[Marxism] Who made Libya's revolution?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Mar 30 07:47:48 MDT 2012


Who made Libya’s revolution?

by Renfrey Clark

If you want to get historical questions right, there’s nothing 
like going back to documentary sources. Conversely, if you neglect 
to do this, even when the sources are a mere mouse-click away, 
there’s no end to the silliness you can utter.

Latest to make an ass of himself? Patrick Cockburn, who wrote this 
on March 26 about the war in Libya:

“...military victory was almost wholly due to the NATO air 
assault. The militiamen were a mopping-up force who occupied 
territory after air strikes had cleared the way...”

We have the chance to test this against the record. NATO provides 
a daily log of its air operations over Libya, including total 
overflights, “strike sorties”, and details of targets hit, for 
almost all of the period from March 31 last year, when the air 
assault officially became a NATO operation, through to late 
October. It’s at www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/news_71994.htm.

There aren’t figures for the first days from March 19 to March 30, 
when the attacks were particularly intense and consisted largely 
of cruise missile strikes designed to knock out Gaddafi’s 
anti-aircraft missile defences. These strikes against the 
ground-to-air defence system made things safer for the imperialist 
air crew (none of whom were lost), but weren’t of immediate help 
to the rebels on the ground.

 From early April, operations most of the time were proceeding at 
the rate of 40-55 “strike sorties” per day. NATO says of these 

“Strike sorties are intended to identify and engage appropriate 
targets, but do not necessarily deploy munitions each time.”

If we compare “strike sorties” with targets recorded as hit, then 
it’s clear that on average, aircraft fired off ordnance on fewer 
than half the “strike sorties” flown. From mid-April through to 
late August, when Tripoli had fallen and Gaddafi was on the run, 
the number of discrete targets destroyed each day was generally in 
the range of 20 to 25.

Twenty to twenty-five effective air strikes per day, across three 
main fronts spread over some 800 km, is anything but an intensive 
bombardment. Also, we need to take account of the fact that a good 
deal of the bombing was still aimed at suppressing anti-aircraft 
defences, taking out targets recorded as “3 radars”, “7 surface to 
air missile transloaders” or “9 surface to air missile launchers”.

Many of the targets were ammunition storage bunkers. Gaddafi, 
though, had laid up huge reserves of munitions. Press reports 
suggest strongly that shortages of ammunition were nowhere near as 
great a problem for his forces as they were for the insurgents.

For all that, my view is that for some months the bombing was an 
indispensable condition of the rebels surviving and carrying on 
their fight. Crucially, the air attacks in their first days forced 
the abandonment of Gaddafi’s assault on Benghazi, an assault which 
in my view the rebels could not otherwise have withstood.

A key lesson which the regime learnt early in the air war was the 
vulnerability of its armoured vehicles to modern laser-guided 
bombs. NATO’s “hits” during April, the record shows, included 
significant numbers of tanks. Gaddafi’s armour – international 
military experts in 2009 put it at more than 2000 tanks, plus more 
than a thousand armoured personnel carriers – was not 
significantly depleted. But a decision seems to have been made 
that with armoured vehicles so vulnerable to air attack, they had 
for the most part to be kept concealed and out of action.

On open desert terrain –and, for that matter, in the relatively 
open urban areas typical of Libyan cities – possession of armoured 
vehicles confers a crucial advantage. The bombing cost the regime 
this advantage. Press reports indicate that Gaddafi’s forces 
resorted to using armed pick-up trucks, which NATO was said to be 
reluctant to bomb because of the difficulty of distinguishing them 
from similar vehicles on the rebel side. The mobile skirmishing 
that made up much of the combat thus became relatively equal in 
strictly military terms.

Gaddafi nevertheless kept an important advantage in another key 
area of desert warfare – long-range heavy artillery, largely 
ground-to-ground missiles. The regime is estimated to have had 
more than 2400 multiple rocket launchers and other artillery 
pieces, which are only occasionally noted as having been destroyed 
by the bombing. Gaddafi’s forces had rockets in abundance, and 
used them effectively, until late in the war.

The air strikes were clearly significant in deciding the outcome 
of the siege of the city of Misrata between February and mid-May. 
Air raids on Misrata and its environs are recorded as having taken 
place on 30 of the 39 days between 12 April and 20 May. The 
crucial effect seems to have been in preventing the regime from 
mounting massed armoured assaults on rebel-held areas of the city; 
some 43 armoured vehicles are listed as having been destroyed, 
including 38 tanks. Meanwhile, the besiegers remained well able to 
bombard Misrata, keeping their artillery under cover in built-up 

Misrata, the evidence indicates, was liberated in very much the 
fashion the militias said it was: in fierce house-to-house combat.

