Colonel Gaddafi recognises the significance of Misrata, and it is time the international community did the same, writes Ranj Alaaldin from Benghazi.
A medieval siege is taking place in Misrata. Colonel Gaddafi, just two
months on from the 17th February Libyan uprising, has clung on to
power and defied all the odds against him.
Now the Colonel is deploying what one former British military officer
described to me here in Benghazi as tactics of terror against the
civilian population in Misrata: besiege the city with long-range
missiles and artillery shelling, destroy and demoralise the opposition
in the process, and you eventually take the city.
Misrata is home to nearly 500,000 Libyans and is Libya’s third largest
city. It is a vital strategic target for the opposition, and indeed
for Gaddafi himself, positioned as it is at the gateway to Tripoli.
In other words, take Misrata and you take the country. The Colonel
thus recognises that the stakes are high, and it is time the
international community did the same.
NATO forces have a challenging task ahead of them. Gaddafi is astutely
destroying Misrata by avoiding the amassing of his forces in a way
that makes them vulnerable to allied air attacks. His long-range
weapons, which the rebels do not have, suffice for now: more than 50
civilians are killed every day, and there is no escape for the
population since Misrata is surrounded on three sides by Gaddafi’s
forces, and the sea.
Misrata’s predicament is further complicated by the type of weapons
Gaddafi’s forces are deploying. These include Grad surface-to-surface
missiles as well as cluster shells which have been banned by most
governments. The multiple “bomblets” from these shells are designed to
kill and injure groups of massed troops or, in this instance, a highly
vulnerable and largely unarmed civilian population.
The only way out of Misrata is by sea, a time-consuming option and
sometimes nearly impossible because of the NATO enforced blockade of
the Libyan coastline.
This means two military options are on the table if Misrata is to be
saved. The first involves intensifying the air campaign. Opposition
officials here in Benghazi are bemoaning NATO operations and deriding
them as token and ineffective attacks. They complain that despite
giving NATO coordinates for enemy targets, NATO planes are either
flying over them or missing the targets deliberately; a Misrata source
who travels back and forth from the city to Benghazi by sea told me
that NATO planes could be heard flying above the city, but no air
strikes were reported.
Sources connected to NATO have indicated that logistical and
operational restrictions, as well as humanitarian concerns, make it
impossible to fully destroy regime targets from the air. First, there
are not many NATO planes flying these missions and their stockpiles of
precision weapons are running low, while there is apprehension toward
engaging targets in built-up, urban areas.
In other words, NATO does not have the capacity nor – according to the
opposition – the will to enforce the terms of UNSCR 1973 and protect
the civilian population in Libya.
Having said this, there is nothing preventing NATO from making the
effort to organise itself and work in cooperation with US forces,
which do have the precision weapons and the technical know how to use
them effectively as was demonstrated when Benghazi was saved from a
counter-attack by Gaddafi’s forces last month largely through American
firepower. For the opposition, the US cannot intervene again soon
enough, but there is no indication that this option is being
Alternatively, if it chooses to accept the above reality, the West can
supply the opposition with much-needed heavier weapons, including
anti-tank missiles and the wherewithal needed to take on the extensive
number of regime snipers positioned inside Misrata’s populated
buildings. The problem here is one of time, a commodity which is in
very short supply in this beleaguered city.
The international community must move beyond its current intransigence and save
Misrata, in order to spare the population from Gaddafi’s tanks and
missiles. Beyond humanitarian issues – the reason, after all, for
UNSCR 1973 in the first place – the fall of Misrata would effectively
If Misrata is taken from the opposition, then the other opposition
controlled towns in the west, including Zintan, Nalut and Yifrayn can
be expected to fall almost immediately. The much feared west-east
divide will then essentially be cemented and pose a series of
potentially insurmountable problems for both the Benghazi-based
Transitional National Council (TNC) and NATO to deal with, including,
firstly, how to build the East into an autonomous and functioning
region and, secondly, how to maintain a policing role in the east for
an indeterminate period of time, as Gaddafi tries to retake lost
Libyans are starting to believe that partition is in fact the endgame
the West is aiming for, and this is an outcome which both the TNC and
the population in the east at large do not accept.
Whilst there may be no such intention on Nato’s part, suggestions to
the contrary are not being translated into action. Time, however, is
of the essence. On-the-ground developments in Misrata, as well as
opposition and rebel sources, suggest it is only a matter of time
before Misrata falls.