad tribal factions, their goal is to hold their ground because they have nowhere else to go.

There is also the mythology of Gaddafi to draw on, that is; as the mythological defeator of the West, and unifier of Africa - an anti-crusader who has the mettle to take on the hegemonic rulers of the world who have trampled upon the rights of the poor and ex-colonised. The symbolism of Gaddafi is not just an act - it is clear that it is a deluded reality for Gaddafi himself, in addition to his sons and supporters. This in itself is nothing new. There are many leaders in history who have made grotesque decisions because they have a sense that they are 'annointed' by God and the people for a special purpose, including George Bush, who went to war on Iraq with fabricated or unreliable evidence to end the rule of another one of the annointed, Saddam Hussein. At the heart of these mythologies lies the lack of the ability to be accountable for one's actions. This is not unique to Gaddafi or his sons alone, no matter how much their actions and views may be despised and it is true that this mythology prevails today even amongst those who would not voice their support for Gaddafi.

Obfuscation, and not military might, is behind the real strategy of the pro-Gaddafi supporters that are still remaining. The less we are able to tell exactly what is going on in Libya (and Tripoli in particular) the more room there is to contest the victories that are proclaimed by the rebels. The press are unable to make clear judgements on what is transpiring, and amongst the confusion, it is easy for the pro-Gaddafi camp to claim that the nature of the conflict can be boiled down to their word against others. Indeed, Gaddafi and his cronies have laid down the template for other dictators worldwide who may be facing popular resistance, and they have taken heed. The Syrian regime has been allowed to sustain a low-level war against 'rebel' neighbourhoods and towns, and have employed the very same rhetoric as the pro-Gaddafi supporters have. What is emerging, is a handbook for the remaining dictator regimes on the planet - how to use the press and multi-media to maintain confusion and mixed messages long enough to survive popular uprisings. In this sense, the battle for Libya is not just about Libya alone (even though it should be). It has global implications, and the aged dictators of the world are paying close attention. The mongol retreat seems to have consistently been the key strategy of the pro-Gaddafi forces, and they haven't abandoned the hope that their suicidal strategy will ultimately yield a victory. They are hoping that making enough smoke might just convince their opponents and the world that they have enough firepower to see this through to a victorious end.

In the end, it is difficult to concieve of a scenario where the rebel, pro-democracy forces give up and go home. It would mean that the state apparatus would be unleashed on them and their families in retribution for their disobedience. Many would die, and many would have to flee. This is indeed an endgame, and while it may drag on for some time - in the same way the whole conflict has - it is an  endgame for both sides. There has to be a winner and a loser, and if Gaddafi wins the message that will go out to the Arab Spring and the rest of the world is that 'might is right', and that ultimately we live in a world where power cannot be challenged or overcome on humanitarian grounds. That, is what the ultimate message will be if the rebels fail to win. The consequences of this will be the same kind of resistance we have seen emerge amongst the palestinians - where suicidal guerilla attacks becomes the avenue for asserting the power of the powerless and the conflict enters into an infinite well of deceit and misrepresentation out of which there is no way out.

Gaddafi forces have been defeated throughout the country, and his regime has suffered mass defections amongst the leadership and his armed forces over the past six months. It is highly unlikely that the 'rebels' would simply give up and allow themselves and their families to be slaughtered for their efforts in turn. For all the talk of NATO support, the reality is that the rebels have endured high losses in human lives and have fought the ground war they asked for with great difficulty. They are not professional soldiers, and have had to learn how to do battle with far superior forces within a timespan of six months. Their growth in numbers has only increased as the battles have intensified, and despite their heavy losses they seem united in one goal - to get rid of the Gaddafi regime - even though there may not be much clarity on what comes afterwards. Every bit of energy seems to be going into winning victory first - perhaps this is understandible, as if any semblance of the regime remains in place there will be no real democracy to speak of in Libya.