Libya News: Inside the Rebels’ Secret Endgame

Fadel Lamen, with rebel leaders in Libya last week, reveals their strategy.

Gianluigi Guercia / Getty Images

Having spent the past two weeks with rebel leaders in Libya, as well as in Tunisia and Egypt, where more opposition leaders bide their time, I am less surprised than most by the rapid assault on Tripoli and the seemingly imminent collapse of Gaddafi.

First, I saw firsthand the level of coordination between NATO and the Libyan opposition’s Transitional National Council, and its systematic strategy of capturing, controlling, and then protecting liberated land. Compared with the ragtag back-and-forth fighting we saw in the early days of the uprising, the opposition forces in the western front used different tactics and organized themselves better. Clearer command and control meant better coordination and steady progress.

The fact is, Tripoli was never meant to be invaded from the east regardless of how much the rebel fighters wished for that. So for months, while the Al-Briga battles raged in the east, the rebels in the west trained in the Nafoosa mountain camps. The new philosophy: train forces who can sneak back to their own cities, well armed, in order to fight from within the cities when the time comes. This past week, these new brigades—Zawiyah, Tripoli, and Gharayan—demonstrated the fruits of this tactic.

Those who stood in the way faced classic carrot-and-stick choices, which reduced resistance and in some cases enticed residents to join the uprising. Patience indeed proved a virtue. Some Gaddafi strongholds were surrounded, but not invaded, such as in Gharayan, a city of 185,000 where Waheed Burshan, head of the local rebel council, chose to foment uprising rather than roll in. The city fell without any resistance.

Zawiyah was different: a combination of perimeter force and trained Zawiyah brigade soldiers planted within the city provided an outside-inside punch that surprised and overwhelmed Gaddafi’s forces. The same tactic in Tripoli yielded even better results, especially after NATO softened the morale and military capabilities of Gaddafi’s forces.

Indeed, a few days ago you could literally feel the desperation among Gaddafi’s leaders. After Benghazi, I stopped for few hours in Cairo, where I met some Libyan writers and activists meeting to discuss the upcoming Libyan transition.

While in the meeting, one leader, Idris al Mismari, pulled me aside: “I just received a phone call from Tripoli—Gaddafi’s guys want to talk.” He told me they were concerned about bloodshed in Tripoli and wanted to discuss a ceasefire.

Given my long history with key players on both sides, he asked that we call them back together.

We talked to Abuzaid Dourada, a close Gaddafi friend who was then leading his boss’s efforts against the opposition. I wanted to hear Dourada out before engaging him, and he went on rambling about NATO, French President Sarkozy, and the opposition as we listened on the speakerphone.

I whispered to my friend, “Tell him there will be an opportunity to talk and move to a ceasefire if Gaddafi and his family leave the country—this way we can prevent any bloodshed in Tripoli.” For face-saving purposes, I suggested that the capitulation could be to NATO, rather than other Libyans.

But despite the desperate tone across the phone, that parry went nowhere, and I knew then that both Gaddafi and his closest advisers remained in their self-made world of denial.

Now that Tripoli has fallen, what’s next?

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Too many weapons, too many ringleaders, and a possible tribal fragmentation of the democratic forces all pose real dangers to the ideal of a true democratic Libya.

But my conversations with key rebel leaders of different stripes give me hope. There is a universal demand in Libya for real democracy; any individual leader or commander who crosses that line does so at his peril.

Also, know this: the Benghazi military chiefs are mostly engineers, doctors, and defectors from Gaddafi’s security force. As Fahti Bajaa, head of the policies committee in the Transitional Council, explained to me, it’s in the interest of all those types to establish a proper democracy, with oversight over a proper, professional national army. That would allow those with political or military aspirations, and professionals who aspire to nothing more than returning to their old responsibilities, to each be able to achieve their goals.

The other looming issue is a possible clash between Islamists and more secular Libyans. Again, the leaders I spent time with are trying to affirmatively address this: Idris al-Tayeb, a diplomat and poet, along with others, is already spearheading an initiative to encourage a broad unity movement during the transition. And based on what I saw during my time on the ground, this will find broad support among Libyans.