Libyan military forces loyal to leader Moammar Gadhafi issued an ultimatum to rebel forces in the eastern city of Benghazi, ordering them to abandon strongholds and weapons storage areas by midnight local time March 17. Though details coming out of the country remain scarce and there is no indication yet of enforcement of this ultimatum, it appears Gadhafi's forces have simultaneously retaken rebel-held western cities while striking eastward over the past week. As the rebels appear to falter, the question arises of whether they were ever able to mount a meaningful military resistance to begin with.
Libyan military forces loyal to leader Moammar Gadhdafi reportedly gave opposition forces in the eastern rebel capital of Benghazi until midnight local time March 17 to abandon rebel strongholds and weapons storage areas, Libyan state-run television reported. Though unconfirmed reports have indicated that Benghazi remains quiet as of 2 a.m. local time, and it is currently unclear if Gadhafi's forces even have the capability to enforce their ultimatum — either through a ground assault or artillery strike — at this point, loyalist forces do appear to have made progress advancing eastward on the opposition. Throughout the conflict, rebel forces never took much territory by conquest, only coming to power as Gadhafi's eastern forces disintegrated, took a neutral stance or defected. It was never entirely clear how many of those forces were really with the rebels, much less willing to fight and die with them. The emergent question in recent days is whether meaningful military resistance ever actually took shape in the east. (click here to enlarge image) Initial skirmishes between small forces loyal to Gadhafi and rebels appeared indecisive, and a stalemate looked likely, but the tide began to turn in the past week. Gadhafi's forces showed signs of consolidating control of disputed western cities such as Zawiya and Misurata while simultaneously making a concentrated, deliberate and — importantly — sustained advance eastward along the Gulf of Sidra. Loyalist forces now appear to control Ras Lanuf. Marsa el Brega seems close to falling. Ajdabiya appears to be under siege. Whether this advance has consisted of fighting through armed opposition or more of an unresisted road march is unclear, but the farther Gadhafi's forces advance westward without facing significant resistance, the more likely the latter scenario becomes. There has been little in recent days to suggest that the opposition was ever able to coalesce into much of a meaningful fighting force. There have now been unconfirmed rumblings that the military in the east has abandoned the opposition, though the extent of this remains unclear. In other places, local garrisons may have simply ended their neutrality or returned to Gadhafi's side as his forces began to arrive in numbers. Additionally, Gadhafi now claims that the Tarhuna and Warfallah tribes, once said to have sided with the rebels, had reaffirmed their loyalty to Gadhafi — though neither tribe has substantiated the claim, and a rebel spokesman in Misurata, the last major coastal town in the west taken by the rebels that continues to hold out against Gadhafi's forces, denied it. While tribal loyalty is enormously important in Libya, hardly a word was uttered about Libya's tribal dynamic from the earliest days of the revolt until this point. The eastern Libyans made some strides toward attempting to unite. Across the rebel-held east, localized city councils sprung up to administer the respective cities, and the recently formed National Transitional Council, which has been sending representatives around to various capitals in Europe to try to drum up support for a no-fly zone, was based on a model that would unify these various units, both politically and militarily, into a sort of federal system of rebellion. While opposition to Gadhafi was a unifying force here, there was never a complementary coalescence in the west that would really have given the overall movement a chance at consolidating control over the country. Another notable point comes from a report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees of a marked shift in the demographics of those crossing the Egyptian-Libyan border from Egyptian nationals to Libyans fleeing the advance of Gadhafi's forces. Libyans accounted for half the daily refugee flow across the border beginning March 14. Additionally, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced March 16 that it was pulling out of Benghazi due to the possibility of an imminent attack. Ajdabiya is the next city to watch closely. From there, the road splits, offering effectively direct access to both Benghazi and the other opposition stronghold of Tobruk, the last major energy-export hub in the east that is not at least suspected of having fallen to Gadhafi. Without Ajdabiya, the rebels' defensive problem becomes considerably more difficult, and the geography and infrastructure that has kept Gadhafi's drive eastward on a single axis is lost. At that point, even a concerted resistance in Benghazi or Tobruk — one more deliberate and tenacious than seen in any of the other eastern cities — may be easily crushed by Gadhafi's forces, which have not hesitated to shell civilian areas in the course of the most recent advance. However, concerted resistance would at the very least be more manpower- and resource-intensive for Gadhafi's forces than previously, and these would come at the farthest extent of Gadhafi's supply lines, so the logistical issue remains significant. How this plays out remains far from clear. Gadhafi's forces appear to have the initiative and momentum, but it could easily take months to fully retake and pacify eastern opposition strongholds. There also remain the dual — and interrelated — risks of the rebels turning to insurgency and the profound and lasting problem of the proliferation of whole warehouses of small arms, ammunition, explosives and other weaponry. The rebels' problem is one of organization, not armament, and it is unclear if they even had the military expertise to attempt to form a coherent resistance movement, much less command and supply one.