Fears Of Libyan Stalemate Grow

Leila Fadel, Cairo Bureau Chief, Washington Post
George Joffe, Cambridge University

The international community hoped the Libya conflict would be resolved quickly. Instead, many observers say a stalemate is taking hold. Col. Gadhafi is waiting for NATO's support to flag, while the rebels hope the embargo and air strikes will eventually erode Gadhafi's power.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Libya looks more and more like a stalemate. Rebel forces control the eastern part of the country, around Benghazi, while the Gadhafi government dominates the capital, Tripoli, and much of the west. There's one important exception: the besieged city of Misrata. More on that in a moment.

France, Britain and Italy will send advisors to help train rebel troops. The United States will provide $25 million worth of non-lethal equipment, like radios and ambulances. But Colonel Gadhafi can see divisions within NATO and wait for enthusiasm to flag in Paris and London while the rebels hope that they will get stronger and better organized over time while embargos and air strikes eat away at Gadhafi's power.

Tell us what you think. A stalemate looms. Who has time on their side in Libya? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

A bit later, we'll talk with John Anderson of the New York Times about how hard it's become these days to avoid movie spoilers. But first, Leila Fadel, the Cairo bureau chief for the Washington Post, who joins us on the line from Misrata, which is under siege by pro-Gadhafi forces. Good evening, and thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. LEILA FADEL (Cairo Bureau Chief, Washington Post): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And what does Misrata look and feel like today?

Ms. FADEL: Misrata is very much a city under siege, surrounded by Gadhafi forces with only the port as the lifeline here. It's a city of lines: gas lines, bread lines, water lines that go on for city blocks as people try to continue to survive. Much of the - swaths of the city are no-go zones because of sniper fire, mortar fire, rocket fire that are hitting homes, that are hitting rebel fighters, that you're seeing at the hospital young children being brought in with bullets to the head.

It's a disastrous situation, but you also see an organic city that's organizing organically, with emergency lanes for ambulances and trucks; with hospitals that have, despite the siege, been able to create triage centers in tents; with families taking in other families, homes being opened up for those that have to run from other parts of the city. They are prepared to hold out and keep Misrata.

CONAN: You're describing a city that's being besieged, that's being shelled from outside. Is there house-to-house fighting? Are the Gadhafi forces making an attempt to try to retake the city?

Ms. FADEL: There are forces in the southern area of the city, and sort of the west and parts of the east. There is major fighting in the Zawiyat Mahjoub area, and then they are trying to come back onto Tripoli Street, which divides the city in half between east and west. That is where the major fighting is on this main road, about three to four miles long, called Tripoli Street. There, in those buildings, a lot of Gadhafi forces are holed up inside, and they're firing sniper fire, rockets and mortars from those homes. And there's a huge battle at the end of that road, where Gadhafi forces are trying to push back in from the southwest.

But the rebels here are quite positive that they're pushing them back. They feel that the Gadhafi forces are falling apart, although at the hospital, you keep seeing the wounded and the killed coming in every hour to the chants and the prayers to God that they'll survive.

CONAN: You mentioned the port remains in rebel hands. There was a ship that arrived there yesterday and left today. It brought in medical supplies and food. Who left today?

Ms. FADEL: Today, migrant workers - the port is still under rebel-controlled hands, and they are getting weapons. They are getting food, and they are getting aid from that port when it's not being shelled.

That boat carried refugees, but it also carried two of our colleagues that were unfortunately killed in a mortar attack or an artillery attack on Tripoli Street, right where those forces are battling with rebel fighters.

CONAN: It carried their bodies, Tim Hetherington and the other photographer who was killed, and...

Ms. FADEL: Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, both amazing journalists who unfortunately lost their lives in this story.

CONAN: And what has been the response today? Your story in the Washington Post this morning was about the incident where they lost their lives, about the struggle to save their lives. How are people responding to that story today?

