April 21, 2011 / 11:17 AM / 6 years ago

Analysis: In Libya, both sides prepare for lengthy conflict

<p>A rebel fighter takes up his position on the frontline along the western entrance of Ajdabiyah, April 20, 2011.Amr Abdallah Dalsh</p>

LONDON (Reuters) - With Britain, France and Italy sending military advisers to Libya's rebels and both Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and opposition forces working to secure essential supplies, all sides appear settling in for a long war.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy promised on Wednesday to intensify air strikes, but few believe they alone will settle the conflict.

Summer heat will make fighting harder in the months to come, perhaps entrenching the existing stalemate. If Gaddafi is not ousted by internal coup, the outcome of the conflict may come down to whether the rebels can secure the funds, fuel, weaponry and skills to sustain a campaign over months or even years.

"If the rebels were a cohesive, serious fighting force, air power could be enough," said Stratfor analyst Marko Papic. "But they are not, and everyone knows that. The problem here is that there is a mismatch between the real objective -- regime change -- and the forces that are being dedicated to it."

Sending Western military advisers to coordinate strikes and help attempt to shape the battle may prove a mistake, some serving officers say, but -- as with the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan -- there is now little choice but to continue.

Without air strikes, the rebel stronghold of Benghazi could fall in days and neither Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron nor U.S. President Barack Obama would want the political fallout of that. Nor, after recent statements, can they easily agree any deal that could leave Gaddafi in power.

After the relatively swift success of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, Western leaders had hoped Gaddafi's rule would crumble quickly after air strikes began. But the Libyan leader has proved to be much more tenacious than many anticipated.

The allies are seen pursuing different strategies despite operating under the NATO umbrella. French and British jets have acted almost in direct support of the rebels while the U.S. has been less willing to commit its much more capable tank-busting and gunship aircraft in the same way.

While Russia and China abstained to allow the U.N. resolution endorsing initial military action to pass, they openly oppose escalation. The rebels too have repeatedly voiced reluctance to allow Western troops to operate on the ground.

Deploying ground troops might just be permissible under the U.N. security council resolution providing it stopped short of outright occupation. But there is little political enthusiasm for it, leaving only the option of building rebel capacity.

"To actually train people to a higher standard of military competency would take months and then some," said one former Western senior military commander on condition of anonymity. "No amount of contractors will be able to do what we in Iraq and Afghanistan took years to achieve -- it is just an issue of material, commitment and time."

The best hope was to somewhat tilt the balance of power away from Gaddafi and help secure a ceasefire, he said.

Vital Supplies

Whether that happens or not, accessing finance and supplies will also be vital for the opposition. So far, success on that front looks to have been mixed -- particularly as sanctions designed to starve Gaddafi cover the entire country.

Already, they have suffered several setbacks.

First, they lost the key port facilities of Ras Lanuf and Brega, slashing the volume of oil they could potentially export and leaving them with only a small port at Tobruk. Meanwhile, worries over sanctions have put off many buyers.

So far, only one confirmed export cargo has shipped, through London-based trading firm Vitol, and oil trade sources say finding an ultimate buyer even for that shipment has proved difficult due to worries about breaching sanctions.

International recognition of the rebels by more countries as the legitimate government of Libya may make matters easier for the opposition. But so far, only France, Italy and Qatar have done so, with Washington and London holding back.

Libya is also under an arms embargo but for now there seems no immediate shortage of ammunition for either side.

Fuel might be a different matter. Both sides may be sitting on plentiful oil fields, but like the Allied and Axis armies in North Africa 70 years ago they need refined petrol and diesel or their vehicles will grind to a halt.

Gaddafi is trying to import gasoline through Tunisia, aiming to dodge sanctions by transferring fuel from ship to ship. The rebels too look to have been lining up supply options, possibly aiming to swap crude exports for shipments of refined products.

Gaddafi may be struggling to get fuel and other supplies to his forces along the exposed road to eastern Libya in the face of NATO air strikes. But the rebels also face challenges as they try to support fighters in the besieged western enclave of Misrata, surrounded by Gaddafi forces and under heavy fire.

Crucially, they still hold its port -- allowing the wounded out and journalists and human rights observers in, hoping to drive calls for further intervention. They might also be able to ship in arms.

But without the strength to break out toward Tripoli, the rebels may face a repeat of the multi-year sieges of Sarajevo and Jaffna in the Bosnian and Sri Lanka wars.

"Gaddafi is a planner, as you have seen throughout this conflict -- our indecision is ammunition to him," said Hayat Alvi, Middle East expert at the U.S. Naval War College -- making it clear her opinions were personal and not the government view.

"Unless things substantially alter, it is hard to escape the conclusion that this could go on for a very long time."

Additional reporting by Emma Farge and Jessica Donati; Editing by Louise Ireland

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