Air support from Western powers has helped the Libyan rebels, but they are outgunned by Gaddafi's forces along a complicated political and tribal landscape.
AJDABIYA - The Libyan rebels are retreating again. Having advanced for nearly 300 kilometers following air strikes by the US, UK and France, the rebels were first halted on Monday near the small town of Nofilia. By Tuesday and Wednesday, they have continued to have been unable to compete with the awesome firepower of Muammar Gaddafi's artillery units, and were retreating towards Ajdabiya.
It only took Gaddafi's loyalists a few hours to re-conquer Ben Jawad and the oil port of Ras Lanuf. In the absence of aerial assaults, they were speeding forward again along the road running through the desolate Gulf of Sidra. Lacking leadership and the proper training necessary to hold ground or dig trenches -- the only effective answer to the enemy's artillery shells -- the rebels have barely been able to fire back.
Highly enthusiastic but also notably disorganized, capable of advancing at the speed of lightening, but even faster when it comes to retreating, easily impressed by artillery and aircrafts, prone to looting and dispersing, the rebel forces -- with their pickup trucks instead of camels and guerilla costumes instead of keffiyehs -- bear a striking resemblance with the Bedouin units under Lawrence's command during the "Revolt in the Desert" against the Ottomans during the First World War.
In their contemporary version, these Mad-Max motorized insurgents can only advance if they encounter no serious opposition in their path. Most worrying, they are unable to hold ground. Monday night, inhabitants of the town of Ajdabiya, released only last Saturday from Gaddafi's forces, already feared that the latter might soon return. "Where are the planes? Where is Sarkozy?" people keep asking.
In addition to the problem of Gaddafi's superior military force, the region that lies after Ras Lanouf is largely hostile to the revolutionary army. This barren region where power lines, giant oil refineries and the winding road are the only traces of the modern world, marks an invisible but all too real border between the two coastal regions forming Libya.
It is also at this very place that the Romans erected an arch symbolizing the boundary between the Tripolitania and Cyrenaica provinces. The arch was rebuilt by Mussolini during the annexation of Libya by fascist Italy, and it was once again destroyed by Gaddafi in the 1970s, so as to mark the end of regional divisions.
But historical differences are now playing their part in the complex and highly fluid system of allegiances specific to Libya. Gaddafi has always considered Sirte, which has now become a symbolic target for the rebels, as his second capital. There, he built a huge assembly building (that has never managed to blend in with the rest of this large charm-less city) where the Guide would host meetings with African heads of state, who came – often in exchange for cash -- to show their support to his continental delusions of grandeur.
What is more real now is the continuing loyalty to the Libyan ruler of more than half the inhabitants of Sirte, members of Gaddafi's tribe. Unlike other cities in western Libya, such as neighboring Misrata, Sirte has not seen any popular uprising since the beginning of the Libyan revolution. The risk is that for as long as it remains faithful to the dictator, it will continue to prevent insurgents from advancing westward. And there are no signs of such loyalty evaporating any time soon.
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Photo - Al Jazeera