Ms. FADEL: Well, here in Misrata, there is a feeling - you drive down the streets, and at the checkpoints now, you'll see graffiti that says: British, American and Libyan blood have all been spilled here. Free Libya. Things like that. There's a deep sadness and remorse among the people here in Misrata that these two journalists lost their lives.

They were treated at the same hospitals where many of the civilians that have been killed or wounded are brought, as well as the rebel fighters. And Tim and Chris' wounds were just too grave for them to save them.

CONAN: Two others were injured. How are they doing?

Ms. FADEL: Michael is - Michael Christopher Brown is doing well. He's walking around now. His wounds, he had a small surgery, and his wounds seem to be healing well. He's doing okay.

Guy Martin is out of surgery, quite a long surgery, and he's now doing well. He's awake and talking. So they both seem to be doing well.

CONAN: And is there any sign of NATO there?

Ms. FADEL: There are signs of NATO. You hear planes. Every once in a while, you'll hear an air strike, but it's not very much, and often when you're in these major battle zones like Tripoli Street, you hear no planes. You hear no attacks.

The leadership council here, the judicial committee, has sent in a formal request and asked for ground troops. They feel they need them. They feel that this city can be held for - you know, they're very confident, but they also understand their limitations and feel that NATO's not doing enough.

They're also asking them to hit buildings on Tripoli Street that have snipers in them, they cannot get people out of. You know, so there's - there is quite a feeling that NATO is not doing enough, although they also feel that if NATO hadn't intervened in the first place, if there weren't air strikes, that it would be much worse.

CONAN: Would those air strikes, if they targeted buildings with mortars or rockets in them or snipers, they would risk injuring civilians, no?

Ms. FADEL: There are no civil - most of the civilians have been evacuated off of these streets.

CONAN: And have you been able to identify which particular units in the pro-Gadhafi forces are attacking Misrata?

Ms. FADEL: I mean, that's very difficult for me to tell. I can't really see them. They talk about different kativas(ph), the brigades that are loyal to Gadhafi that have come in. But it's unclear to me exactly who is who.

It's not - you don't see in the rebel-controlled areas of Misrata Gadhafi tanks driving around, although there are tanks on certain parts of the city that are inaccessible to us.

CONAN: In addition to Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, who died yesterday, and the other two people who were injured, several journalists have been captured by Gadhafi forces, at least two of whom are Americans. Do you feel that journalists are being targeted?

Ms. FADEL: I'm sorry, I didn't hear the question.

CONAN: Is there any sense that journalists are being targeted, or is this, they just part of the - if you're there, you risk being hit?

Ms. FADEL: I think if you're here, you risk being hit. There are thousands -according to families here and leadership members in the rebel community, there are thousands of Libyans that are missing now, that have been taken by Gadhafi forces when they've crossed into an area that they might have thought was opposition-controlled was, actually had Gadhafi forces in it.

There are apparently many people missing in Tripoli who voiced dissent. There are hundreds of Libyans that have been killed, if not thousands of Libyans that have been killed so far here in Misrata, at least 300 and presumed dead, 1,000, because many people are burying their dead right away.

So this is a dangerous place, and many people are dying, and journalists are among them, and many people are being taken, and journalists are among those, too.

CONAN: I know this has been a difficult 24 hours for you, and we appreciate you taking your time, and good luck to you.

Ms. FADEL: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Leila Fadel, Cairo bureau chief for the Washington Post, with us on the line from Misrata, the besieged city in the western part of Libya.

Joining us now is George Joffe, an expert on North Africa, a research fellow at the Center for International Studies at Cambridge University and right now visiting the United States. He joins us from the studios of member station KUER in Salt Lake City. George, nice to speak with you again.

Mr. GEORGE JOFFE (Cambridge University): My pleasure.

CONAN: And let me ask: Why did the same tactics that worked to save Benghazi, why are they so ineffective in Misrata?

Mr. JOFFE: You're talking about NATO's tactics, I take it?

