Libya: Tripoli braces for Gaddafi’s final curtain
August 17, 2011
There is little fight left in Libya’s capital as Nato ramps up its air raids and the rebels close in, says Damien McElroy.
Nato’s war in Libya has so far been one of false starts and missed deadlines. But with rebels now inside the key city of Zawiya, potentially isolating Gaddafi’s regime in Tripoli, the conflict has entered its decisive phase – and not before time. The campaign of air strikes to stop Col Muammar Gaddafi killing his own citizens began in mid-March with high hopes the regime would not see the start of summer. President Nicolas Sarkozy gave orders for the action to be wrapped up by Bastille Day. But air strikes failed to deliver the knockout blow and there was a glimpse of French panic in a weapons drop to rebels. July 14 came and went and the Mad Dog of the Middle East was still in his bunker.
History will view July as the low point of the campaign. America reduced its contributions to a minimal supporting role. David Cameron came across as hostage to an ill-advised adventure that went against the grain of defence cuts and reduced overseas military commitments. As Gaddafi’s officials worked to secure traction on a negotiated settlement, Foreign Secretary William Hague grimly conceded Gaddafi could remain in Libya if stripped of power. Two European powers faced a watershed as Mr Cameron and Mr Sarkozy struggled to impose regime change by military force in their Mediterranean backyard.
But Downing Street, the Élysée and the allied rebels in the National Transitional Council effectively doubled the bet. The onset of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on August 1 saw a reinvigorated onslaught against Gaddafi. Nato bombing and Libyan troop deployments in government-controlled territory reached a fearsome intensity. A week ago, I stood on a hotel balcony in Tripoli as massive blasts erupted less than a mile away. Flames filled the night sky as an arsenal at a university burned and a direct hit on a ship in Tripoli harbour unleashed a torrent of exploding missiles over the capital. The effect was salutary, particularly as the assault confounded expectations that Nato would reduce attacks out of respect for Ramadan’s religious significance.
The morning after there was palpable change in the demeanour of regime loyalists. The zeal for defending Gaddafi was replaced by sobering conversations about what might happen next. One man discussed how he was teaching his wife to handle an assault rifle – in case she was threatened by rape in the fall of the city. Younger men declared they would soon be leaving for the front line to defend the Leader but these vows were made with an unconvincing, downcast look. Last Friday night, the regime’s waning ability to mobilise its supporters became clear when just 100 people turned up for a promised rally of a million people.
Moreover, electricity and fuel shortages have undoubtedly stoked frustration with Gaddafi to a tipping point. Those brave enough to voice doubts in the markets notably refused to condemn Nato – as the Gaddafi propaganda machine urged – for the city’s hardship. Instead, the Libyan middle class chose to resent Gaddafi for dragging the country back into international isolation. They still harbour genuine fears that Islamic fundamentalists will gain a dominant position; but Tripoli’s silent majority is now primed to embrace the rebel advance.
So, when will it end? Mr Cameron has always resisted setting a date, insisting, along with President Sarkozy, that Nato will keep up military action until Gaddafi goes. Finally, there is credible momentum provided by a combination of deadly modern air power and an ability by the rebels to take and hold conquered ground. The weekend assault on the coastal road from the western mountains means Gaddafi supporters will be cut off in Tripoli. Other advances in the east threaten to sever links with his front-line troops.
Soon Gaddafi will have no option but to make a last stand in a besieged city. Few would rule out a bloody denouement even before the mercurial dictator marks 42 years in power on September 1. Preparations to turn Tripoli into a sea of green flags are now a race against the clock. Huge cranes had been erecting a platform for a Chinese-made banner of Gaddafi that aides said was the biggest poster ever made. A fitting act of closure would see the poster ripped to shreds and blown away by the wind on the world’s television screens.
Despite the unwillingness to set a timetable, Nato does have something of a deadline, since it must extend its mandate to continue bombing at the end of September. Doubters, including Italy, which hosts the airbases where the bombers are based, have threatened to pull the plug.
At the current rate of advance, however, that argument should be superseded by detailed planning for a stable post-Gaddafi government – a project that is riddled with wishful thinking and half measures. Getting rid of Gaddafi would rank as a momentous achievement — one that would salvage the international standing of both Mr Cameron and Mr Sarkozy.
But these two unlikely warriors will not have time to savour victory. Because if post-Gaddafi Libya is not run well – or emerges as a haven of warlords and Islamic fundamentalists — history will be a harsh judge of their military adventurism.