Addressing the rag-tag citizens’ army on the barricades of Madrid in 1936 preparing to face the fascist army massed to storm the city, Dolores Ibarruri — the revolutionary better known as La Pasionaria — laid out the creed of those who would give their lives to defend Spanish democracy: “It is better to die on our feet than to live on our knees!”
That same heroic spirit of defying the military odds because of the intolerable price of surrender has been much in evidence over the past week in Zawiya and Ras Lanuf, Brega, Bin Jawad, and many other Libyan towns where rebels have risen the cast off the shackles of Colonel Gaddafi’s tyranny.
Gaddafi has failed to crush the rebellion that has raged for two weeks, although his attempts to do so have left many hundreds of Libyans dead. But the fierce fighting that sees the towns of the country’s Mediterranean coastline changing hands day by day suggests that the dictatorship is not about to collapse. Instead, the conflict appears to be morphing from an insurrection into a more protracted civil war for control of territory, with neither currently strong enough to deal a knockout blow.
That’s a common scenario when a rebellion fails at the first attempt to dislodge those in power, but remains intact and armed. Indeed, in some ways it resembles the early stages of the Spanish Civil — but in reverse. In Spain, a fascist military coup in 1936 failed to overthrow a democratic government, which armed its citizenry to repel the army’s assault. The military quickly seized control of much of western Spain, however, and the conflict became a conventional war for territory. Over two-and-a-half years of fighting, General Franco’s fascist forces — armed by Hitler and Mussolini with the latest in air power and armor while Western powers declined to help the Republic because of the central role of communists in its defense — eventually prevailed.
In Libya the scenario is reversed: A regime more akin to Franco’s is in power, and its well-armed professional military and mercenary adjuncts are defending the capital and other key urban areas from an onslaught by a hastily assembled citizens’ army carrying weapons looted from abandoned military arsenals and marching on Gaddafi’s citadels.
In 1936, the Spanish army had sent four columns to attack Madrid. Asked which column would play the decisive role, a fascist general answered that it would be the “Fifth Column”, comprised of supporters inside the capital. Turns out there weren’t enough of those to make a difference, and Madrid only fell in 1939 when the rest of Spain was already under fascist control. The Libyan rebels have a far larger “Fifth Column” inside Tripoli, with the army forced last Friday to deploy dozens of tanks and hundreds of men to stop opposition supporters massing on the streets after Friday prayers. Still, even if their supporters in the capital can weaken Gaddafi’s ability to defend its perimeter, the rebel forces lack the armor, artillery and air power to prevail in a frontal assault on the capital.
The regime’s ability to contest control of coastal towns previously seized by the rebels suggests that the conflict could be protracted. If so, control over the energy fields and the ports controlling their exports could become a crucial battleground shaping the outcome.
The prospect of a protracted military struggle also changes the character of the revolt: Libya’s rebellion is unlikely to be named after any fragrant flora or to affirm the principles of Gandhi and Martin Luther King; and within its ranks a facility with Twitter may become less important than mastery of the old Soviet SA-7 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile. Indeed, as in Spain, once a rebellion turns into a civil war, the democratic side can’t simply rely on an armed citizenry, but requires the professionalization of its own military — with the attendant risk of militarism.
For the rebellion to prevail in a civil war, however, it requires that the Gaddafi forces’ overwhelming advantage in air power, armor and artillery be neutralized, either by persuading enough of the thousands of Libyans still willing to fight for Gaddafi to switch sides; by the intervention of forces capable of eliminating the regime’s weapons advantage; or by the rebels acquiring the capabilities necessary to do the job themselves.
As in the Spanish example, events abroad could prove decisive: While Mussolini and Hitler armed Franco, the only help the Republic got — aside from some Soviet aid restricted by Stalin’s own changing foreign policy priorities — was from thousands of volunteers from around the world, most of them political activists of the left, who joined the “International Brigades”.
Gaddafi has little international backing, with even friends such as Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez unlikely to provide direct support. But the dictator may find some sympathy in Algeria, whose regime is also threatened by revolt, and has plenty of money to attract mercenary fighters from the failing states of West and Central Africa.
Western powers are looking to support the rebellion, although still feeling their way to a strategy. Libyan opposition groups have made abundantly clear they don’t want foreign troops on their soil, and a British special forces mission to link up with the opposition leadership ended in a humiliating failure last weekend when the team was arrested by rebel forces. There is more support among some in the opposition for the use of foreign air power to eliminate Gaddafi’s advantages, either through air strikes or some form of no-fly zone, but that’s an option most Western powers are currently reluctant to exercise.
That could change, of course, if Gaddafi unleashed the full might of his military capability on the civilian population — perhaps mindful of how massacres could change the international calculus — he has held back until now from utilizing his full capability. He has not, for example, ordered the rebellion’s capital, Benghazi, bombed to rubble, as former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad did to the town of Hama after rebels seized it during a 1982 uprising — or, for that matter, as Franco’s air force did to the Basque town of Guernica in 1937.
Some in Washington are arguing that the U.S. and its allies should arm the rebellion, and Britain’s Independent newspaper reported on Monday that the U.S. has allegedly tried to enlist Saudi Arabia to quickly ship the anti-tank rockets, mortars and surface-to-air missiles that would allow rebel forces to neutralize Gaddafi’s advantages without international intervention. The paper reported that the Saudis have not yet responded.
But the West will also be mindful of some of the dangers of a protracted civil war in Libya: It would potentially inflict many thousands of casualties and give the dictator a fighting chance of remaining in power, even if that power is diminished; it could take Libya’s energy output off international markets for the foreseeable future; and the first in line for any “International Brigade” equivalent to join the rebels’ fight would likely be the Arab jihadists who’ve seen action in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Despite some of the features it has in common with the Spanish Civil War, the stakes in Libya may be such that neither the rebels nor the international community will be willing to settle for a protracted struggle that could take many months to produce a successful outcome. At least not before they’ve tried, again, to muster a knockout punch.