The rebels are on the move in Libya.
Unfortunately, getting answers to the question "where exactly are they moving?" from the American media is not that easy. There are a few reasons for this, but before I get to that, here's the map the media really should be providing on a regular basis (but are not). [I suggest you open this map in a separate browser window, to use as a helpful reference for the rest of this article.]
The Libyan rebels have launched an offensive from all three of the major areas they currently control. The eastern part of Libya (see the smaller inset map at the bottom of the battle map) is the area around the rebel stronghold (and governmental center) of Benghazi. This is the largest area in the country which the rebels control. The fight westward from Benghazi to the Gaddafi-held Sirte has ebbed and flowed over the course of the war. Currently, the battle for Brega (which I wrote about a few weeks ago) is still being fought. The slowdown in the rebels' advance here is due in large part to the new tactic the loyalist forces are using -- withdrawing from an area after laying hundreds of landmines. Clearing out these mines is slow and dangerous work (a recent photo showed over three thousand anti-personnel mines removed from Brega and disarmed). The rebels have taken over the eastern half of Brega, but the loyalists still control the western half of the city, and the refineries and pipelines.
While the rebel advance has slowed in Brega, though, it has sped up noticeably in Libya's west. The battle map shows this section of the country in detail. The ultimate objective, of course, is Tripoli. To Tripoli's east is the second rebel-held area, around the city of Misrata (rebel-held areas are red on the map, loyalist-held areas are in green). The battle for the city of Misrata was the rebels' first real victory in this civil war, and in recent weeks the frontlines have moved out from the city itself to the surrounding towns. The rebels have expanded their perimeter to the point that loyalists cannot shell Misrata any more, because they've been pushed back out of range. Moving southwards along the coast, the rebels took Tarwerga, and today reports are coming in that the rebels have taken Al Heisha (which, unfortunately is not on the map, but seems to be further down the road to Sirte than Tarwerga). In addition to this, the rebels are also pushing west from Misrata, moving the fight along the coast to the city of Zlitan.
In the westernmost part of the country, the rebels have had their biggest successes since securing Misrata. Starting from the border, the rebels have taken town after town until they now control the entire chain of the Nafusa Mountains. A few weeks ago, they took the town of Zintan, and as you can see on the battle map, they have quickly advanced from there in two separate directions.
The rebels are trying to take the words "the noose is tightening around Gaddafi" in quite literal fashion. It seems obvious that the rebels are attempting to encircle Tripoli, and due to the fact that there just aren't a lot of roads in or out, this objective may actually soon be within their grasp.
Isolating Tripoli means cutting off supply lines between it and everywhere else the loyalist forces hold, and from any of Libya's borders. In the past week, the rebels are reported to have taken the town of Gharyan, which is crucial to achieving this goal. Cutting off the supply line to the south at Gharyan is a major part of the rebels' pincers movement. The other major part of this plan of attack is cutting off the coastal route from Tripoli to Tunisia. The rebels initially took and held a key bridge along this route, and have expanded to holding the town of Surman and fighting the battle for the city of Zawiyah. Currently the rebels hold portions of the city, and the loyalists are said to still hold about a third of the town. The hospital has apparently been taken over for military use by the loyalists, but the rebels have claimed to have shut off the coastal oil pipeline to Tripoli. Zawiyah (like Brega) is a refinery town, and the rebels seem to be in control of the refinery at this point. It is also only about 30 miles down the road from Tripoli -- the closest the rebels have yet gotten to their main objective.
If the rebels can hold on to Zawiyah and Gharyan, they may have reached a tipping point in their war effort. Holding a section of the coastal road from Tunisia to Tripoli is a major blow to the loyalist forces in the capital, as this road is the major supply route for the Tripoli. Gasoline and other fuel are reported to already be in short supply in Tripoli, and if Gaddafi loses both the coastal road and his southern supply route as well, then Tripoli will be cut off from any further resupply.
The rebels' next move is obvious. Keep the pressure on in Brega. The rebel forces around Misrata have the objective of taking Zlitan and holding it, and then moving up the coastal route to Tripoli to take Al Khums. The objective of the rebels in Gharyan will be to secure the city (and the supply road south), and then move north and take Al Aziziya. Eventually, the forces from Misrata and the forces from Gharyan can meet in the middle, at Tarhuna, which will complete the encircling of Tripoli, and cut off Ghaddafi from the rest of his loyalist forces elsewhere in the country. To the west of Tripoli, the rebels need to expand the section of coast they control in both directions.
If all goes well for the rebel forces, they will soon be within reach of the goal of completely surrounding Tripoli. There have been rumors that the Gaddafi government and the rebels are holding secret talks in Tunisia, but these rumors have been denied by both sides. Even if the talks are taking place, it's hard to imagine the rebels would give in on any of their demands -- starting first and foremost with Gaddafi stepping down from power. The only thing the talks may achieve is avoiding the final battle for Tripoli itself, which will be brutal.
The American media has been beating the drum of "the Libyan war is a stalemate" so long that they've been slow to realize the changing picture on the ground there. Rather than a ragtag bunch of guys who had never fired a gun before, the rebel forces are showing that they've spent the last six months getting a lot better at what they are doing. They have not achieved it yet, but they are on the brink of turning that battle map of Libya from one largely tinted green (with pockets of red) to one of mostly red (with ever-shrinking pockets of green).
I realize it is hard to keep track of what is going on in Libya. For one thing, Americans aren't on the ground there (although they are in the skies and off the coast at sea), meaning there have been zero American troop deaths so far. For another thing, all the location names (as well as the leader's name) have to be translated from Arabic -- which is a phonetic language. This means various different English spellings of each particular name (there is no "correct" spelling of any of these, in English), both in the news and on the web. And none of these locations -- with the exception of Tripoli -- are very familiar to Americans. All of this contributes to the lack of data in the media on what the situation is on the ground in Libya.
But every once in a while, it is nice to actually see a map of what is taking place. This week is a good one to take a look at the battle map, and watch the rebels' advance. So far, in this offensive, the rebels have not lost any ground at all. They've been slowed down by the landmines in Brega, but everywhere else they are gaining ground by the day. Eventually the rebels' advance may be halted, or even turned back. There are no sure things in war. But even though the United States is in a peripheral role in this fight, the media need to wake up and realize the situation is changing in Libya. And it wouldn't be too much to ask to see a map of what is going on, rather than just the usual "Rebels have taken the town of [insert hard-to-pronounce Arabic name], but we're too lazy to show you where that actually is and what it actually means."
Follow Chris Weigant on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChrisWeigant