Who made Libya’s revolution?
by Renfrey Clark
If you want to get historical questions right, there’s nothing like going back to documentary sources. Conversely, if you neglect to do this, even when the sources are a mere mouse-click away, there’s no end to the silliness you can utter.
Latest to make an ass of himself? Patrick Cockburn, who wrote this on March 26 about the war in Libya: “…military victory was almost wholly due to the NATO air assault. The militiamen were a mopping-up force who occupied territory after air strikes had cleared the way…”
We have the chance to test this against the record. NATO provides a daily log of its air operations over Libya, including total overflights, “strike sorties”, and details of targets hit, for almost all of the period from March 31 last year, when the air assault officially became a NATO operation, through to late October. It’s at http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/news_71994.htm.
There aren’t figures for the first days from March 19 to March 30, when the attacks were particularly intense and consisted largely of cruise missile strikes designed to knock out Gaddafi’s anti-aircraft missile defences. These strikes against the ground-to-air defence system made things safer for the imperialist air crew (none of whom were lost), but weren’t of immediate help to the rebels on the ground.
From early April, operations most of the time were proceeding at the rate of 40-55 “strike sorties” per day. NATO says of these missions:
“Strike sorties are intended to identify and engage appropriate targets, but do not necessarily deploy munitions each time.”
If we compare “strike sorties” with targets recorded as hit, then it’s clear that on average, aircraft fired off ordnance on fewer than half the “strike sorties” flown. From mid-April through to late August, when Tripoli had fallen and Gaddafi was on the run, the number of discrete targets destroyed each day was generally in the range of 20 to 25.
Twenty to twenty-five effective air strikes per day, across three main fronts spread over some 800 km, is anything but an intensive bombardment. Also, we need to take account of the fact that a good deal of the bombing was still aimed at suppressing anti-aircraft defences, taking out targets recorded as “3 radars” ,“7 surface to air missile transloaders” or “9 surface to air missile launchers”.
Many of the targets were ammunition storage bunkers. Gaddafi, though, had laid up huge reserves of munitions. Press reports suggest strongly that shortages of ammunition were nowhere near as great a problem for his forces as they were for the insurgents.
For all that, my view is that for some months the bombing was an indispensable condition of the rebels surviving and carrying on their fight. Crucially, the air attacks in their first days forced the abandonment of Gaddafi’s assault on Benghazi, an assault which in my view the rebels could not otherwise have withstood.
A key lesson which the regime learnt early in the air war was the vulnerability of its armoured vehicles to modern laser-guided bombs. NATO’s “hits” during April, the record shows, included significant numbers of tanks. Gaddafi’s armour – international military experts in 2009 put it at more than 2000 tanks, plus more than a thousand armoured personnel carriers – was not significantly depleted. But a decision seems to have been made that with armoured vehicles so vulnerable to air attack, they had for the most part to be kept concealed and out of action.
On open desert terrain –and, for that matter, in the relatively open urban areas typical of Libyan cities – possession of armoured vehicles confers a crucial advantage. The bombing cost the regime this advantage. Press reports indicate that Gaddafi’s forces resorted to using armed pick-up trucks, which NATO was said to be reluctant to bomb because of the difficulty of distinguishing them from similar vehicles on the rebel side. The mobile skirmishing that made up much of the combat thus became relatively equal in strictly military terms.
Gaddafi nevertheless kept an important advantage in another key area of desert warfare – long-range heavy artillery, largely ground-to-ground missiles. The regime is estimated to have had more than 2400 multiple rocket launchers and other artillery pieces, which are only occasionally noted as having been destroyed by the bombing. Gaddafi’s forces had rockets in abundance, and used them effectively, until late in the war.
The air strikes were clearly significant in deciding the outcome of the siege of the city of Misrata between February and mid-May. Air raids on Misrata and its environs are recorded as having taken place on 30 of the 39 days between 12 April and 20 May. The crucial effect seems to have been in preventing the regime from mounting massed armoured assaults on rebel-held areas of the city; some 43 armoured vehicles are listed as having been destroyed, including 38 tanks. Meanwhile, the besiegers remained well able to bombard Misrata, keeping their artillery under cover in built-up areas.
Misrata, the evidence indicates, was liberated in very much the fashion the militias said it was: in fierce house-to-house combat.
