Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 30, 2012

Who made Libya’s revolution?

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 1:52 pm


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.


  1. As regards the above one wonders do you live in the real world. Just because someone picks up a gun against a brutal dictator does not make him progressive. These guy’s are a mixture of all those who opposed Gaddafi,with nothing progressive about them as is seen now in present day Libya.It could not have won without the NATO on the ground and in the air to pretend otherwise is ludicrous.Of course their was a revolution but one bought and paid for in the west which Libyan workers will pay for, for the rest of their days.Indeed their is talk of Libya fragmenting into its old tribal areas.
    P.S. What Independent Libyan women’s movement????

    Comment by 1952esther — March 30, 2012 @ 3:00 pm

  2. Really Louis? It’s okay because when NATO was murdering Libyans from the sky they didn’t actually kill that many of them? Kinda disgusting.

    Comment by ish — March 30, 2012 @ 3:47 pm

  3. It’s easy to disregard your funny, disinformed spin and still find important information here.

    For example, NATO’s neutralization of the state’s armored forces from the air (by forcing most of it into hiding) pretty much makes such deadly equipment available later to the mercenaries and fake rebels – to be put to use against all real opposition after the regime has been destroyed by the outsiders and NATO ends its air attack. Because the armor is dreadfully effective, as you say, against popular uprisings (when there is no fear of air attack). So the criminals now in charge of Libya are well assured of longevity.

    Comment by John Anngeister — March 30, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

  4. Anngeister, how did a religious nut like yourself get into writing apologetics for Middle Eastern dictators? I guess that St. Augustine’s efforts on behalf of the ruling class of his days might be a precedent.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 30, 2012 @ 4:19 pm

  5. Louis, how ironic of you to even mention the ruling class!

    Comment by John Anngeister — March 30, 2012 @ 6:15 pm

  6. Piss off, Anngeister. I was a religion major in 1965 but got involved with Marxist politics 2 years later, after figuring out that the bible was a bunch of hot air. Why you come here on your high horse about anti-imperialism when you are nothing but a two-bit theologian is a mystery that would even overwhelm St. Thomas of Aquinas.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 30, 2012 @ 6:30 pm

  7. Wow, the pro-lynching left can’t even successfully dick about with numbers to make its case. The author is forced to concede that NATO intervention was in fact crucial to military victory, and then tries to cover his ass by appealing to some nebulous will of the “vast majority” which he doesn’t even attempt to cite any evidence for.

    Comment by Domitian — March 31, 2012 @ 1:52 pm

  8. Of course there was a vast majority of Libyans who opposed Qaddafi. That poorly-armed volunteer militias were able to take power in city after city early on until Qaddafi’s air power and artillery were able to drive them back should be evidence enough. Btw, Qaddafi bought those weapons from imperialism, just as Mubarak did.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 31, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

  9. No mention of the “rebels” ongoing, openly racist pogroms, Louis? (Trayvon Martin murder = VERY BAD. Widespread lynching = just cracking some necessary “revolutionary” eggs eh?)

    Or what abut the grubby little deals they “revolutionaries” are making with imperial powers now? Inconvenient to your lame-ass NATO apologia above?

    Ah never mind. Gaddaffi was RICH and NASTY so that’s that. HIS lynching made for some GREAT TV.

    Comment by David W. Kasper — March 31, 2012 @ 7:02 pm

  10. Or what abut the grubby little deals they “revolutionaries” are making with imperial powers now?

    NY Times March 12, 2012
    Libya’s Franchise Fiasco

    As long as militias have power, Libya’s economic normalization will be postponed. If groups outside the government can shape the security environment, outside investors, particularly oil
    companies, will be wary of returning to the country. Without foreign companies, Libyan oil production will not return to preconflict levels and, worse, it risks slipping backward. Revenue
    could decrease at the very time the government needs it most.

    Geoff D. Porter is a risk consultant specializing in North Africa.

    full: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/13/opinion/libyas-electoral-law-is-flawed.html

    Comment by louisproyect — March 31, 2012 @ 7:15 pm

  11. NATO stats & “risk consultants” writing for NYT?

    Wow – the vanguard of anti-imperialist journalism!

