LONDON (Reuters) - A frontline in Libya’s civil war looked to be consolidating on Tuesday, dividing the country in two along historic a provincial boundary, leaving key oil facilities stuck in the middle of the emerging conflict.
The eastern city of Benghazi looks to have firmly thrown off control by Muammar Gaddafi, but the veteran leader looks to have managed to clamp down on unrest in the capital Tripoli and is besieging and battling to cement his control in nearby towns.
Experts say the western conflict — particularly the outcome of any uprising in Tripoli itself — could decide Gaddafi’s fate. So could bargaining with the leaderships of major tribes.
In the meantime, fighting seemed on Tuesday to be stalling along the coastal front between Benghazi and Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte — an area that includes oil ports and refineries.
“In the short term, we’re looking at the de facto division of the country,” said Control Risks analyst Henry Smith.
The dividing point on the coastal strip looks to be around the oil refining and export towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf — scene of recent fighting and air strikes. If confrontation along that front remains violent, it may further jeopardize oil sales.
Oil sources told Reuters that both ports were now closed to traffic, although the eastern port of Tobruk — now under control of the Benghazi-based opposition — remained open.
Businesses and diplomats face an awkward prospect of having to deal with a divided country, where payment to authorities in Tripoli may no longer ensure oil shipments from the east, and where relations may need restoring with a leader in the capital who Western powers said they wanted overthrown without delay.
The example of Ivory Coast, divided since 2002, is a reminder of how such civil conflicts can become entrenched.
Both sides insist they will shortly triumph and reunite Libya. The rebels say Gaddafi is only just hanging on, playing down suggestions of looming de facto partition of the country.
“Gaddafi only has small pockets in Tripoli and other towns,” said Ashour Shamis, a Libyan writer and editor of a pro-opposition online newspaper. “All he has is his family. Libya is not divided. It has never been divided.”
But while many analysts believe there is widespread discontent with Gaddafi in western Libya, he may have enough troops and equipment to crush urban pockets of resistance and deter protesters from taking to the streets in the capital.
His chances of demolishing the eastern opposition may be tougher, however, reflecting partly distance from the capital, but also deep-rooted differences between the historic provinces of Cyrenaica, around Benghazi, and Tripolitania, which Italian colonial rulers united to create modern Libya 80 years ago.
“The area around Benghazi has always been the center of resistance against both the Gaddafi regime and before it the Italian occupation,” said Smith at Control Risks.
The eastern rebels have taken the flag of the old monarchy from Cyrenaica, ousted by Gaddafi in a military coup in 1969.
Gaddafi has long relied heavily on members of his own Gaddadfa tribe from around Sirte, using them in key positions particularly in core “regime protection” units.
But he has also built alliances with other groups through marriage and important government appointments.
That has allowed him to weather previous tribal uprisings by groups such as the eastern-based Warfalla, widely seen as Libya’s largest tribe. Together with the second largest tribal group, the Margarha, they rebelled in 1993 against Gaddafi demanding greater representation in government.
The revolt failed and a number of Warfalla leaders were killed, imprisoned or driven into exile — although experts say they still retain a considerable presence within the military.
After negotiations behind closed doors, the Margarha were able to maintain better ties with Gaddafi.
However, many believe loyalties in the final analysis will also come down to more immediate personal decisions and relationships as commanders and leaders wait to back the winning side. Many tribes themselves break down into multiple subgroups.
“”We’ve seen various statements from various figures about the loyalty of their tribes, but it’s far from clear that structures are that simple,” said Control Risks’ Smith.
“There will be a lot of people aiming to sit on the sidelines to see which way things go.”
Editing by Alastair Macdonald