News / Africa

Challenges Ahead as Libyan Rebels Advance on Tripoli

Libyan rebel fighters celebrate as they drive into the coastal city of Zawiyah, August 15, 2011.
Libyan rebel fighters celebrate as they drive into the coastal city of Zawiyah, August 15, 2011.

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Douglas Mpuga

It has been six months since the outbreak of the revolt against Colonel Moammar Gadhafi’s 42 years in power. But now the ill-trained and ill-equipped rebels from the western mountains have taken much of the strategic coastal town of Zawiyah, with its enormous oil refinery, just 30 miles west of Tripoli. There are reports that they control it completely.

By Friday the rebels had also taken Gharyan, an important outpost along the trade route to the south.

The rebels are advancing and changing the balance of power in Libya, says Dr. Walid Phares, an expert on the Middle East and author of The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East.

He says what the rebels are achieving now are the victories they wanted to achieve in the first two months of the conflict.

Phares says despite these gains by the rebels, Tripoli and its surroundings still has a large number of Gadhafi forces and equipment which the rebels have to overcome.

“Unless Gadhafi is taken out or he decides to leave, the rebels still face a big battle before they secure the control of the country,” he said.

Phares notes the important role of NATO forces in the conflict in Libya. “Without NATO air force superiority the rebels couldn’t have made those inroads. It is a war where NATO is opening the path and the rebels are measuring themselves against the remnants of the Gadhafi surviving forces, although the rebels have hardened,” he said.

The rebels are vowing to take Tripoli before the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan ends in late August.

As long as Gadhafi is still on the ground and leading his forces, Phares said, “I don’t think we are at the end of the conflict by force by the end of this month or even by the end of this summer.”

He points out that “when and if Gadhafi quits the command of his forces, those forces will become the new rebels.”

He says, even if the current Benghazi-based national transitional council forces take over, they will be faced with a very strong guerrilla force.

Another challenge the national transitional council faces if it takes power, he adds, is whether the islamists militias within the rebel ranks will disarm and give their weapons to the Libyan army. “It is difficult to imagine that militias who obtained power during a war will let go easily,” he said

Phares says as the NATO mandate draws to a close there is going to be a serious diplomatic battle between the United States and Russia on the way forward.

Meanwhile, the International Organization for Migration said it was drawing up plans to evacuate thousands of migrants stranded in Tripoli because exit points have been cut off after a spate of rebel successes.

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