ALGIERS The Libyan army is attempting to drive out loose formations of rebels opposed to Muammar Gaddafi that have seized towns along the country's Mediterranean coast. Though facing a vastly superior armory of tanks, artillery and aircraft, the rebels are largely standing their ground, controlling vast swathes of the east.
Following are some scenarios for how the conflict could develop, and the clues that could indicate which one of them is most likely to become a reality:
This is now looking like the most probable scenario, at least for the time being. Stalemate would in effect produce a divided country and raise complex questions for the outside world in its trade and political relations with the oil producer.
"Neither side in the Libyan conflict currently appears strong enough to defeat the other in the short term," said think tank IHS Global Insight. "This prospect of military stalemate has raised the prospect of a protracted civil war."
What to watch:
-- The ground-based fighting so far has been in a stretch of desert along the Mediterranean coast. The front line can move back and forth in this area without giving either side a significant military advantage, because there are no major population centers or bases in the area. The stretch is bookended by two important locations: Ajdabiyah in the east, gateway to the rebels' eastern strongholds, and in the west Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte. If the fighting stays between these two locations, it amounts to stalemate.
-- Foot-dragging among major Western powers about military intervention. Foreign military help could tip the balance in favor of the rebels.
Many Libya-watchers see this as the most likely outcome in the long-term, based on the calculation that Gaddafi's forces have spilled too much blood in the last few weeks to retain legitimacy. The question is, how quickly could such a victory come?
What to watch:
-- Can the rebels organize an effective military hierarchy? So far, the forces have shown more zeal than military skill. The rebels' National Libyan Council named Omar Hariri, one of the officers who took part in Gaddafi's 1969 coup, as head of the military. But it is not clear how much authority he would have. Evidence on the ground that fighters are wearing standard uniforms, have received training, are operating as units, and have radios to pass orders down the chain of command, would be the clearest signs that they are getting organized.
-- Will the rebels in Misrata hold out? This city is the biggest population center still defying Gaddafi's control outside the eastern regions. Troops from the 32nd Brigade, commanded by Gaddafi's son Khamis and reputed to be the best forces in Libya, have so far failed to capture it. This is telling about the quality of Gaddafi's forces. If they cannot take an isolated city defended by armed civilians, they must have serious shortcomings.
-- Outside military intervention. If Western powers remain wary of intervening openly, then more discreet assistance -- sending in weapons or military advisers -- could also tip the scales toward the rebels.
-- Can the rebels take Sirte? If they can, they will score the psychological victory of seizing Gaddafi's hometown, and also control a major air base. "(Sirte) controls the coast approach to Tripoli from the east and to the key nearby cities of Misrata and Zawiyah, which are the doorway to the Tripoli region," said Saad Djebbar, an Algerian lawyer and expert on Libya.
GADDAFI DEFEATS THE REBELS
This is the least likely scenario, mainly because the rebels control a huge chunk of territory and seem very well entrenched there. "Gaddafi has lost the east," said Djebbar, who advised Tripoli when two Libyans were tried for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. But Gaddafi is a proven survivor who has held on to power for more than four decades, so it is impossible to count him out. He has around him a coterie of political and military supporters who have much to lose if the regime collapses.
The conflict could conceivably be decided in Tripoli, rather than the small towns on the coast, if senior military commanders or Gaddafi supporters decided the conflict could not be won.
What to watch:
-- The eastern rebellion collapses under the weight of its own internal divisions and military weakness. This may be the only real opportunity for Gaddafi to make a comeback. "In the east, the opposition are holding but they need to be careful that they don't collapse completely," said David Hartwell, Middle East analyst with IHS Global Insight.
-- Could the rebels hold together and hold the country together? All opposition in Libya has been stifled over forty years of Gaddafi rule and there are no organized civic groups to provide a ready basis for government. One of Muammar Gaddafi's sons, Saadi, said Libya would descend into civil war if his father stepped down. He said Libya would turn into a new Somalia and that the country's tribes would fight against each other.
The focus of events could switch from the smaller towns of the Mediterranean coast.
(Additional reporting by William Maclean and Peter Apps in London; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Ralph Boulton)