Rebels And Gadhafi Forces Battle For Zawiya Libyan rebels battled Moammar Gadhafi's forces for control of a key oil town near Tripoli on Wednesday, while a close aide to the leader has defected to Egypt. Cambridge University's George Joffe assesses if the conflict is reaching a turning point.
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Rebels And Gadhafi Forces Battle For Zawiya

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Rebels And Gadhafi Forces Battle For Zawiya

Rebels And Gadhafi Forces Battle For Zawiya

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NEAL CONAN, host: Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that Moammar Gadhafi's days appear to be numbered. And after months of civil war, that may be more than a fond hope. Rebel forces made major advances over the past few days and now threaten the capital from all sides. A rebel spokesman claims they cut off a major gas pipeline to Tripoli. To add insult to injury, one of Gadhafi's top security aides defected to Cairo on Monday. While the rebels have political problems of their own, the military situation may have reached a tipping point.

We're joined once again by North Africa expert George Joffe, a research fellow at Cambridge University Centre of International Studies. He joins us from the studios of member station KCPW in Salt Lake City. Always nice to have you with us, George.

Dr. GEORGE JOFFE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And could this be the beginning of the end?

JOFFE: Well, actually, I think it probably could. The advances the rebels have made by taking the town of Zawiya on the coast, just 40 kilometers from Tripoli itself, and also inland, taking the town of Gharyan, has thereby cut Tripoli off, both from its hinterland to the south and from the rest of the world to the west. Now that's really very serious.

At the moment, there's fighting going on inside Zawiya, inside the refinery, and that's even more serious because the refinery is the sole source of fuel oil to generate power for Tripoli itself. If they get control of it - and I think they probably will - then, in effect, Tripoli doesn't have any energy. It doesn't have access either, and in a very short period of time, life inside Tripoli will become intolerable.

CONAN: Now this is important because Zawiya is to the west of Tripoli. If they control that, they control not just the fuel, but the coastal highway that is the main source of other supplies.

JOFFE: That's right, and the coastal highway is really very important. There are other roads that go to Tunisia, but they're very small and they're already controlled by the rebels in the Jebel Nafusa, the western Mountains, just behind Tripoli. And therefore, in a sense, control of Zawiya means control of Tripolitania, and that's a very serious situation to the Gadhafi forces.

They have been very badly bruised by NATO's bombing campaign. They have now very little fuel available to them, and soon they're simply going to grind to a halt. And when that happens, of course, they become virtually no longer credible as a defense force for the regime.

CONAN: These forces making the gains in the south and the west part of the country, these are separate from the group that's been operating from Benghazi to the east?

JOFFE: Well, yes and no. That's to say, those who've been operating in the south, south of Tripoli, coming from the Jebel Nafusa, the mountains behind Tripoli, they are definitely independent. They are basically the Berber populations of the mountains who've long disliked the regime and who moved against it ever since the beginning of the crisis inside Libya. Those now attacking Zawiya basically come from Misrata, to the east, on the coast.

And Misrata has been a town that was besieged by Gadhafi's forces, where the local population fought back and very successfully forced Gadhafi's forces out. Now they've been supported from Benghazi. They get regular supplies by sea, and there are now flights going into the airport and Misrata as well. So, in a sense, they're more closely linked to the insurgency in the east. But, of course, all these insurgences claim to be operating and working together. But I suspect when final victory comes, that situation may not last.

CONAN: And, indeed, the political situation back in Benghazi has been - I think chaotic is probably a pretty good word.

JOFFE: Well, yes. Ever since the beginning of this month, in fact, when the commander of the forces of the insurgency was assassinated. He was assassinated by some extremists in an elite militia, and he had been accused of supporting secretly the Gadhafi regime. Now there's no real evidence whether he did or not, but he was the regime's previous interior minister, and he'd been a close colleague of Colonel Gadhafi's for some 40 years.

And therefore the problems that arise from that represent both the incompetence and the lack of cohesion inside the National Transitional Council, and that's very serious. It's already produced several effects. First of all, the council had to get rid of its government. It's not been able to form a new one since. And also beyond that, it's had to reconsider the way in which it runs its armed forces because they, in part, were independent militias as well as regular armed forces coming from the old Libyan army. Now, the situation is that those militias are supposed to be integrated into the army itself, but many of them are refusing to do so.

And they are raising a finger towards the National Transitional Council, saying that it was responsible for what happened to General Younis, the commander who was killed. And that means that there's now a considerable degree of chaos there with nobody really knowing how the administration is going to work. And that's serious because international opinion has begun to support the council. And now they're going to find that they haven't got really a valuable interlocutor with whom to work.

CONAN: This chaos erupted just shortly after, in fact, the United States, among others, recognized the Transitional National Council as the legitimate government of Libya.

JOFFE: That's in fact correct. Just a few days afterwards, and Britain and the United States have joined France and Turkey in recognizing the council. There are now some 20 countries that do. And the embarrassment is, of course - and is an embarrassment for NATO as well - that nobody knows whether there's really a workable organization there that could take over the administration of a country united after the civil war.

CONAN: And indeed there is doubt about delivering large supplies of unfrozen Libyan assets to such a fragile regime.

JOFFE: Yeah. Well, it highlights the problem. The council itself is in itself a coalition of different interests. There are the exiles who returned from abroad. Some of them had been away from the country for over 30 years. There are groups inside Cyrenaica. Some tied to tribal groups, some to Islamist group and some to intellectuals in Benghazi. None of whom necessarily have a common agenda. Now, they've worked together so far, but now that unity appears to be breaking up. And that really does raise questions about the credibility of the council itself.

