The Looming Battle of Sirte

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Libya's new rulers are preparing for what could be decisive battles in the days ahead. Fighters are moving toward the last strongholds of support for deposed dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. Chief among those strongholds is Sirte. In his audio message from hiding this week, Gaddafi declared his hometown to be his new capital. That suggests the coastal city could be his last stand as well. Shashank Joshi is with the Royal United Services Institute in London. He says there are a few reasons why Gaddafi may have chosen Sirte as his capital.

Shashank Joshi: It's partly to do with being his native city. It's also of course, the only place where he has a significant base of his own tribe, the Gaddafifah tribe, which is a fairly small tribe in Libya. Sirte is also somewhere where he has prioritized resources and publicity over the last 10 or 15 years of his rule.

Werman: Right, and is that kind of showering Sirte with cash and resources obvious when you visit the city?

Joshi: Well, it's not just cash and resources. It's not just that it's a well-appointed city. It's also to do with the fact that he held a number of summits there. When he decided Libya would become an African state he decided that Sirte would be the place where he held many of its major events. So in a sense it's more about the position it held in the regime's thinking than it is just about the amount of cash. It's also a significant city in wider terms because it lies at the very top of the Sirte basin, and therefore, is a key node in the oil networks of that part of the country.

Werman: Right, so how well defended is it and how long do you think the city will be able to hold out if the rebels attack it?

Joshi: Well, that's very difficult to say of course, because many of us, myself included thought Tripoli would be extremely difficult to breach and yet it fell apart fairly fast. So in the sense that the rebels have never really penetrated its edges throughout this campaign, we would presume it's very well defended and that it has the local population behind defending forces, so there's a number of places to hide. It has a number of arms dumps, a number of garrisons, and so it would be good to defend in that way. But of course, when the attack comes we don't know if they will simply melt away, if they would prefer to fight from an urban insurgency rather than a conventional campaign. So it's impossible to say in advance I think whether this would be a protracted struggle, whether this would be a simple collapse, or whether this would be something else, something much more messy and house to house.

Werman: Has the war reached a turning point in Libya where resistance is futile at this point?

Joshi: Well, we said that months ago of course, when Tripoli was surrounded, when rebel forces were poised in Zawiya, 30 miles away. It looked certainly to me that resistance was futile and it's futile in the strict sense that the Gaddafi regime or any element thereof can't really restore their political standing. They have no hope of capturing the capital city, capturing the palaces once again. It's futile in that respect. Now, of course, before Tripoli was taken we heard a number of claims that 70% of the population supported Gaddafi, that was completely false. And it may also turn out to be false that the general population of Sirte is willing to risk their lives in its defense.

Werman: So you're saying there's a possibility there will be no battle at all.

Joshi: Well, it's entirely possible. It's possible that when it's clear that the amount of force the rebels are bringing to bear on Sirte is so enormous, and let's be clear, it is a fair amount of force, they've redirected many of their tanks, much of their rockets encircle the city, people may prefer to give up rather than actually fight. What we may be seeing is a certain amount of enforced loyalty. We certainly have been hearing stories of officers killed in response to their willingness to negotiate a surrender. Now, of course, all of this information is extremely hazy and should be taken with due skepticism, but it's entirely plausible that when the rebels begin to seep into the city that yes, it will just collapse.

Werman: Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute in London, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Joshi: Of course.