I made a particular point of checking the NATO logs for the period 
in August that saw the rebels “break out” from the Nafusa 
mountains south of Tripoli and mount their decisive push on the 
capital. Wikipedia reports here:

“...due to an intense NATO bombing campaign of loyalist forces, 
pro-Gaddafi troops had to pull back from the mountains. This gave 
the chance for the rebels to go on the offensive toward the coast 
west of Tripoli.”

This “intense NATO bombing”, however, seems to have been mythical. 
There is no record of anything more than a few sporadic air 
strikes in the region of the mountains around the beginning of 
August. In general, the Nafusa front was only very sparsely bombed.

By August 5 the offensive was under way, focused on the strategic 
town of Bir al Ghanam, 85 km south of Tripoli. The NATO logs have 
the following record of targets struck “in the vicinity of Bir al 

5 Aug: 0

6 Aug: 1 ammunition storage facility, 1 command and control mode, 
1 multiple rocket launcher system, 1 military vehicle.

7 Aug: 0

8 Aug: 0

9 Aug: 0

10 Aug: 1 multiple rocket launcher.

11 Aug: 2 armed vehicles.

12 Aug: 5 armed vehicles, 2 anti-aircraft guns.

13 Aug: 1 military vehicle.

Whoever routed Gaddafi’s forces from Bir al Ghanam during that 
week, it’s hard to believe it was NATO.

By 13 August rebel columns were inside the coastal city of Zawiya, 
35 km west of Tripoli, and heavy fighting had begun. Targets 
destroyed by bombing in and around Zawiya on that and subsequent 
days are recorded as follows:

13 Aug: 2 tanks.

14 Aug: 1 anti-aircraft gun.

15 Aug: 3 tanks, 1 armed vehicle, 1 military vehicle.

17 Aug: 2 armed vehicles, 1 military boat.

18 Aug: 1 command and control node, 2 armed vehicles, 1 
transloader, 5 tanks.

The bombing played a significant role here by knocking out 
Gaddafi’s tanks. But given the scale of the fighting and the 
forces involved, NATO’s contribution was not decisive.

Tripoli, apart from small enclaves, fell to the insurgents during 
three days of heavy fighting from the evening of 20 August. During 
the previous week, bombing “in the vicinity of Tripoli” had 
destroyed 5-10 targets most days, many of them anti-aircraft 
weapons and infrastructure. A peak was reached on 20 August, with 
the following targets hit:

“Three military facilities, 1military storage facility, 7 surface 
to air missile transloaders, 1 radar, 1 surface to surface 
missile, 2 armed vehicles, 2 armoured fighting vehicles, 3 command 
and control nodes, 2 multiple rocket launchers.”

  For the main days of fighting in the capital, the targets 
destroyed by the bombing are given as follows:

21Aug: 3 command and control facilities, 1 military facility, 2 
radar, 9 surface to air missile launchers, 1 tank, 2 armed vehicles.

22 Aug: No targets hit in Tripoli.

23 Aug: 2 armoured fighting vehicles, 2 military heavy equipment 
trucks, 3 surface to air missile systems, 1 radar.

24 Aug: 2 military storage facilities, 1 military heavy equipment 
truck, 2 anti-aircraft guns, 1 surface to air missile support 
vehicle, 1 multiple rocket launcher, 1 radar.

As indicated earlier, I regard the NATO military intervention, 
over some months and arguably as late as the “break-out” in the 
first half of August, as having been a condition for the success 
of the insurrection. Without the bombing, the tanks would have 
rolled and the outcomes on the various fronts would have been very 

There’s a fundamental distinction to be made, though, between 
recognising NATO’s air strikes as a requirement for the rebel 
victory, and identifying imperialist intervention as the primary 
cause of Gaddafi’s overthrow. In my view, the key reasons for the 
revolutionary victory were political, lying in the hatred felt for 
the regime by the masses in most parts of Libya and the readiness 
of hundreds of thousands of Libyans to take part in armed struggle.

By offsetting at least partially Gaddafi’s advantages in terms of 
armaments and military organisation, and allowing the fighting to 
proceed on less unequal terms, NATO’s intervention allowed the 
revolution’s strengths in terms of popular allegiance and 
political will to act as determining factors.

The bombing didn’t need to be intensive for this to happen, and as 
the record of NATO’s operations shows, its actual scale was rather 
small. Very plainly, the main burden of grinding down Gaddafi’s 
forces was borne by the Libyan people in arms. As the Libyans see 
it, they’re the ones who made their revolution, not NATO. And 
that’s correct.

Sorry – I forgot. There’s been no revolution in Libya. Gaddafi is 
still alive and in power, and his thieving children are in their 
mansions. The press is still tightly censored. There’s no 
independent women’s movement. Democratic municipal elections are 
inconceivable. Trade unions are still banned, and the penalty for 
trying to set up a political party remains death by hanging.

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