I made a particular point of checking the NATO logs for the period in August that saw the rebels “break out” from the Nafusa mountains south of Tripoli and mount their decisive push on the capital. Wikipedia reports here:
“…due to an intense NATO bombing campaign of loyalist forces, pro-Gaddafi troops had to pull back from the mountains. This gave the chance for the rebels to go on the offensive toward the coast west of Tripoli.”
This “intense NATO bombing”, however, seems to have been mythical. There is no record of anything more than a few sporadic air strikes in the region of the mountains around the beginning of August. In general, the Nafusa front was only very sparsely bombed.
By August 5 the offensive was under way, focused on the strategic town of Bir al Ghanam, 85 km south of Tripoli. The NATO logs have the following record of targets struck “in the vicinity of Bir al Ghanam”:
5 Aug: 0
6 Aug: 1 ammunition storage facility, 1 command and control mode, 1 multiple rocket launcher system, 1 military vehicle.
7 Aug: 0
8 Aug: 0
9 Aug: 0
10 Aug: 1 multiple rocket launcher.
11 Aug: 2 armed vehicles.
12 Aug: 5 armed vehicles, 2 anti-aircraft guns.
13 Aug: 1 military vehicle.
Whoever routed Gaddafi’s forces from Bir al Ghanam during that week, it’s hard to believe it was NATO.
By 13 August rebel columns were inside the coastal city of Zawiya, 35 km west of Tripoli, and heavy fighting had begun. Targets destroyed by bombing in and around Zawiya on that and subsequent days are recorded as follows:
13 Aug: 2 tanks.
14 Aug: 1 anti-aircraft gun.
15 Aug: 3 tanks, 1 armed vehicle, 1 military vehicle.
17 Aug: 2 armed vehicles, 1 military boat.
18 Aug: 1 command and control node, 2 armed vehicles, 1 transloader, 5 tanks.
The bombing played a significant role here by knocking out Gaddafi’s tanks. But given the scale of the fighting and the forces involved, NATO’s contribution was not decisive.
Tripoli, apart from small enclaves, fell to the insurgents during three days of heavy fighting from the evening of 20 August. During the previous week, bombing “in the vicinity of Tripoli” had destroyed 5-10 targets most days, many of them anti-aircraft weapons and infrastructure. A peak was reached on 20 August, with the following targets hit:
“Three military facilities, 1military storage facility, 7 surface to air missile transloaders, 1 radar, 1 surface to surface missile, 2 armed vehicles, 2 armoured fighting vehicles, 3 command and control nodes, 2 multiple rocket launchers.”
For the main days of fighting in the capital, the targets destroyed by the bombing are given as follows:
21Aug: 3 command and control facilities, 1 military facility, 2 radar, 9 surface to air missile launchers, 1 tank, 2 armed vehicles.
22 Aug: No targets hit in Tripoli.
23 Aug: 2 armoured fighting vehicles, 2 military heavy equipment trucks, 3 surface to air missile systems, 1 radar.
24 Aug: 2 military storage facilities, 1 military heavy equipment truck, 2 anti-aircraft guns, 1 surface to air missile support vehicle, 1 multiple rocket launcher, 1 radar.
As indicated earlier, I regard the NATO military intervention, over some months and arguably as late as the “break-out” in the first half of August, as having been a condition for the success of the insurrection. Without the bombing, the tanks would have rolled and the outcomes on the various fronts would have been very different.
There’s a fundamental distinction to be made, though, between recognising NATO’s air strikes as a requirement for the rebel victory, and identifying imperialist intervention as the primary cause of Gaddafi’s overthrow. In my view, the key reasons for the revolutionary victory were political, lying in the hatred felt for the regime by the masses in most parts of Libya and the readiness of hundreds of thousands of Libyans to take part in armed struggle.
By offsetting at least partially Gaddafi’s advantages in terms of armaments and military organisation, and allowing the fighting to proceed on less unequal terms, NATO’s intervention allowed the revolution’s strengths in terms of popular allegiance and political will to act as determining factors.
The bombing didn’t need to be intensive for this to happen, and as the record of NATO’s operations shows, its actual scale was rather small. Very plainly, the main burden of grinding down Gaddafi’s forces was borne by the Libyan people in arms. As the Libyans see it, they’re the ones who made their revolution, not NATO. And that’s correct.
Sorry – I forgot. There’s been no revolution in Libya. Gaddafi is still alive and in power, and his thieving children are in their mansions. The press is still tightly censored. There’s no independent women’s movement. Democratic municipal elections are inconceivable. Trade unions are still banned, and the penalty for trying to set up a political party remains death by hanging.