The battle to control Libya has entered its final phase when Muammar Gaddafi must make a choice: to seek a negotiated exit or to defend his capital to the last bullet.
Rebels with support from NATO warplanes have, over the past 48 hours, taken key towns around Gaddafi’s stronghold in Tripoli in a dramatic series of advances which cut the city off from supplies of fuel and food.
Rebel offensives have, in the past, turned into headlong retreats. But if they hold their ground, the end of Gaddafi’s 41-year rule will be closer than at any time since the conflict began six months ago.A U.S. official said that for the first time in the conflict, government forces on Sunday fired a Scud missile — an act that was pointless from a military point of view but signalled the desperation of pro-Gaddafi forces.
“The Libyan regime may or may not collapse forthwith but it now looks like it will happen sooner or later,” said Daniel Korski, a fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations.
He added: “The manner of its collapse, however, and the method of the rebel takeover will be just as important as the conduct of the war.”
Flushed by their success in getting so close to Tripoli, some rank-and-file rebels on Monday spoke of attacking the capital next. But analysts said that will not be the favoured option for rebel commanders.
Gaddafi will throw all the men and weapons he has left into a defence of the capital, civilian casualties in urban fighting will be high, and sections of the population in Tripoli are likely to oppose the rebels.
Even if Gaddafi’s opponents were able to win that fight, the bloodshed would create grievances and vendettas which could make the capital — and maybe even the country — ungovernable.
Starved of fuel and unable to bring in more weapons and reinforcements, elements of Gaddafi’s security forces in Tripoli may decide the best way to save themselves is to lay down their arms or cross over and join the rebels.