    Comment by David W. Kasper — March 31, 2012 @ 7:45 pm

  12. Kasper, are you some kind of schmuck or something? I am forwarding the comments of a counter-revolutionary who makes the case that the militias are an obstacle to imperialist oil exploitation. I know that this does not fit into your crude schema but there’s not much I can do about that. As Trotsky once said, learn to think.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 31, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

  13. “As Trotsky once said, learn to think.” Propo the man said think not fink, but I guess you can no longer tell the difference. By the way, what are you doing to ensure that black Africans can get to Europe under the new regime? I recall that their plight was the main reason you detested the “dearly departed great leader”. As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.

    Comment by lextheimprobable — April 1, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

  14. By the way, what are you doing to ensure that black Africans can get to Europe under the new regime?

    Well, clearly we need to return to the good old days:

    In 2008, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Colonel Qaddafi signed a ”friendship treaty” that included extensive Italian investment in Libya and a joint border enforcement deal with the goal of reducing the flow of African refugees and migrants into Europe. With funding from Italy and the European Union, Colonel Qaddafi tightened Libya’s borders, and the two nations worked together on maritime patrols to stop migrants from entering Europe by sea.

    The deal also allowed Italy to send migrants picked up in international waters back to Libya, where they were often beaten, imprisoned and otherwise abused. Libya is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, and its appalling record of migrant abuse is well known. In 2009, Human Rights Watch documented the ongoing torture and abuse of migrants in Libyan detention centers. An official with the rights group called the friendship treaty ”a dirty deal” that allowed Italy to ”dump migrants and asylum seekers on Libya and evade its obligations.”

    When Italy agreed to join NATO’s Libya campaign in March, all that changed. Colonel Qaddafi, who had earlier threatened to ”turn Europe black,” began intentionally filling boats with Africans as punishment for Italian participation in the NATO campaign.

    Truckloads of terrified Africans, like Mr. Kurke, were forced onto boats, often captained by men compelled to set sail by Colonel Qaddafi’s army. Many didn’t know what they were doing or where they were going. The regime hardly cared if the passengers arrived. Approximately 27,000 people who departed from Libya reached Italy. At least 1,500 others never made it.

    –NY Times, Oct. 30 2011

    Comment by louisproyect — April 1, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

  15. By the way, what are you doing to ensure that black Africans can get to Europe under the new regime?


    The Libyan Minister of the Interior, Abdelali Fawzi, said today that his country would not be the border guard of Europe, citing “enormous problems”, because of the influx of thousands of immigrants illegal. “The Libya needs a lot of ways to control (immigration). Libya will not be the border guard of Europe, “he said during a press conference.

    Comment by Clay Claiborne (@clayclai) — April 2, 2012 @ 6:09 pm

  16. Nice example of the continuing xenophobia of the new regime, Clay. Just seems like a bargaining chip of the NTC to me. They certainly have no love for the “illegal immigrants” as this great piece by Lenin’s Tomb aka Richard Seymour argues:

    Libya is an African nation – however, the term “Africans” is used in Libya to reference the country’s black minority. The Amnesty International researcher Diana Eltahawy says that the rebels taking control of Libya have tapped into “existing xenophobia”. The New York Times refers to “racist overtones”, but sometimes the racism is explicit. A rebel slogan painted in Misrata during the fighting salutes “the brigade for purging slaves, black skin”. A consequence of this racism has been mass arrests of black men, and gruesome killings – just some of the various atrocities that human rights organisations blame rebels for. The racialisation of this conflict does not end with hatred of “Africans”. Graffiti by rebels frequently depicted Gaddafi as a demonic Jew.

    How did it come to this? A spectacular revolution, speaking the language of democracy and showing tremendous courage in the face of brutal repression, has been disgraced. Racism did not begin with the rebellion – Gaddafi’s regime exploited 2 million migrant workers while discriminating against them – but it has suffused the rebels’ hatred of the violently authoritarian regime they have just replaced.

