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Libya’s Bloody Struggle Tests Loyalty of Gadhafi’s Forces

February 24, 2011 at 5:49 PM EST
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Forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi clashed with protesters in several key cities across Libya as other nations continued evacuating their citizens. Jim Lehrer speaks with Dartmouth College's Dirk Vandewalle and Andrew McGregor of the Jamestown Foundation about the relative military might of Gadhafi's forces and the opposition.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, what each side has going for and against it, as the bloody struggle within and for Libya intensifies.

Dirk Vandewalle is an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, author of “A History of Modern Libya.” And Andrew McGregor is a senior editor at the Jamestown Foundation’s Global Terrorism Analysis Program.

Beginning with you, Mr. Vandewalle, so as this thing plays out, there are the pro-Gadhafi forces, and of course there are the anti-Gadhafi forces. How do they compare just in terms of potential military power going in right now?

DIRK VANDEWALLE, Dartmouth College: Well, we should treat all the information that we’re getting right now with a grain of salt. We simply don’t know.

What we know is that, very likely, and, at this point, there are two or three groups remaining around Gadhafi, first of all, his personal Revolutionary Guard, which is about — estimated at about 3,000 soldiers.

And there are also some units, brigades from the army that are left loyal to Gadhafi. We don’t know much about them. Some of these units are headed by the sons of Gadhafi or by loyal friends. And then we also have a large number, estimated at least 2,000, perhaps as much as 3,000, of mercenaries that have been trained by Gadhafi, come primarily from Sub-Saharan Africa, Niger in particular, and have really been the backbone of this resistance to the uprising.

They are headed primarily by members of — or Libyans very close to the regime, and that were part of other brigades that the regime has cultivated over the years.

The difficulty is that we don’t really know much of what the other side has. We don’t know exactly how many of the brigade members, for example, in the eastern part of the country or — left or have been killed. We don’t know much about the weapons that they have.

And so, particularly on the opposition side, the people who have risen up against the regime, we’re still not quite sure what exactly is there. It seems to be more of a popular movement at this particular point in time. We also don’t know if some of these brigades have gone over, for example, or how many have been repatriated into Tripoli.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. McGregor, what can you add and — or subtract to that, first in general terms? Then we will go through some specifics.

ANDREW MCGREGOR, Jamestown Foundation: In the east — you were just asking about what kind of equipment or potential — military potential they might have there.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

ANDREW MCGREGOR: Most of those troops belong to lesser divisions of the Libyan army. They have access to arms that are mainly left over from the Soviet era.

A lot of what they have is really is a kind of military junk compared to the better hardware, which is kept in the Tripoli region. So, bringing some of this material out to face any loyal brigades that the Gadhafi forces still have, I wouldn’t expect much success in terms of a one-on-one battle.

The most important force that — that is available to Gadhafi at the moment is the one led by his son Khamis. It’s the 32nd Mechanized Brigade. And it’s been receiving all the top-quality weapons that have been available since sanctions were lifted. And there’s even been reports that they received some SAS training as part of the deal with the British government to let British Petroleum back in the country.

JIM LEHRER: What about air force? Is there any kind of remnants of an air force that Gadhafi could use, Mr. McGregor?

ANDREW MCGREGOR: Yes, he still has some French- and Russian-built jets. And of course, they continue to control the skies completely.

So, there’s nothing the opposition can do in terms of countering that kind of force. The question is whether the pilots will remain loyal to the Gadhafi regime. We have already seen a couple desert with their warplanes, Mirage — Mirage fighter jets, to Malta a couple of days ago.

At some point, you have to expect that there will be greater divisions in the air force, as they continue to be called on to hit civilian targets.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Vandewalle, what about tanks and heavy armor of any kind? Does that — how do — do the anti-Gadhafi people have access to any of that, and how much of that would be in the Gadhafi forces?