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. JOFFE: Well, I think the answer is very simple. Whereas in Benghazi, the forces are on the move in the open countryside, in the case of Misrata, it's inside the city. So NATO is constrained by the fact that the resolution that empowers it only allows it to defend civilians. And that means it's got to avoid any danger of attacking civilians.

And since it can't see those responsible for the sniping, the mortaring and so on, I think there's a great reluctance to begin a process that might involve an escalation into some kind of engagement on the ground.

And, of course, the point is that in the end, the only way in which the struggle in Misrata is going to be ended is by engagement on the ground, and that's beyond the limits of the resolution.

CONAN: One thing that would not be soldiers on the ground, would be forward air controllers, people who could say: Hit that building over there, the one I'm shining this laser on.

Mr. JOFFE: Yes, of course, you're right. But the problem is every little step that involves a presence on the ground implies an escalation. And everybody remembers Vietnam, remembers the way in which Kennedy began with advisors and ended up with main forces on the ground. And there's an enormous desire to avoid that.

There's another problem, too, it's a problem that been, I think, somewhat shrouded, which is that NATO, which at the moment consists basically of Britain and France together with some other states, just doesn't have the means available to it to do what it should actually do.

And there's an enormous argument developing inside Europe about what it is that NATO should be doing and who should be doing it. And in that connection, of course, the role of the United States is extremely important.

President Obama led the initial mission and then insisted that NATO should take it over, and NATO at the moment is not properly equipped to do so.

CONAN: They don't have the ground-attack aircraft, like the A-10 Warthogs or the helicopter gun ships or the AC-130 gun ships that would be most effective in a place like Misrata.

Mr. JOFFE: That's correct, and beyond that, too, they're running out of ammunition. The British, for example, have complained they're running out of precision bombs.

Now, that's really very serious, and it suggests to me that there's something much bigger going on than just simply the question of the attacks on Misrata.

CONAN: We're talking with George Joffe of Cambridge University. Whose side is time on in Libya? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

This morning, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Obama administration suspects that Moammar Gadhafi's government has used cluster bombs to target civilians in Misrata. Secretary Clinton called the attacks by Gadhafi's forces deplorable. Libyan officials deny those claims.

And near the Tunisian border, opposition forces report they regained control of the Dehiba Border Crossing. If they're able to hold it, they might be able to open new supply routes.

But with most predicting stalemate at the moment, in Libya, who has time on their side? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is George Joffe, research fellow at the Center for International Studies at Cambridge University, and let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Tony(ph), Tony with us from Cincinnati.

TONY (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

TONY: As I told the screener, I believe that time is definitely on the rebels' side. And I just base that, just based upon - I'm fascinated with the story. I probably read about this stuff three hours a day from various sites and listen to the radio, et cetera, et cetera.

You just mentioned the incident with the border crossing there - hearing, you know, upwards of 100 soldiers defected to the Tunisian side, and the rebels were able to take that base.

And in the field, it no longer looks like Gadhafi has command of his army. It's no longer really an effective fighting force. It seems to be he has his most loyal handlers with groups of civilians and mercenaries.

In another report that I read, he was - he doesn't even like to put his forces in units of greater than 200 or 300 for fear that those units might defect en masse. So I'm just seeing a slow but sure disintegration.

CONAN: George Joffe, there are - there is an embargo on supplies of military weaponry to the Gadhafi side. They're going to run out of ammunition. They can't replace equipment like tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Mr. JOFFE: That's quite true, but at the same time, you've got to remember they had enormous stocks of them built up over many years, held all over the country - in the south at Sabha, of course in the center at Surt, around Tripoli and even around Benghazi.

So I think he's still got considerable reserves left to use. But I have to agree: I think the forces are declining. And that point about the border crossing taken on the western border of Libya is very important because it indicates that there's still a lot of trouble in the Jebel Nafusa, overlooking Tripoli, an area occupied by Libya's Berbers who have long resented the Gadhafi regime.

Now, their struggle has been completely unreported, but it's been apparently very fierce. And it indicates the way in which Tripoli is being cut off, not just from the east of the country, but from the south of the country, as well.

