Libyan Conflict – Then and Now

It’s the geography that counts (among other things)
The present conflict for the control of Libya seems to have reached a stalemate…
Neither the forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi nor the rebels opposing his regime have sufficient military power to topple the other. And the NATO forces, having dealt with the Libyan air force and successfully established a no-fly zone over the country, are reluctant to commit land forces to achieve a decisive outcome. They are also strictly prevented from doing so under the mandate which only allows operations to protect the civilian population.
But there is more to it than the necessity to deploy sufficient troops and equipment to ensure the defeat of the Gaddafi forces. To understand this we need to look no further than the geography and the terrain of the country itself.
To begin with, Libya is a very large country, second only in size to that of Algeria in North Africa. In land mass it is considerably larger than Egypt or France and even Germany. But much of it is uninhabited and uninhabitable.
This large territory is divided into three regions which roughly follow the natural outline and topography of the country. To the west is the coastal province of Tripolitania, with the capital Tripoli situated close to the border with neighbouring Tunisia. To the east there is the coastal province of Cyrenaica (or to give it its name when it was a province of Imperial Rome, Marmarcia) with Benghasi as the main city and administrative hub, and to the south lie the vast areas of largely uninhabited desert known as the Fezzan where many of the oil fields and installations are situated.
At either end of the two main coastal provinces are two formidable natural obstacles which restrict military operations, as both British and German and Italian forces discovered to their cost in WW2.
At the eastern end where Libya borders Egypt there is what is known as the Quattara depression where the desert floor drops several hundred metres to become a series of impassable salt marshes and prevents any access to the Nile Delta. We can disregard this as an obstacle in the present fighting which is confined to the central and eastern parts of Libya and under the control of rebel forces.
But it is a similar series of impassable salt marshes west of Aghabadia and at El Aghelia that divide the two coastal provinces of Libya that are proving a major obstacles to both the pro and anti-government forces at the present time – Gaddafi forces pushing east trying to capture the rebel-held stronghold of Benghasi and the rebel forces attempting to advance west along the coast towards Tripoli.
That is why Gaddafi’s military made such strenuous attempts to capture Aghabadia two weeks ago until driven off by NATO air strikes. Once those natural obstacles are breached the city of Benghasi and indeed the whole of eastern Libya are indefensible with wide open flanks that can easily by-passed and surrounded by mobile forces.
During the desert war of 1940-42, British forces got stuck at El Aghelia twice and could not push on and finish the campaign. Twice Rommel and the Afrika Korps were able to retreat behind those marshes and re-group before mounting successful counter attacks, which led to the re-occupation of the entire eastern half of Libya that was only eventually stopped at Alamein, due in no small part to the courage and tenacity of Australian 9th Division.
So, the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime is not just a question of men and logistics. The terrain and the ability to overcome these natural obstacles and the ability to sustain an advance will play a critical part.
As in any military campaign it’s the geography that counts. Remember Russia!

Contact Brian Burton about this article.

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