DIRK VANDEWALLE: Again, the information here is pretty sketchy. Mr. McGregor, for example, mentioned the 32nd Brigade.

And the 32nd Brigade, indeed headed by Gadhafi’s son Khamis, is usually the brigade that would have been sent into Benghazi, for example. At least, it has in the past. And so we don’t know if it indeed was, for example, that brigade, what has happened to it.

But we do know that one of the brigade headquarters in Benghazi has been overrun. And so the forces — the opposition there should have had access to some of the weapons that were left by that brigade.

Now, of course, it’s not clear whether or not they can really effectively use those weapons. What we have seen primarily in the east so far is people with small arms and not really very heavy artillery, for example. On the other hand, there is quite a bit of hardware left in Tripoli, tanks and so on. And those could be much more effectively used by the Gadhafi side.

But as Mr. McGregor also said, we don’t know if any of these are really — are remaining loyal to Gadhafi. One of the problems in Libya’s army in general is that Gadhafi has very carefully, in a divide-and-rule fashion, made appointments so that, for example, you could have one loyalist to the Gadhafi regime that is put in charge of the brigade, but a lot of the brigade members may actually belong to a certain tribe that is not loyal to Gadhafi.

And indeed we have heard rumors that, in the east, for example, one brigade refused to attack because the tribal members that were part of that brigade simply didn’t want to attack the goals or the — the civilians that were pointed out by the commander.

So, it’s a very fluid situation. Certainly, at least in principle, the hardware angle benefits the Gadhafi regime. But again, we don’t know anything about loyalty or the perseverance of those at this point that are fighting for Gadhafi.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. McGregor, I assume you agree with that, right, that the unknowns much outweigh the knowns at this point?

ANDREW MCGREGOR: Well, we do know a few things. And one is that the military capability of most of the Libyan army is very limited.

And the officers, for example, are constantly rotated between different units to prevent any kind of personal loyalty growing up within a certain unit. The point of this policy, of course, is to always keep the military in a position where they’re unable to mount a military coup, much as Col. Gadhafi led in 1969.

So, he’s always very conscious of this possibility. And he does basically everything he can to keep all the units of the military that are not under the personal control of his sons away from the best hardware and away from proper training. And in many cases, they even have limited ammunition stocks.

So, there’s only so much we could expect from these type of forces.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. McGregor — this is to both of you, but beginning with you — as these next day, next day or two or three, they go by, what will you and other experts be looking at as to try to measure what the scope of this conflict could eventually be?

A lot of people have predicted that this thing is not going to end in any way other than a very bloody way. And there are others who say no, no, no, no, it could go another way. What’s the test? What are you going to be looking at, Mr. McGregor, to see where it’s going at any given moment?

ANDREW MCGREGOR: I will be watching to see what happens with military forces in Tripoli. If they stay loyal to the regime, Gadhafi could conceivably ride this out.

But, as his own representative to the Arab League said just the other day, that by the use of mercenaries and firing on their own people, the regime has basically signed its own death certificate.

If he’s able to hang on temporarily, it will only really be a matter of time before enough force is gathered in Libya to eventually depose him.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Vandewalle, how do you see it in terms of looking — what do you look at? What are you looking for?

DIRK VANDEWALLE: I — I would look at exactly the same kind of issues, whether or not the forces on the side of Gadhafi really have staying power at this particular point in time.

There is another major demonstration amidst all of this violence planned allegedly for tomorrow in Tripoli in Green Square. And it seems to me that, at some point, particularly the forces on the side of Gadhafi will need to decide whether or not they can really persevere against this kind of continuing onslaught of popular upheaval against them.

And so my — or one of the things I would look for in particular is whether or not the Revolutionary Brigade that is the personal protectors of Gadhafi stick around. If some of those start fleeing and start leaving Tripoli, then I think we would truly see the end of the beginning for Gadhafi.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

ANDREW MCGREGOR: You’re welcome.

DIRK VANDEWALLE: My pleasure.