An armed opposition is taking shape in eastern Libya while leader Moammar Gadhafi seeks to consolidate and defend his position in the west in Tripoli. But geography and issues of personal and political loyalty continue to play a decisive role in the status of forces across the country.
While opposition forces are mobilizing in the east in and around their stronghold in Benghazi, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is trying to lock down his power base in the west in Tripoli. In between Tripoli and Benghazi lies a roughly 800-kilometer (500-mile) stretch of sparsely populated open terrain — largely desert — that forms a considerable buffer between the two. Personal and political understandings between factions remain critical. The current disposition of forces on both sides remains murky for a host of reasons. Much of the Libyan military's strength exists on paper only. Its 40,000-strong "People's Militia," for example, may be largely symbolic. With units under strength to begin with and now potentially fragmenting along various loyalties, the status of the military in the country is unclear. Moreover, there are reports of massive desertion — many have abandoned arms completely and returned to civilian life (half of the army is conscripts). What is more, desertion may be more concentrated in some areas than others, having a disproportionate impact. Other forces in the far southeastern and southwestern portions of the country are as many as 1,100 kilometers from Tripoli or Benghazi and may be too distant to have a meaningful impact on the current standoff in the population centers along the coast. Gadhafi has long kept a 3,000-strong revolutionary guard in Tripoli for regime security, a well-equipped mechanized brigade with tanks and other armored elements that is particularly loyal to the regime. In addition to his (also murky) multilayered personal security apparatus, he also employs African and other mercenaries who have thus far remained willing to fight for the regime, though it is unclear how hard or how long they might fight. A STRATFOR source suggests Gadhafi has some 5,000 troops that are well trained and well equipped by Libyan standards, many of whom have a stake in the regime's survival. Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the former justice minister of Libya who defected Feb. 21, told Gulf News in a Feb. 25 report that while Gadhafi is hiding out in the well-fortified Azizyeh Camp in Tripoli, his sons Seif al-Islam, Saadi and Khamis are stationed in security zones in the east, west and south of Tripoli, respectively, to guard against an attack. Traditionally, the military has been more concentrated in the northeast than anywhere else in the country — about half of its forces — in part due to longstanding tensions with Egypt. But after accounting for desertion and other factors, one STRATFOR source has suggested that the real strength of opposition forces in the east is about 8,000 troops; these forces have been mobilized along with several thousand volunteers of questionable military value. Some 12,000 more are reportedly currently remaining neutral. The sparsely populated, open terrain between these two forces is a considerable logistical challenge even for a well-trained and well-equipped military, which Libya's is not. Gadhafi, fearing the potential for a coup from his own troops, has kept the military systematically weak and fractured. There is little in the way of military proficiency or professionalism, and some basic training has been deemed useful in a coup scenario and thus prohibited altogether. Being able to project power — to organize an armored march of hundreds of kilometers and sustain it at a distance in combat — is almost certainly among those scenarios. Most sources suggest that the Libyan military is capable of little beyond its garrison and pre-scripted maneuvers. (click here to enlarge image) Moving forces 800 kilometers on road is more difficult than it might sound, and even in terms of basic logistical metrics and field maintenance and repair, the fractured Libyan forces would have particular difficulty consolidating their gains in the east and advancing west in an organized fashion. Such a march grows more challenging when attempting to defend that formation and its lines of supply and to fight on arrival against a dug-in pro-Gadhafi force in urban terrain. This would quickly endanger the entire formation, presumably the core of the opposition's military strength, at a time when Gadhafi seems to be continuing to weaken. One problem with this is the potential for Libyan fighter aircraft to ravage long, exposed columns of forces on the march toward Tripoli. The loyalty of air force units in the northwest is of particular importance, especially given recent patterns of defection by Libyan pilots. The question of a foreign-enforced no-fly zone has bearing here as well. But even without air forces in the equation, it is unlikely, though not impossible, that Libyan opposition forces in the east would be able to or would choose to mount an assault on Tripoli without some sort of political arrangement with forces in the intermediate towns — and particularly in Tripoli itself. And so personal and political understandings between factions remain critical. If Gadhafi maintains his position and the loyalty of those forces he has rallied around him in Tripoli, he will be difficult to displace with or without the air force. But if those fragile loyalties begin to fray — if forces in and around Tripoli begin to defect to the opposition in the east or form other factions — then fighting and civil war may come to Tripoli without the opposition in the east having to move its forces at all. If the opposition intends to attempt to project force westward, its incentive will be to seek allies in western Libya that can both provide logistical support and ensure an uncontested arrival on the scene.