Fighting Gaddafi: How NATO and the Rebels Dovetailed Toward Tripoli

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Libyan rebel fighters embrace at the former female military base in Tripoli, Libya, August 22, 2011. (Photo: Sergey Ponomarev / AP)














The first time the NATO allies had an inkling that Muammar Gaddafi’s regime might be on its last legs was two weeks ago when Libyan rebel forces opened up a third front in the western half of Libya. Eastern Libya, of course, had the most publicized front, one that the rebels never really got to push past the oil facility town of Brega. But western Libya, the general area around Gaddafi’s capital Tripoli, had two fiery points of rebellion that refused to be extinguished: the region around and including Zawiyah just east of Tripoli; and the port of Misratah to its west. And then came the threat to Gaddafi from the south. Just as August began, fighters from the mountain region of Nefusa pushed north towards the capital, meeting little resistance as they raced to the Mediterranean. It was then that the allies felt they had finally broken Gaddafi’s army after five months of continuous bombardment.

According to sources within and outside the alliance, NATO experts had long suspected that Gaddafi’s strength had been waning. Still, it was taken aback at the events of the last 24 hours. Rebel forces from all three western fronts have taken most of Tripoli with only pockets of fighting left, albeit fierce. Though Gaddafi remains at large, the rebels reportedly captured three of his sons (though one, Saif al-Islam, resurfaced in Tripoli and vowed to fight on). Given that a month ago the rebels were perceived as fragmented and disorganized and NATO, many thought, was on the verge of losing an embarrassing battle with a third world dictator, how did Tripoli so quickly fall once the rebels reached its gates?

(PHOTOS: Libyan Rebels Move on Tripoli)

To hear British and NATO sources tell it, this was the plan all along. The strategy from the get-go was to tighten the noose slowly around Gaddafi’s neck – politically, economically and militarily. Why not have James Bond or Jason Bourne depose him right away? Because the fight in many ways was never about Gaddafi himself, but about convincing the Libyan people to abandon their leader of 42 years. “We knew vast military power would not win this, but if the National Transitional Council could unlock the desire for freedom all over Libya, that was what would win this,” says a NATO official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “So that’s probably even more significant – the simple groundswell of public support for these forces as they came through. Gaddafi’s forces would’ve seen that – that they were fighting not just an army advancing but a huge number of hostile civilians and that’s a clue to give up.”

To that end, NATO dropped thousands of pamphlets over Libyan forces telling them their actions against civilians were unlawful but if they put down their weapons and walked away they would not be targeted. When bombing tanks and other targets, NATO purposefully fired at one target and then held their fire for several minutes to give Libyan soldiers time to escape. And the precision bombs used throughout the conflict, the NATO official argues, meant battles with little or no civilian casualties. “People said, ‘Gaddafi is defiant, he’ll stay there forever,'” says the alliance source. “That may be but he needed troops. We didn’t go after him; we went after the troops. We knew without the troops he wouldn’t last long.”

At the same time, both British and NATO sources emphasized that this is a victory fought and won by Libyans, not the allies. While it may at times have looked like NATO planes were bombing ahead of rebel advances, the NATO source says the opposite is actually true. “Opposition forces would push against Gaddafi and he would have to bring out his tanks and artillery. When we saw them in the open we struck them,” says the source. But NATO did not only strike them, it tracked them home and then bombed the armament depots.

(READ: World Leaders React as Rebels Reach Tripoli)

Meanwhile, the rebels were making significant headway in the last two weeks in cutting off Gaddafi’s supply lines. On Aug. 13, opposition forces took Zawiyah, where Libya’s biggest oil refinery is based. Six days later, the Nefusa fighters took the town of Gharayan, effectively cutting off Gaddafi from gas or supplies. NATO ships, meanwhile turned back 12 ships carrying arms and fuel to Tripoli. So, the allies sat back and hoped that Gaddafi would literally run out of gas, according to a British government source.

In contrast to the sapped energies of the regime, the rebels in the west were well equipped and fueled. “The National Transitional Council had access to the Tunisian border so they had access to supplies,” says a British source. “What it then led to was a realization at the top level in Gaddafi’s regime that the situation was untenable. We always felt that there would come a point when the situation would become untenable for Gaddafi. We didn’t know when it would be, but it would become too difficult and those around him would abandon him and the regime would fall.” By last Monday, a key defection to Cairo convinced British officials Gaddafi’s regime was on the verge of crumbling. Nasr al Mabrouk had been considered one of dictator’s most loyal lieutenants, a colleague even before the coup 42 years ago that made Gaddafi leader of Libya. Hot on Al Mabrouk’s heels were other Gaddafi loyalists, Abdel-Salam Jalloud and, on the Sunday of the fall of Tripoli, Libyan Prime Minister Al-Mahmoudi.

One question remains tantalizing. Did the alliance have “boots on the ground”? Even though the United Nations resolution authorizing force in Libya specifically banned bringing arms into Libya and any “occupying forces,” a phrase NATO interpreted as no troops on the ground, some member nations focused on another phrase in the resolution: “all means necessary to protect the Libyan people.” There are reports that the German, French, British and U.S. governments all sent in arms and “contractors,” as Germany’s Der Spiegel called them, in the last week to help the rebels in their final push. The U.S. and British governments both denied having any personnel on the ground in Libya during the fall of Tripoli. “The rebels were clearly getting advice and help from some foreign officials but they weren’t acting in a NATO capacity,” says the NATO official. “The U.N. said, ‘Thou shalt not bring arms into Libya.’ We honored that.” But they may also have been honoring the admonition to use “all necessary means” to protect civilians – depending on your interpretation.

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