    … The dominance of relatively conservative elites and the absence of countervailing pressures skewed the politics of the rebellion. We hear of “the masses”, and “solidarity”. But masses can be addressed on many grounds – some reactionary. There are also many bases for solidarity – some exclusionary. The scapegoating of black workers makes sense from the perspective of elites. For them, Libya was not a society divided on class lines from which many of them had profited. It was united against a usurper inhabiting an alien compound and surviving through foreign power. Instead, the more success Gaddafi had in stabilising his regime, the more the explanation for this relied on the claim that “Gaddafi is killing us with his Africans “.


    Comment by Nik Barry-Shaw — April 3, 2012 @ 7:16 am

  17. We hear discussions about Libya and Syria and Iran. The reality right here in America is the still depressing job market with a minimal improvement at best. As a long term unemployed American I’m tired of hearing about foreign conflicts when despite my talents, I’ve been ignored by hiring companies and I begin to wonder if I will ever be productive again. Nobody in Washington cares about the unemployed and from my vantage point I think it’s hopeless. Focus on workers (proletariat) and less on foreign domination is my message to our capitalist dictators.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — April 4, 2012 @ 3:37 am

  18. Once again, the greatest gift Americans could give the world is successful revolution here. I think Deborah’s plight underlines this.

    Does this mean that the Left should become exceptionalist, isolated, or nationalist–indifferent to imperialism, uninterested in “the human race” as per the old Internationale? In my view, absolutely not.

    As far as Libya is concerned, it seemed to me at the time that the point when the Qaddafis started shooting unarmed demonstrators with anti-aircraft weapons was a point of no return, beyond which mass killings of one sort or another became the future of the Libyan uprising–especially considering the fact that, as Claiborne and others have pointed out forcefully, Qaddafi had been murdering the masses with some regularity long before.

    It is pointless for anyone but a religious visionary to cry out moralistically against killing in general when the question is no longer whether but how many and to what end.

    Putting the matter philosophically, it is a question of what people must suffer and enact if we finally to become human–or realize the evolutionary potential of humanity, or however you would like to put it. If that is not the goal, what difference does it make who kills how many when? You might as well focus on the fate of your immortal soul and run off like Mr. Christian crying “What shall I do to be saved?”

    As to Intervention, I think four things:

    1) The description given in this piece both of the NATO invervention and its consequences for the LIbyan revolution is more plausible than any of the competing versions. I believe it to be correct.

    2) Pace some of the more ardent pro-interventionists, the actual situation on the ground in Libya is fluid and full of contradictions, and the long-term success of the revolution is in doubt. That said, I do not see how anyone can think things would have been better–morally or pragmatically–if Qaddafi had somehow survived. I think they would surely have become much worse.

    3) Assad is a monster fully equal to Qaddafi, to judge by the news reports, but further interventions by NATO in the middle east will not be benign and will have the political effect of making world war (an attack on Iran) more likely. The more the U.S. exhausts itself in perpetual war, the more obstacles in the way of revolution here.

    Leave the deluge-based fantasies to the likes of Charlie Manson, Timothy McVeigh, and al Qaeda. Little is to be accomplished by expecting the u.s. to vanish like a vampire confronted by the cross when struck hard by external forces.

    4) It is far likelier that a U.S. exhausted by war but with its power structure intact would become “the sick man of North America,” lingering indefinitely in a half-killed state of anti-democratic desuetude, than that any event abroad would bring about revolution here.

    It seems to me that a great many possibilities exist when one has planted these sticks on the map. I am not claiming to know what all of them are.

    Comment by Joe Vaughan — April 8, 2012 @ 6:51 pm

  19. […] and even over Iraq. I have written about this in the past, Renfrey Clark did a good piece analyzing NATO’s air campaign over Tripoli. While thousands of ‘so-called’ strike missions were flown by NATO, most did not […]

    Pingback by Lessons from Libya and Syria on Violence and Revolution — June 8, 2012 @ 12:47 am

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