CONAN: Tony, thanks very much for the call.

TONY: Thank you.

CONAN: Though he talks about defections, there was an important political defection, the former foreign minister, Musa Kusa, who arrived in London and left the Gadhafi government and is being treated leniently to encourage others to come over, as well. But he's been the only one.

Mr. JOFFE: No, I don't think so.

CONAN: The only one recently.

Mr. JOFFE: Well, recently perhaps, but there have been a slew of ambassadors who defected, former ministers who've defected. And it's said that, in fact, the core government in Libya is held sequestered inside Colonel Gadhafi's headquarters in the Bab al-Azizia barracks inside Tripoli, largely because of fears that they would defect.

Now, that doesn't seem to me to indicate a really functioning administration or a coherent system by which to maintain control of the country or the part of the country in which Gadhafi still holds sway.

So I think we are seeing that slow decline, that slow disintegration. It may take a long time. Some of the units are very well-trained and motivated, but it's there.

And don't forget, too, one of the things NATO did do was to hit the command and control centers in Libya. So Colonel Gadhafi's abilities to communicate and instruct and direct forces at the outliers, like Misrata, must now be very impeded.

CONAN: Let's go to Samuel(ph) next, Samuel with us from Raleigh.

SAMUEL (Caller): (Unintelligible).

CONAN: Samuel, are you there? Samuel?

SAMUEL: Yes.

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

SAMUEL: Hello?

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

SAMUEL: Yes, I wanted to just make a comment on the Libyan situation, especially with regard to who's benefiting. To me, neither party is benefiting if you really look it. I think the biggest loser, the civilian population, because right now, with all this uncertainty surrounding the armed rebellion - the rebellion, war, whatever you want to call it - the population is really paying a hard price for it.

We have a government who is not functioning, is at a stalemate. You have a very disorganized rebellion faction. We don't know exactly who's in charge of the rebellion.

You have a political faction who is not even into the country, who is now showing some of the pain and sufferings being experienced by the rebels, the military rebels. So this is something we really need to look at it.

In the long term, I think what's going to happen is the population is still going to suffer. And is anything going to be resolved? I really doubt that. I think that Gadhafi has still a strong will, is military stabilized. Unless we have a very strong and direct intervention, as has happened in the Ivory Coast, I really don't see that - any party winning. (Unintelligible) the civilian population.

CONAN: And that leads to the scenario that some, George Joffe, are talking about, a divided Libya with rebels in control in the east, in Cyrenaica, and Tripolitania, as it used to be called, in the hands of the Gadhafi government.

Mr. JOFFE: Well, yes and no. In the short term, no doubt that's going to be the case. But I'm afraid in the long term, that's not sustainable. Colonel Gadhafi won't accept it. He's determined to recover control of the country if he can, and the rebels, too, won't accept it. They want to restore a united Libya under their control.

So I think there's going to be a constant pressure for that to occur, and the important point to bear in mind is that even though Colonel Gadhafi at the moment may seem stronger, he is surrounded. He is isolated.

And that means over time, people are going to begin to consider whether their interests are best served by supporting him. And at that point, the regime will begin to crumble not just at his outer reaches but also from within. And that's the point, I think, that everyone's waiting for.

Sam, you're quite right: The population is bound to suffer. It will suffer, and it will continue to do so. But you need to bear in mind that before this all began, the system in Libya was incredibly repressive.

People suffered anyway. And it's one of the reasons why, in the east, however disorganized it may be, people are glad that the regime's gone and why, in so many parts of Libya, people are still struggling to end it.

CONAN: And he is also right that the opposition is very disorganized. Are they beginning to sort things out? Who's in control? What are we learning about these people who are running the opposition?

Mr. JOFFE: Well, I'm sorry to say, the more we learn about them, the less confidence it provides. It seems that there's an argument at the level of military command between Colonel Khalifa Haftar, who came back from the United States, in fact, where he'd been in exile, and General Abdul Fataunis, the former interior minister who defected.

