Feb 21, 2011 | 19:46 GMT

6 mins read

Worrisome Signs of a Fractured Libyan Army

Over the years, the regime of Moammar Gadhafi has tried to keep the Libyan military divided in order to prevent a coup. But doing so can reduce a military's effectiveness by putting people into leadership roles whose primary qualifications are loyalty to the regime, not military expertise. It also can entail playing personalities off of one another, both within the military and between the military and other security forces. While this can help keep a regime secure, it can also create deep rifts that can quickly widen when the regime begins to weaken.
If the regime of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is to survive the current crisis and prevent civil war, it must maintain cohesion and loyalty within the army, but early signs of army splits suggest the possibility that the regime may not survive. Feb. 20 reports of army defections in the eastern cities of Benghazi and Al Bayda were followed by unconfirmed reports Feb. 21 of military units firing on other military units. Libya's army chief, Abu Bakr Yunis Jabir, also reportedly has been placed under house arrest. Army politics in Libya intersect not only with tribal linkages but also with a long-standing power struggle within the regime between Gadhafi's two sons, the reform-minded Seif al-Islam, who has long been at odds with the military elite and is now trying to take charge of the situation, and Motasem Gadhafi, the national security adviser who has close ties to many within the army elite. As government buildings come under attack in Tripoli, security forces loyal to the Libyan leader are reportedly guarding only the most critical locations in the city, including the presidential palace. If the army is being put on the defensive in the capital, where Gadhafi's strength is concentrated, the loyalty of the Libyan armed forces toward the regime — and the survivability of the regime — may well be in doubt. Libya has long operated a significant military and internal security apparatus that has closely managed internal dissent. While Libya's military capability is quite limited, the country has internal security forces that are considered robust and capable. Overall, the total number of military troops and security personnel combined could be as high as 150,000, which would amount to a sizable force, given the country's population (less than 6.5 million). This would make Libya's total armed force roughly consistent with the 50:1 ratio considered desirable for manpower-intensive counterinsurgency work. In addition, the majority of the country's population is concentrated along the coast, which means that an effective application of force could be concentrated in these core areas.


Two-thirds of the military's strength resides in the army, which numbers 50,000, including 25,000 conscripts. Also included in this figure is a roughly 3,000-strong elite Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for regime security and a 2,500-strong Islamic Pan-African Legion, both of which include armored elements. The navy, air force and air defense force bring the total of active uniformed personnel to slightly more than 75,000. A 40,000-strong "People's Militia," a paramilitary entity, effectively constitutes the army's only reserve force. It has been supplemented in the past by members of the youth corps, though neither force is considered particularly capable, organized or well-drilled. However, such militias can complicate coup attempts by standing ready to rally in support of the regime. (It is unclear how prepared the People's Militia is for this purpose.) At least some of the branches are thought to be suffering from manpower shortages, and some units may not be at full strength. Until U.N. sanctions were recently lifted, the military had to make do with large stockpiles of Soviet military hardware — far in excess of Libya's ability to maintain or man. While these stockpiles afford an abundance of spare parts that were often cannibalized during the years of sanctions, much of the hardware is still in storage. The Gadhafi regime has also tried to keep the military divided in order to prevent a coup. This can often have the effect of stripping the military of much of its core expertise while leaving those whose primary qualification is loyalty to the regime in leadership roles.

Internal Security Force

The status of Libya's internal security force is more opaque. What is clear is that the regime has used this force to ruthlessly repress dissent and the growth of opposition groups. Internal security units include a series of "committees" — Revolutionary Committees, People's Committees and Purification Committees. These units serve in part as a tool for mediation and provide a semblance of representation for the various tribes. Gadhafi's personal guard is also thought to be multilayered, with the Revolutionary Guard Corps being only one component of the force. It is generally the police and Ministry of Interior forces that are primarily responsible for managing internal security and that are best equipped for riot control. (There are also rumors that Gadhafi has employed mercenaries in his crackdowns.) Recent reports have suggested that live ammunition has been regularly used to disperse protesters, but it is unclear whether the units involved were military or internal security personnel. There have been reports of military units deploying to Tripoli and Benghazi.

Loyalty and Dissent

Keeping a military incapable of executing a coup often entails playing personalities off of one another, both within the military and between the military and internal security forces. While this can help keep a regime secure, it can also create deep rifts that can quickly widen when the regime begins to weaken. While Libya has long proved itself capable of crushing internal dissent, such power has been possible only through a unified command loyal to Gadhafi. One of the most telling features of the recent unrest has been reports of military units defecting to the opposition. If true, this could involve poorly led troops merely abandoning their posts or it could reflect more serious breaks within the military's leadership at a higher level. Because Libya is largely split between two coastal zones centered on Tripoli and Benghazi, a geographic division within the military and security forces could leave Tripoli unable to enforce its writ in the east; rioting thus far has reportedly been the heaviest, and the most heavily repressed, in Benghazi. But with the prospect of higher-level divisions, there could also be infighting between factions that control significant military and interior security units. Any one of these scenarios could have a profound impact on the security situation in Libya and on Gadhafi's ability to manage dissent.

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