Conflict & Justice

Examining Libya's military forces

LISA MULLINS: It's hard to know which side has the upper hand militarily in Libya, the Gaddafi regime or the opposition. The picture is complicated by daily reports of army units to which it sides and defections by top military personnel. The impact of these defections may be blunted by the fact that Muammar Gaddafi has intentionally kept his country's military divided. Reva Bhalla is with the Global Intelligence Company, Stratfor. Do you know how powerful Libya's military is right now, especially given these defections?

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REVA BHALLA: Well, that is the main question and the situation really remains murky but you can see very clearly that the country is divided between east and west. And this is a historical divide between eastern Serenaga [sp] and western Shipolitania [sp]. In looking at the situation right now, we can see Gaddafi forces digging in for the fight and with residents in Tripoli, stockpiling arms and expecting the worst. On the eastern side, you have a number of defectors, many senior army defectors, many of whom were actually in the Corps Free Officers movement that actually helped Gaddafi come to power in the '69 coups. And this group is trying to mobilize forces, gather volunteers who could potentially advance on to Tripoli to try to oust Gaddifi by force. Now, that would be a huge undertaking, considering the split between the east and west and the roughly 500 miles of desert in between.

MULLINS: Cause you're saying if they were to cross that 500 miles in the desert, then they'd be vulnerable to air attack from Gaddifi's forces?

BHALLA: Absolutely. The textbook example of crossing such a long stretch of desert, it makes you extremely vulnerable to air firing. So, that's why defections from the Air Force are particularly important to watch right now.

MULLINS: Reva, how do you know what you know about what's happening in that desert or as we said in the east and the west? I mean, how can you tell what's going on there?

BHALLA: It's very difficult to get information out of this region. So, we're trying to talk to as many people as we can, both in the east and the west. We're trying to get aerial pictures as well. But you can see clearly that the Gaddafi regime is putting a lot of force into its propaganda campaign. Even today, they were claiming that the army chief, who earlier they reported was placed under house arrest, is leading a pro-Gaddafi rally in the south. I mean, that's definitely a suspicious report on Libyan state TV. But, the Gaddafi regime wants to portray this image that he has retained considerable support in the army and amongst the tribes, and that really all of this opposition in the east is due to young people who are on drugs, as they claim, or affiliated to al-Qaeda.

MULLINS: When we look at the opposition, it's tempting to say that the opposition is pro-democracy, that it is split basically from the military because it's anti-Gaddafi. Are there subsections to that, though? Is part of it tribal and not just political?

BHALLA: Absolutely. Libya, at its core, is a tribal society and when Gaddafi's son, Seif al-Islam, made a speech a few nights ago, he spoke of this threat of Libya breaking down into tribes and to civil war, essentially. And I think that was a threat that needs to be taken very seriously because if you don't have the region at the home to hold the tribes and hold the army together, then very quickly you'll see loyalties fall to the tribal level.

MULLINS: So, in order to understand the tribal splits, what do we need to know about Gaddafi's own tribal base?

BHALLA: Gaddafi's own tribal base is actually very limited. His tribal homeland is located on the western edge of the Gulf of Sidra. And because it's a very limited area, he's really been empowered due to a complex arrangement with the more dominant tribes in the region. And those tribal loyalties appear to be breaking down. We've seen over the course of the past few days very prominent tribes announcing their decision to join with the people. So, while the tribes haven't played a significant part in actually taking part in the demonstrations, their support is essential to Gaddafi holding onto power. And, I don't think that's something he can count on at this point.

MULLINS: Well, there are tribal concerns in also regarding the military itself. Let's say that Gaddafi is forced from office, what role could the military, as divided as it seems right now, play in a post-Gaddafi transition?

BHALLA: Well, we've heard of a plan in the works by some former army officers to try to put together a new revolutionary command council to stage an army intervention and assert their authority that way in Tripoli. Now, that's going to be very difficult to maintain. This is not a situation like Egypt which doesn't have to worry about those tribal divisions.

MULLINS: Thank you very much. Reva Bhalla, Director of Analysis with the Global Intelligence Company, Stratforce speaking to us from Austin, Texas. Thank you.

BHALLA: Okay. Thank you.

MULLINS: Western military forces could yet get drawn into Libya. Yesterday we heard about a group of European oil workers who were stranded in their Libyan desert base. Their vehicles were stolen so they couldn't escape. They were desperately short of food. Well, today, a British government minister said the SAS, the British Army Special Forces have been put on alert to mount a rescue. At the same time the U.S. government is again insisting that it's considering all options that could get the Gaddafi regime to halt the violence in Libya. White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said, "The feasibility of imposing a no fly zone over Libya is one of the options being debated." By the way, you can find a map online showing just where the protests in Libya are all taking place. That and live updates from our partners at the BBC are all at theworld.org.