Rebel Rivalries in Libya

Division and Disorder Undermine Libya's Opposition

(Courtesy Reuters)

In mid-July, when I visited Benghazi, the stronghold of the Libyan rebels who are fighting to unseat Muammar al-Qaddafi, the brigade headquarters from where Qaddafi's forces once ruled the eastern part of the country had been reduced to a graffiti-encrusted, burned-out wreck. It was a sight I could never have imagined in the 25 years I have studied Libya.

But despite the recent rebel advances at Zawiyah, any expectation that the collapse of the Qaddafi regime is imminent -- a statement made regularly by all of the NATO militaries now contributing resources to the anti-Qaddafi campaign -- remains wishful thinking at this time. The Libyan uprising against the Qaddafi regime is now six months old, and there is no immediate end in sight. Long gone is U.S. President Barack Obama's insistence that multilateral military action against Libya would be a matter "of days, not weeks."

For now, the scenarios most likely to bring the conflict to an end revolve around what many close observers refer to as "catastrophic success" -- the sudden removal of Qaddafi by internal revolt or other means, which would leave a profound political and security vacuum -- or extended negotiations between Tripoli and Benghazi led by a neutral interlocutor.

The first seems unlikely for now, given the security measures that surround Qaddafi and the fierce loyalty of his immediate supporters. As for the second, although many sides have proposed road maps for talks between the rebels and the Qaddafi government, the prospect of direct negotiations remains distant. After all, road maps are of little value where roads are nonexistent. The two sides in Libya have put forward baseline demands that make a diplomatic solution unlikely: The rebels refuse to consider any negotiation that involves Qaddafi or anyone representing him, while Tripoli rejects any talks that would question Qaddafi's legitimacy. 

Thus, it seems likely that conditions will have to get much worse before either side will blink. This leaves open the possibility that Libya's civil war will be decided by a grinding, prolonged military conflict in which Qaddafi's regime is gradually exhausted by NATO-supported rebel attacks. Conditions in Tripoli have already become uncomfortable for the Qaddafi government: supplies of food, gasoline, and even ordinary household items are in increasingly short supply. The regime might not have the resources to continue to buy loyalty for much longer.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis