Two weeks ago, pounded by tanks and artillery, the rebels lost town after town along the coastal highway that runs all the way from Tripoli to Benghazi. More recently the loyalist army also had to flee, in the other direction, down that same road. In both cases the retreating armies found themselves utterly outgunned, the rebels by Gaddafi’s armour, the loyalists by coalition bombs. On that flat terrain, on that two-lane road, firepower is everything, armies have nowhere to hide. That is about to change. The next city on the highway is Sirte and the upcoming battle for Gaddafi’s hometown may well be the decisive moment in the Libyan revolution.
Airpower is devastating in the desert. It is not nearly as dominant in cities, especially considering Nato’s remit is to prevent civilian casualties. Heavy weaponry is inevitably less effective within urban areas. That is why Misrata, the only western city still held by the rebels, has been able to repulse Gaddafi’s superior forces for several weeks. That is why it took ten days for the crack Khamis Brigade to take the small city of Zawiyah even before allied air attacks began to aid the rebels. To win a battle in a city against a determined population requires a house-to-house slog. So far, the rebels’ success had been on the back of coalition air superiority. In Sirte they will have to do the heavy lifting themselves.