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‘Noose Is Tightening’ on Gadhafi Regime, Rebels Assert

August 15, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Obama administration applauded recent military gains by Libyan rebels on Monday. Margret Warner discusses the opposition forces' recent successes against the Gadhafi regime after numerous setbacks in the past few months with journalist Brian Conley and Dirk Vandewalle of Dartmouth College.
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GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: The rebels’ recent military gains, which Obama administration officials applauded today, came after setbacks, including the killing last month of the rebel military commander Abdul Fatah Younis, apparently by his own men. That was the most visible sign of disarray in the rebel movement, headed by the Transitional National Council, or TNC.

For more, we go to Brian Conley, who recently returned from his second trip to Eastern Libya — he is training local journalists there — and Dirk Vandewalle, a professor of government at Dartmouth College and author of “A History of Modern Libya.”

And, welcome, gentlemen. Thank you both for joining us.

Professor Vandewalle, beginning with you, what do you make of these rebel advances? Is this a sign that they’re regaining some momentum, or is just another flip of the seesaw?

DIRK VANDEWALLE, Dartmouth College: Well, as your reporter indicated, we have seen these battles rage back and forth. We have seen a number of cities, Misrata, and all along the eastern coast being taken by rebels and being taken back by government forces, and indeed going back and forth a number of times in the case of Misrata and other cities.

But I think that if indeed what — the news is true that Zawiyah has fallen to the rebels and that perhaps the rebels could then move on to the actual refinery of Zawiyah, then I think we really are in a whole different ball game, because Zawiyah really is one of only two roots that the government can use to bring supplies in.

And, ultimately, as one of your correspondents mentioned, the noose is tightening. The supplies that the Gadhafi government have, the resources at its disposal are gradually being undercut. And, so, it is a matter of time. But certainly the fall of Zawiyah would be a significant tipping point, if indeed the rebels can hold on to it in the near future.

MARGARET WARNER: And it’s — the reports from Zawiyah are murky as to the status right at this point.

But let me now ask you about the Gadhafi camp, because today the interior minister of Libya showed up in Egypt with his whole family amid rumors of a defection. On the other hand, we heard Gadhafi’s defiant message. How well is his government holding together and his whole regime?

DIRK VANDEWALLE: Well, as I mentioned, I think this is truly an instance of steadily diminishing resources. There is still a good amount of money there, but there are emerging problems, for example, with the food supply.

There is also some emerging evidence of probably uprisings within Tripoli again. So all of that means that steadily, very slowly, it’s a death of 1,000 cuts in many ways for the Gadhafi government. And so ultimately — of course, we don’t know how long ultimately means — but, ultimately, I think, in the end, this is perhaps the beginning of the end, although again I wouldn’t want to speculate on when exactly that end will come.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me bring Brian Conley in here, because Mr. Conley, you have actually been living and working in Eastern Libya a couple of times in the last six months.

How well do rebels seem to be in control of at least the areas they control, technically? And then — and what is life like there?

BRIAN CONLEY, journalism trainer: Sure.

Yes, on this last trip I was in Benghazi and also before that in the west in Zintan. And I think they are fairly in control. I mean, it’s different in both sides. For example, in Benghazi, things are pretty stable. There’s not a lot of influence from Gadhafi. And so you’re starting to see some conflicts emerge between parties, you know, with the recent dissolution of the Executive Council, and, of course, prior to that the killing of Fatah Younis.

It’s uncertain, but, by and large, people are going about their day. Everyone is preparing that after Ramadan, schools will reopen. A lot of jobs that have been closed will continue — you know, will reopen. People will get back to work. People seem very hopeful in Benghazi.

On the other side, in Zintan in the west, while it does seem that they are relatively in control, I have more questions about how much real interplay there is between the military command in the west and then the civilian command in the east. How much direction really is there and how much is just being defaulted to sort of local council decision-making? It’s unclear to me at the time.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Vandewalle, back to you.

The concern in the U.S. government is what Brian Conley just referred to about these reports of splits emerging within the rebel movement, which now, of course, the West has embraced. How serious are those splits, and — and what are they based on?

DIRK VANDEWALLE: I think the splits that we have started to see, particularly after the killing of Abdul Fatah Younis…

MARGARET WARNER: The general.

DIRK VANDEWALLE: … were quite serious.

Exactly, the general, the commander of the rebel forces.

MARGARET WARNER: Who I should point out used to be a Gadhafi commander, who then defected and was running the rebel army.

DIRK VANDEWALLE: Exactly.

But, of course, the problem is that many of the people that are now on the Transitional Council were themselves Gadhafi people before. Indeed, in a kind of a dictatorship like Gadhafi that has lasted 42 years, it would be very, very difficult to find people who can now step up to the plate and to some extent who are not implicated or have not worked for the regime.

But I think the death of Younis in a sense really opened up a Pandora’s box of all kinds of conflicts that the TNC until then had quietly not wanted to talk about.

When we saw, for example, the press conference that was held after the death of Younis, how that was handled, how the tribes were brought in, all of that, to me, hints at the fact that there is a lot more cleavages and breaking points than the TNC is letting on right now, not only concerning the death of Younis and who killed Younis exactly but also, for example, the young people who are actually fighting in the field vs. those that are in Benghazi, Libyans that are actually within the eastern part of Libya vs. those that are coming in from the outside, Islamists vs. secularists, and that are emerging now as well.

So I think there are a number of breaking points that undoubtedly, the way I look at it, will probably become more severe as this proto-government, if you want to, faces what will be the biggest challenge of all. And that is, first of all, bringing Tripoli into the country again, so to speak.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you. Let me get back — let me get back to Brian Conley before we end, because, Mr. Conley, of course, lost — left in all this or having to cope with all this are just ordinary people who may or may not be parting — fighting part-time at the front lines.

How are they getting by? I mean, do they have food? Do they have electricity? Can they get medical care?

BRIAN CONLEY: Yes, so, in Benghazi and in the east, certainly there’s — there’s food. There’s — you know, hospitals are working.

Even the police recently, in — maybe two, three weeks back got a whole new fleet of police vehicles, right? So things are moving slowly. On the other hand, at the same time, we have been seeing steadily increasing power cuts. And, you know, that seems to be due to oil and the accessibility of the refinery and things of this nature, which are moving forward.

You know, things are improving. I think there’s a question about whether they’re improving fast enough. And then when you have things like the death of Younis, the dissolution of the Executive Council, people start wondering. And then those things, they all start coming together, right?

MARGARET WARNER: Right.

BRIAN CONLEY: And I think that’s the tension we have to watch out for.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Brian Conley.

We’re going to have to leave it there.

Brian Conley and Professor Vandewalle, thank you both.

DIRK VANDEWALLE: My pleasure.

BRIAN CONLEY: No, thank you.