There's a trend emerging in the reporting on Libya these days: the combatants are increasingly war-weary and the diplomats increasingly assertive. We've learned that Muammar Qaddafi's regime is running low on cash, fuel, and morale, the oil-less rebels are broke, and NATO forces are nearly exhausted. In fact, the complexity of the emerging stalemate on the ground is visible to imaging satellites far above. A quick glance at Google Earth shows the simple strategic obstacle blocking the rebels from a decisive victory: advancing on Tripoli from their mountain strongholds would involve a long march through open terrain where they would be no match for Qaddafi's forces.
Back on earth there are signs Western governments are coming to the conclusion that the war in Libya will ultimately be resolved not on the battlefield but in diplomatic circles. This week, France admitted that the Libyan conflict can't be resolved "with force" and spoke of "emissaries" whispering about Qaddafi's imminent departure. At a Libya Contact Group meeting in Turkey on Friday, the U.S. and other nations officially recognized the rebels as Libya's legitimate government. As The Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders tweeted from the meeting in Turkey today, "I've spoken to several nations participating in today's Libya meeting in Ankara and few believe the rebels can win the war." To understand the international community's pivot to a political solution, we spoke to Bayless Parsley, a North Africa analyst at the global intelligence company STRATFOR, about where the rebels, Qaddafi's forces, and the NATO allies stood in this fourth month of the military campaign.
The most critical battle in the Libyan conflict is currently Qawalish, a western village that, if seized by opposition fighters, would allow them to descend from the largely rebel-controlled Nafusa Mountains and advance toward the town of Garyan, which offers access to the main highway leading north to the capital and potentially other key northern towns like Zawiya. But Parsley thinks such an advance is unlikely. Once the rebels come down from the mountains, he explains, they'll encounter flat territory and won't have the "armed transport capability" to battle Qaddafi's superior army. "The only way that they would ever be able to take the capital is if there was a complete implosion of the Qaddafi regime," he states. "The resistance that would be put up to an invasion of Tripoli would be unlike anything you've seen so far." Google Earth shows how the terrain levels out past Qawalish (roads are in yellow):
C.J. Chivers expresses a similar view in a New York Times dispatch today from Qawalish:
Expectations of a swift rebel advance out of the mountains toward Tripoli are unrealistic, barring a collapse from within of the Qaddafi forces blocking the way. The rebel military leadership has admitted this much, too. A force equipped as they are, they say, cannot expect to undertake an arduous open-desert march against a dug-in, conventional foe with armor, artillery, rockets, and more.
In the east, Al Jazeera reports, the rebels in Ajdabiya are planning their first major westward offensive in over two months, but so far they've been unable to seize the eastern oil town of Brega. "They have no ability to invade Tripoli from the east," Parsley says, noting that the terrain is also flat along the coast. "Air support will only take you so far." The path from Ajdabiya to Tripoli is in purple (the rebel stronghold of Benghazi is on the far right):
In the face of NATO airstrikes, Parsley explains, the Libyan army has ditched its tanks and armored personnel carriers (which were essentially giant targets for allied warplanes) in favor of civilian infrastructure and the machine gun-mounted pickup trucks used by the rebels. Indeed, the U.K. admitted yesterday that it's running out of military targets in Libya. "What are you going to do, keep bombing the sand?" Parsley asks.
To be sure, NATO hasn't abandoned its military campaign. Just today, France announced that the operation will continue through the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in August, and the U.K. pledged four more warplanes to the effort. But Parsley thinks Western diplomats are now sending out feelers to members of Qaddafi's inner circle and "preparing their respective populations for the negotiations that are going to have to take place at some point. It's always a gradual process. You can't just go from fighting a war against somebody one day to the next day saying let's sit down at the table." He thinks NATO's current strategy ("let's keep bombing them until" the regime collapses, as he puts it), is a weak one. The allies "would love to get lucky and kill Qaddafi," he says, but "it's hard to assassinate somebody from the air."
Time's Tony Karon broached the same topic yesterday, noting that the rebels cannot sustain the war without NATO air support and NATO's commitment to the campaign is reaching a breaking point. Expect a NATO-brokered deal involving "Qaddafi accepting some sort of 'Brother Leader Emeritus' title with no executive authority, while the rump of his regime--possibly (or probably, depending on who's talking) under the leadership of his son Saif al-Islam Qaddafi-- negotiates the terms of transition to a more democratic arrangement," Karon writes.