Libyan rebels still hold much of the country’s western coastal strip, including their de facto capital in Benghazi.
Time for a little geography lesson. Benghazi is in the east.
Credit: blogger Robert Price of Colorado
The population density map is apparently based on administrative divisions and understates the polarisation. Similar map here. As Google Earth and night views from satellites show, to a first approximation Libya consists of a thin populated ribbon along its 1,770 km coastline, with an enormous Altogether Uninhabited Interior bar scattered oilfields, oases, camels, Bedouin, and legacy minefields from the Afrika Korps and the Eighth Army.
The ribbon is not of even density and most of the population is either in the western strip (Tripolitania) or the eastern (Cyrenaica). The rebels hold Cyrenaica, and its main cities Benghazi and Tobruk. Gaddafi holds Tripolitania, with a rebel enclave at Misurata.
According to this Tripoli-based site, presumably functioning with Gaddafi’s approval,
About 80 percent of Libyaâ€™s proven oil reserves are located in the Sirte basin, which is responsible for 90 percent of the countryâ€™s oil output.
The gas is in the west, but of lower value and tied up in long-term supply contracts. The gas pipeline to Italy has anyway been closed, apparently at the initiative of the Spanish and Italian companies running the fields. Gaddafi can’t be getting much money from either oil or gas.
The oil map was, one assumes, relevant to the decision by the international coalition to back the rebels. But there’s a snag. Most of the pipelines run to the coast at small towns in the Gulf of Sidra between the main areas of government and rebel control, Ra’s Lanuf and Mersa Brega – which Gaddafi’s forces have retaken. The rebels have got to take them back, or else build new pipelines to the terminal at Tobruk they already control. From what I’ve seen on TV, they don’t have the sort of forces capable of taking a town defended by regular troops with armour; and the coalition has ruled out giving them any. New pipelines will take time.
Update 27 March: The rebels have recaptured Ajdabiya and driven west along the coast road as far as Brega. I’m glad they seem to be proving me wrong. /update
Update 2, 29 March The rebels, still looking on camera as if they were just hired in a bus terminal, have made see-saw progress westwards. Having failed to capture Sirte, they are now defending Bin Jawad for the second time. Since this is to the west of Ra’s Lanuf, the rebels currently hold all the oil terminals for the Sirte basin. /update 2
Update 3, 30 March The pendulum swings back – Gaddafi forces have driven the rebels back to Brega./update 3
We haven’t heard much from the oilfields. I trust the coalition is stretching the truth about “no ground troops”, and that the drillers have had their security reinforced willy-nilly by very fit young men of various nationalities and unclear identities who don’t know much about drilling mud but seem pretty handy with radios, explosives and small arms. The Brits among them will remember that the area gave birth to the forerunner of the SAS.
Stalemate and de facto partition look the likeliest short-term outcomes. If Gaddafi collapses, it will be due to the invisible economic warfare imposed by Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973, rather than because of the flashy no-fly zone.