CONAN: Cyrenaica, the eastern part of Libya around Benghazi; Tripolitania the western part around Tripoli; the old Italian-era colonies when they were Italian colonies, united as Libya and ruled for the last 40 years by Moammar Gadhafi. And his inner circle, though - we talk about the rebels' political problems - he's having some of his own. Defections continue.

Oh, yes, they do. And there's been a constant stream of defections ever since February the 17th, when the insurgency broke out. They've been in very high level defections, too. The foreign minister, other ministers have defected, and now the minister of the interior and a former senior security official. And that does imply that the regime is beginning to crumble at the edges. But we shouldn't be too sanguine about that. The core of the regime still continues, and that's to say the Gadhafi family still seems to be united around its leader, Colonel Gadhafi himself.

JOFFE: Many of the ministers, some of whom have been with the colonel for many, many years, appear to be loyal to him still, although we don't know to what degree they're really free to express an opinion. And the armed forces still seem to be operating mainly under his son Khamis. And that means that the regime is not finished yet. And that there's said to have been negotiations taking place in Tunisia, but they've been indirect. There's been no face-to-face talking. And it's quite clear that neither the insurgents in the east nor the regime in the west are prepared to make fundamental compromises about what their objectives really are.

CONAN: The military front to the - on the Benghazi side to the east has been stalled, going back and forth around the town of Brega in the past several weeks. Given the direct threat in the west now, is Colonel Gadhafi going to have to move forces from the Braga front to move them towards the Tunisian border and try to reopen that road?

JOFFE: If he can, and that's another problem for him. There's been a change actually, in the east, too, because the forces of the insurgency have been able to take control of most of Marsa Brega. And that's extremely important. It's a major oil port. And that means they can now move on to Ajdabiya and towards Sirt. Now, at Sirt, they are going to find a major obstacle because Sirt is Colonel Gadhafi's home territory. It's very well garrisoned, and it's believed they may have considerable difficulties there in overcoming the forces, which are partly tribal in nature.

But beyond that, Colonel Gadhafi himself can't move them back. He can't concentrate his forces around Tripoli because simply he's not going to be able to pull them out unless he's prepared to abandon territory, which if he abandons, he'll never reclaim. So he's caught in a cleft stick: either the defense of Tripoli or otherwise trying to maintain a much wider defensive screen. And in either case, he's on the defensive now. He's no longer in the position to begin to threaten the insurgency as he could have done some months ago.

CONAN: Yesterday, it was reported that the Gadhafi forces fired a scud missile. These will be remembered by many people from the first Gulf War. They are relics from the Soviet era, range about 500 miles, notoriously inaccurate but at least at the start of the war, he had a whole bunch of them.

JOFFE: He did indeed. And he's probably still has got them but he can't very well bring them out without NATO seeing that and then of course he'll be attacked. And the missile he did fire was aimed apparently as Marsa Brega, or that's what's believed to have been the case, and it missed it by 50 miles. So I don't think they represent a major strategic advantage that the regime holds.

The much more dangerous missile that they used is the Grad missile, which is a short surface-to-surface missile. And that indeed does a lot of damage. But even that is no longer proven effective because NATO's been spotting the trucks that carry it and eliminating them before thy can fire.

CONAN: NATO has to be encouraged, at least, that the military situation seems to be brightening. But is there - is this going to bolster the determination to see this through to the end?

JOFFE: Well, NATO has a problem too. And NATO's problem is that its authorization for action will soon come to an end. And that means there's a question of how it's going to be renewed, for how long and with what objectives. And NATO has a real problem beyond that. And it is simply that it can aid the winning of the war, but what it can't do is to guarantee the security of the population because no foreign occupation is allowed under United Nations resolutions.

No one's yet come up with a way of providing some kind of force that can guarantee security once the main fighting is over. And that's going to be absolutely essential, because without security and an impartial security force, the danger of further chaos and an outbreak of tribal fighting between tribal militias becomes ever greater.

CONAN: And in previous years, it would have been possible at least to turn to Tunisia or Egypt, the neighbors, and say, might you be able to help out here. Obviously, they're having problems of their own right now.

JOFFE: Well, there are indeed, of course, because Tunisia is where the current wave of revolutions began, and they're trying to solve some very difficult constitutional issues. And they almost certainly wouldn't want to intervene. Their army is too small, only 40,000 strong. And the Egyptians have got their own problems, and the Egyptians, really, wouldn't be acceptable either. Libyans haven't forgotten the war that was fought between Egypt and Libya in 1977. And the idea of the Egyptians moving in, I think, would fill many Libyans with a feeling of horror of what might then be an occupation that would be difficult to end.

The problem is to find alternatives has proved very difficult. One obvious one would be Turkey, but then again, there are historical reasons why that might not be acceptable. Another that's being mentioned is Indonesia, a Muslim nation that apparently is prepared to do that, but no one has yet showed any interest in actually asking Indonesia to intervene. And the African Union has demonstrated that it really couldn't hold the ring if it were asked to do so instead.

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

JOFFE: You're welcome.

CONAN: George Joffe, research fellow with the Centre of International Studies at Cambridge University with us today from the studios of member station KCPW in Salt Lake City. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

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