| ALGIERS, March 7
ALGIERS, March 7 The Libyan army is attempting
to drive out loose formations of rebels opposed to Muammar
Gaddafi that have seized towns along the country's Mediterranean
coast. Though facing a vastly superior armoury of tanks,
artillery and aircraft, the rebels are largely standing their
ground, controlling vast swathes of the east.
Following are some scenarios for how the conflict could
develop, and the clues that could indicate which one of them is
most likely to become a reality:
This is now looking like the most probable scenario, at
least for the time being. Stalemate would in effect produce a
divided country and raise complex questions for the outside
world in its trade and political relations with the oil
"Neither side in the Libyan conflict currently appears
strong enough to defeat the other in the short term," said think
tank IHS Global Insight. "This prospect of military stalemate
has raised the prospect of a protracted civil war."
What to watch:
-- The ground-based fighting so far has been in a stretch of
desert along the Mediterranean coast. The front line can move
back and forth in this area without giving either side a
significant military advantage, because there are no major
population centres or bases in the area. The stretch is
bookended by two important locations: Ajdabiyah in the east,
gateway to the rebels' eastern strongholds, and in the west
Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte. If the fighting stays between these
two locations, it amounts to stalemate.
-- Foot-dragging among major Western powers about military
intervention. Foreign military help could tip the balance in
favour of the rebels.
Many Libya-watchers see this as the most likely outcome in
the long-term, based on the calculation that Gaddafi's forces
have spilled too much blood in the last few weeks to retain
legitimacy. The question is, how quickly could such a victory
What to watch:
-- Can the rebels organise an effective military hierarchy?
So far, the forces have shown more zeal than military skill. The
rebels' National Libyan Council named Omar Hariri, one of the
officers who took part in Gaddafi's 1969 coup, as head of the
military. But it is not clear how much authority he would have.
Evidence on the ground that fighters are wearing standard
uniforms, have received training, are operating as units, and
have radios to pass orders down the chain of command, would be
the clearest signs that they are getting organised.
-- Will the rebels in Misrata hold out? This city is the
biggest population centre still defying Gaddafi's control
outside the eastern regions. Troops from the 32nd Brigade,
commanded by Gaddafi's son Khamis and reputed to be the best
forces in Libya, have so far failed to capture it. This is
telling about the quality of Gaddafi's forces. If they cannot
take an isolated city defended by armed civilians, they must
have serious shortcomings.
-- Outside military intervention. If Western powers remain
wary of intervening openly, then more discreet assistance --
sending in weapons or military advisers -- could also tip the
scales towards the rebels.
-- Can the rebels take Sirte? If they can, they will score
the psychological victory of seizing Gaddafi's hometown, and
also control a major air base. "(Sirte) controls the coast
approach to Tripoli from the east and to the key nearby cities
of Misrata and Zawiyah, which are the doorway to the Tripoli
region," said Saad Djebbar, an Algerian lawyer and expert on
GADDAFI DEFEATS THE REBELS
This is the least likely scenario, mainly because the rebels
control a huge chunk of territory and seem very well entrenched
there. "Gaddafi has lost the east," said Djebbar, who advised
Tripoli when two Libyans were tried for the 1988 Lockerbie
bombing. But Gaddafi is a proven survivor who has held on to
power for more than four decades, so it is impossible to count
him out. He has around him a coterie of political and military
supporters who have much to lose if the regime collapses.
The conflict could conceivably be decided in Tripoli, rather
than the small towns on the coast, if senior military commanders
or Gaddafi supporters decided the conflict could not be won.
What to watch:
-- The eastern rebellion collapses under the weight of its
own internal divisions and military weakness. This may be the
only real opportunity for Gaddafi to make a comeback. "In the
east, the opposition are holding but they need to be careful
that they don't collapse completely," said David Hartwell,
Middle East analyst with IHS Global Insight.
-- Could the rebels hold together and hold the country
together? All opposition in Libya has been stifled over forty
years of Gaddafi rule and there are no organised civic groups to
provide a ready basis for government. One of Muammar Gaddafi's
sons, Saadi, said Libya would descend into civil war if his
father stepped down. He said Libya would turn into a new Somalia
and that the country's tribes would fight against each other.
The focus of events could switch from the smaller towns of
the Mediterranean coast
More on Middle East unrest: [nTOPMEAST] [nLDE71O2CH]
(Additional reporting by William Maclean and Peter Apps in
London; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Ralph Boulton)