They argue as to which of them should be in control of the forces on the ground. They both ignore the ostensible defense minister appointed by the National Transitional Council, and therefore, the command and control system is badly disrupted.

Beyond that, too, there's still no real evidence of proper training for the forces involved. That's why Britain, Spain and Italy are sending instructors to try and help them.

And beyond that, there's growing resentment about the fact that the National Transitional Council is dominated by some of the grand families of Benghazi, and that's beginning to create a degree of resentment inside eastern Libya.

And that, too, doesn't contribute towards effective management, even though there's been spontaneous administration of the cities concerned. And that's a very worrying feature.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is John(ph), John with us from Davenport, Iowa.

JOHN (Caller): Good morning. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JOHN: I'm concerned that I believe that time is really on Colonel Gadhafi's side, for many of the reasons that the professor just mentioned. Unless NATO and the U.S. are prepared to go to the lengths that have to be taken to actually force Gadhafi out, then that rests on the shoulders of the rebels. And without the skills and capabilities and weapons that they need to do that, it's going to be very difficult. And this could - certainly the pressure on the NATO alliance, for both politics and for other considerations, this could be very fracturing.

And I think that Gadhafi knows enough about the region and the people that, in fact, he can just - if he can just hold on, I believe he stands a much greater chance than we do of carrying the day. Thank you very much. I'll take my comments offline.

CONAN: Okay, John, thanks. There are certainly divisions within NATO to exploit.

Mr. JOFFE: There are indeed. Not divisions so much amongst the Europeans, although there are divisions there, too, between on the one hand Germany that doesn't take part or some of the other states, such as Poland, that won't allow their aircraft into combat.

But the real division lies between the United States and Britain and France. And the division, really, resides around the fact that President Obama has determined that the United States should not lead this operation, that this should be a joint operation.

And the Europeans are discovering that they don't have the resources available to do the job properly. And therefore, concerns about whether or not NATO can hold together are well founded.

I think it goes on to a much deeper question, which is the degree to which the United States feels it should still provide European defense.

European states, don't forget, have reduced their defense expenditures to below two percent of GDP. Now, that's trivial compared with the United States. And understandably, there are many inside the United States who feel that actually the time has come to let the Europeans look after themselves. So that's one serious problem.

The other problem is that NATO forces know that they could end this very quickly. They could intervene directly on the ground despite the provisions of Resolution 1973. But they're anxious not to do that because of the wider implications in terms of the perceptions of the Arab world of what NATO is actually doing.

They therefore are caught in a very fine balance between doing just enough to help the rebels succeed and not doing enough to actually destroy the Gadhafi regime.

Now, I'm not sure I agree with Dan(ph), that time is on Colonel Gadhafi's side. He certainly thinks so, but I don't think that's actually the case. In the end, he's isolated. He's isolated, not just in terms of the international community, he's isolated in Africa, and he's isolated in the Arab world too. That's going to count against him because he's lost enormous credibility.

In the end, his regime isn't credible, and that's the factor that's going to count. That would drive the rebellion onwards. It will make it break out elsewhere inside the territories he now controls, and that would hasten his end.

CONAN: Do you think the example of Kosovo is instructive, where, of course, a NATO-led air campaign - this time led by the United States - one thing the Europeans discovered in that was it's getting increasingly difficult to even operate with U.S. forces, the differences were so great - but that's your other point. But, in any case, a couple of weeks into that, it did look like that was going to be a stalemate too. In the end, Serbia cracked.

Dr. JOFFE: That's correct, but then, President Milosevic was somebody capable of making rational decisions. It's questionable whether Colonel Gadhafi, in the current circumstances, is.

He is determined that he must regain control of the country, and this is a personal issue. He believes that he created the ideal political system, and he finds it as a personal affront that others should have rejected those ideas, and he's determined to impose them. That means he's not rational in the decisions he's going to take about whether or not he can continue to resist. And that, of course, means that he's bound to overreach himself, and that's really, I think, what NATO is calculating on.

