As Sunday morning began in Tripoli, gunfire was heard around the city. When an al-Jazeera correspondent in Tripoli asked her government contact about it, he said it was celebratory gunfire celebrating Loyalists’ simultaneous retaking of Az-Zawiyah, Misurata, and Ras Lanuf. Her contact in downtown Az-Zawiyah disavowed this, and she herself noted that this celebratory gunfire had been sustained for over an hour and involved various calibers…
It gets stranger. Understandably curious about claims of multiple major victories by Loyalists to Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, al-Jazeera’s anchor called a Misurata resident to inquire whether that city to the east of Libya’s capital had in fact fallen to the Loyalists. This person calmly denied that the Loyalists had any presence inside the city, though there had been a battle for control of Misurata Airport—which is outside of the city to the south. He did express concern over ongoing nightly kidnappings; none of the targets had been heard from since, and Loyalists inside the city are suspected of taking people.
It gets even stranger. As of around 10:00 am Sunday, Gaddafi’s government launched a truly massive celebration at Green Square in downtown Tripoli. Officially, this is a popular response to the Gaddafi regime’s announcement that it had retaken Benghazi and killed the leader of the Rebel government there. A few minutes later al-Jazeera switched back to a correspondent in Benghazi, which seemed quite peaceful–and in any case was clearly under Rebel control! On Sunday Gaddafi’s government announced it had all but defeated the rebellion. What they didn’t say–and what was far more-significant than any such wild propaganda or even the reports of gunfire in Tripoli–was the Rebel government’s announcement that its forces were on the road between Ras Lanuf and Sirte, located at the midpoint of Libya’s Mediterranean coast.
Early Saturday had brought a major victory for the Rebels. Having repulsed repeated attacks on their position in the town of Brega, south of Benghazi at the coastal terminus of one of the country’s oil pipelines, they captured the town of Ras Lanuf, putting the Rebels within striking distance of Sirte. Ras Lanuf was a significant capture in itself, as it marked the last oil export facility outside of Tripoli still controlled by the regime. With this gain the Loyalists are essentially confined to Tripoli and its suburbs excluding Az-Zawiyah, the large desert region to the southwest, and the town of Sirte.
Sirte is Gaddafi’s hometown, a presumed support base for the regime in the region of Libya inhabited by his own tribe. Sirte is also apparently the headquarters of Libya’s special forces; like the other agencies of his skeletal revolutionary government the special forces are both geographically and bureaucratically decentralized—aside from a strong presumption of Loyalty to Colonel Gaddafi personally.
This presumption may be naïve, however. As the Reds closed in on Sirte from the east, al-Jazeera received reports that 10 special forces officers had refused to fight Rebel forces and were executed on the spot. We have heard repeated accounts of killings of army officers and soldiers whom have refused to fight the advancing Rebels. The Economist, in an excellent story on “the liberated east,” reported that when protesters took the Benghazi army base shortly before arming themselves, they found “15 officers shot dead, apparently for refusing orders to open fire.” Al-Jazeera has previously relayed footage of what the Gaddafi regime claimed were the bodies of Rebels secured by Loyalist troops. The dead soldiers were in fatigues; al-Jazeera reported eyewitness claims that Loyalists had executed some of their own for (you guessed it) refusing to fight the Rebels.
I think we could learn a lot about Colonel Gaddafi’s perception of his strategic situation from his lies. Having blamed this uprising on al-Qaeda, we could infer he held out hope of maintaining good relations with our government. (His studious maintenance of this “Al-Qaeda is behind it” line, with its submersion of his usual resistance narrative under US foreign policy concerns, is as indicative of his desperation as anything.) Having allegedly submitted the bodies of soldiers shot for refusing to fight as Rebels, we learn that dozens of those officially in the middle and lower ranks of the Greens would sooner die than kill the Reds. This also corroborates the apparent fact that, for all their lethality, Loyalist forces have had few opportunities to secure Rebel bodies; this makes sense, as the Loyalists have steadily lost territory on most fronts (though the situation in Tripoli’s suburbs is complicated). The government’s claim that it has retaken Az-Zawiyah and Misurata and even pushed the Rebels in the east as far back as Tobruk when none of this is true suggests that it has become desperate, ready to sacrifice its credibility to buy time.
The latest available news from Libya (shortly before 1:00 pm on Sunday there) is of a multi-pronged attack encroaching on Misurata. The Loyalists seem desperate to take this town now, in order to forestall a chain of Rebel control reaching towards Tripoli: If the Reds take Sirte from the Greens, they will soon control every city and town on the Libyan coast from the Egyptian border west to Misurata. Right now the Rebels report they have just taken a town outside of Sirte; a decisive if less-than-set-piece battle may soon take place, and the wild false claims of the Gaddafi regime suggest it is gambling for resurrection.
If it seeks resurrection, of course, that means it’s dying.