This post was originally posted at DemConWatch, written by Scott Calvin, Professor of Physics at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY
We all have many questions about the conflict in Libya: How long will it last? Who are the rebels? How tough will it be to get Qadhafi to leave? How many civilians will be killed? Does the country have a chance of becoming a stable democracy? Will it even be a single country in the future?
We're likely to have a much better sense of the answer to these questions soon, for a simple reason: the rebels are advancing toward Sirte.
What's Sirte? It's Qadhafi's home town, lying midway on the Libyan coast between the country's two largest cities of Tripoli in the west and Benghazii in the east. It has become, under Qadhafi, a kind of secondary capital for the country, with some government ministries headquartered there. It is also the home to Qadhafi's tribe, among others.
The rebels have recaptured Ajdabiya, and reports today indicate Brega is in their hands as well. Next up is Ras Lanuf, then Bin Jawad, which is as far as the rebels got before Qadhafi's counterattack, and then…Sirte.
What happens when they get there? Do the residents side with Qadhafi, and oppose the rebels? If that happens, it is probably impossible for the rebels to take it, and it becomes unlikely the entire conflict will have a swift resolution. Or do the residents join the rebellion? If that happens, then Qadhafi is probably done. Or it could trigger ethnic strife within the city, or even some kind of neutral reaction. Finally, the rebels could decide to bypass Sirte altogether, continuing by it toward the west and the cities nearer to Tripoli. But how does that work? Would the rebels cut off supplies to Sirte, in effect besieging it?
And what does the coalition do in any of these cases? Here's a nightmare scenario: suppose the rebels take Sirte and then begin killing members of Qadhafi's tribe indiscriminately. There's no evidence they are planning to do this, mind you, but just consider what would happen if they did. Would the coalition then begin bombing rebel positions in order to protect the civilians?
Sirte is the test–for the rebels, for the coalition, for the President, for Qadhafi. The way things are going now, it looks like we'll have some answers to the question of Sirte in the next week or so, and with that, some answers to many of the questions surrounding Libya.
UPDATE: Rebel forces have taken Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, eclipsing their former high-water mark. Forget answers coming in the next week or so; the rebels are coming face to face with decisions about Sirte now. President Obama had better write his address to the nation, scheduled for tomorrow night, in pencil.