And it's true, that in Kosovo, there were great doubts. But they arose, largely, not just because of the intra-operability of NATO and United States forces, but also because of the way in which the Europeans reacted. The French, in particular, resenting lead given by President Clinton. And there, of course, it took 79 days of aerial bombardment before success was achieved. I'm not sure that NATO in Europe has got the resources to do that.

CONAN: We're talking with George Joffe about the stalement that seems to be prevailing in Libya at the moment, with the government of Colonel Gadhafi in control of much of the west, the rebels in control of much of the east, fighting going on still at Ajdabiya, the gates of Benghazi and the besieged city of Misrata. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we go next to - this is David. David with us from Portland.

DAVID (Caller): Hi there. I had - earlier, your guest mentioned that, over time, the Gadhafis will crumble from within. I wonder if that has already begun to happen. At the beginning of the conflict, there were - at least a few high-level defections, and I wonder if he's really just the shell of what he once was, and he's just kind of playing it out.

CONAN: George?

Dr. JOFFE: Well, yes. I find myself in agreement with that. Um - but you need to remember too, that's not a factor here. Colonel Gadhafi has the support of his own tribal base, based around Sirte and running out towards Misrata. And that tribal base is quite strong. It's also got a major investment in the regime because it's benefited from it very largely.

And therefore in a sense, he knows he's got that client population, as it were, behind him and can exploit it. It will eventually move away from him, but not yet.

And then there's a second thing too. Quite apart from the formal structure of government, he has always depended very heavily on his family, and his family is closely associated with him. And therefore, in a sense, because he's got that, he can appear to be much stronger than he really is. It will therefore take a very long time before we see the regime finally collapse, but I'm certain it will collapse because it doesn't have the intrinsic ability to continue to rule the country.

DAVID: Can I ask a follow-up?

CONAN: If you make it quick, David.

DAVID: Okay. So when we went into Iraq and we got in there with Saddam Hussein, and all of a sudden everybody just turned tail and ran, is it possible that this might be the same kind of instance if it gets to that point?

CONAN: By everybody...

Dr. JOFFE: But don't...

CONAN: Go ahead, George. I'm sorry.

Dr. JOFFE: I was going to say don't forget what happened after they turned tail and ran, an insurgency that lasted for four years.

I'm not sure it's going to happen quite like that. I think what will really happen is an internal coup inside Tripoli. There have been rumors, already, there's been at least one attempt. And eventually, one of these attempts will succeed. So what you're going to see is the regime collapsing from within, not so much a collapse - a generalized collapse - of the forces under Gadhafi's control.

CONAN: And - but in the meantime, are we going to see increasing popular opposition to this in London and Paris, and other capital of the NATO?

Dr. JOFFE: Not, I don't think to the question of the intervention, as such. Yes, voices are being raised saying that we're moving beyond the stage of the intervention as originally justified, but even then, there's still generalized support for the initiative that's being taken. And I think that's going to continue.

After all, it doesn't involve, yet, ground forces. It may well have to, but at the moment, they're not involved, and therefore, there's general support inside Europe of what's taking place.

CONAN: If Misrata would fall, would that change things?

Dr. JOFFE: If Misrata fell, I think that will do two things. On the one hand, it will warn the skeptics - or the skeptics will use it to warn - that in fact this operation is full of danger and wasn't thought through. And that, may well, have been the case.

On the other hand, it will convince those who were in principle in support of the operation, then now it's got to be carried through for reasons of national and international prestige. So you might then see an escalation towards some ground presence, and that will make a very significant difference.

CONAN: George Joffe, as always, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Dr. JOFFE: You're welcome.

CONAN: George Joffe of Cambridge University's Department of Politics and Intelligence Studies is with us today from member station KUER in Salt Lake City.

Coming up next, spoiler alerts. Audiences for movies like "The Crying Game" walked away from the theater with a secret. The surprise twist of modern movies are harder and harder to keep under wraps, though. Spoilers and the Internet after this quick break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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