Libya’s Desert Rebellion: The Lessons of World War II

The whipping sandstorms, low visibility, and stray camels make the five-hour car ride from Benghazi to the oil refinery town of Ras Lanuf a tense one even in normal times. But these days there is nothing normal going on in Ras Lanuf, which lies on the front lines of the clashes between Libya’s volunteer rebel army and forces loyal to the country’s dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. On Saturday when TIME visited, the gates of Ras Lanuf were guarded by a platoon of opposition irregulars with anti-aircraft guns and recoilless rifles mounted onto the backs of pickup trucks.

But calling this a front-line may overstate the level of organization and planning behind the rebel advance. Though opposition forces have been slowly moving west from their stronghold in Benghazi along the about 700-mile coastal highway to Tripoli, the country’s capital and the center of Gaddafi’s power, Ras Lanuf has changed hands several times. As has Bin Jawad, the next town west down the coastal highway. And looking at the leaderless bands of pick-up trucks gathering at checkpoints to make fresh sorties on government positions with weapons newly acquired from raided government arsenals that they barely know how to use, it’s hard to think of this as anything like a conventional army. But what’s clear is Libya’s desert geography — and Muammar Gaddafi’s attempt to violently suppress what was once a peaceful movement — has transformed the country’s pro-democracy uprising into the first military campaign of the Arab Spring. And it’s also clear the desert is an arena in which people power plays at a disadvantage.

For a dictatorship that’s been in power for 42 years, the Libyan government collapsed with remarkable speed in the eastern part of the country — a handful of days around February 17th. Besides the fact that Benghazi has long been a hotbed of dissent to rule from Tripoli, the terrain of the east — hills, forests, and a daisy chain of relatively dense urban centers along the coast — is also more sympathetic to a revolution. But west of Benghazi, the land flattens out, with the white sand of the Mediterranean shoreline giving way quickly to juniper and sage scrub and a seemingly endless expanse of dirt and discarded plastic bags. Towns along the way are small, easy to garrison, spread far apart, and located at highway intersections, or clustered around oil facilities.

If eastern Libya is guerrilla country, central Libya is tank terrain. Some of the great battles of World War Two were fought by legendary Axis and Allied tank commanders over the course of several years in a back-and-forth war along the north African coast between Tunisia and Egypt. Of course, nothing like the scale of those battles is going to occur in the Libyan civil war. Only the forces that remain loyal to the Gaddaffi regime have anything resembling a modern army. But therein lies the problem for the opposition. Though much of the Libyan military — already under-funded by a suspicious Gaddafi, who lavished money and materiel on his personal security forces instead — defected to the opposition camp, it has been unable to impose any authority or organization on the rebellion’s volunteers who have been doing most of the fighting. And without air support and armor, speeding down straight desert highways with no cover is almost suicide.

Indeed, given their lack of discipline and training it’s incredible there aren’t more self-inflicted casualties. Besides the usual bouts of idiotic celebratory gunfire, among the many nerve wracking scenes of boys playing with dangerous toys that TIME witnessed near Ras Lanuf included a youngster sitting on top of a huge heap of ammunition boxes at a highway checkpoint and nearly knocking over an open artillery shell crate just so he could get more comfortable. And though the opposition claims an explosion at an ammunition depot near Benghazi that killed more than 20 people on Friday was the work of government saboteurs, it could just as likely have been the result of an accident. Meanwhile, though the Libyan government forces fled Benghazi in disarray, they appear to have regained a measure of composure, and according to reports, have dug into Bin Jawad with sniper positions backed by artillery, helicopters, and fighter jets. Fighting will get even tougher if the rebels move closer to Sert, Gaddaff’s hometown, located about midway between Benghazi and Tripoli.

Just how long Free Libya’s desert campaign will last is anyone’s guess. During the North African campaign in WWII, supply lines proved crucial. When the Allied air and sea power cut fuel deliveries to German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Arfika Corps, its Panzer tanks ran out of gas in a region where, ironically, some of the world’s largest oil fields were later discovered. Nowadays the rebel government says it has enough cash to pay salaries for the next two months. It’s asking foreign countries to begin recognizing it as Libya’s legitimate authority, a prelude to formally asking oil companies to begin paying them rather than the government in Tripoli. The Benghazi government also says at least one national oil company, the Sert Oil Company located in Ras Lanuf, has broken with Tripoli and sided with the rebels, and the refineries at Ras Lunuf were refueling opposition vehicles free of charge. The rebels are also getting foreign donations of food and medicine delivered to Benghazi’s port. “This isn’t Darfur, there’s not going to be a humanitarian crisis here,” said one rebel government spokesman in Benghazi . “But let’s not kid ourselves. This is a revolution by amateurs. We can’t keep doing this forever.”

Morale may end up playing the decisive factor in this conflict — though it can’t be too high on the Gaddafi side as they shoot on their own people, amid rumors that many soldiers are ordered to fight by their officers at gunpoint. But the regime and its supporters are fighting for their survival. Swift sanctions, asset freezes and threats from international bodies to investigate the regime for crimes against humanity have given the government little incentive to surrender peacefully.

The rebellion too is fighting for its life. Though the Arab League has offered to help broker negotiations, the opposition says there is nothing to discuss and fears that any return by the regime will be the beginning of a massacre. But fear is in short supply among the rebel volunteers, many of whom believe that their miraculous against-the-odds successes are a sign that God is on their side. After an attack helicopter appeared and began rocketing the vicinity, TIME beat a hasty retreat from Ras Lanuf back to Benghazi. But car after car of young men with guns and flags of the old Libyan monarchy, which has become the new emblem of Free Libya, kept speeding down the other side of the highway to fill the breach. One truck was also flying the skull and cross-bones of a Jolly Roger pirate flag, which perhaps better captured the wild spirit of the rebel campaign, which may yet tilt in their favor. As one veteran of north African desert battles, American General George Patton, said: “Nobody ever defended anything successfully. There is only attack and attack, and attack some more.”

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