Muammar Qaddafi has strengthened his grip on Libya and has begun to reverse some of the gains made by protesters and rebels since mid-February.

Rebels captured the town of Bin Jawad on 5 March, but were ejected only a day later. Government forces are now firmly in control of the town in the Sirte basin, Qaddafi’s homeland. The army is using it as a base to move eastward along the coast towards Ras Lanuf, where fighting has intensified. Qaddafi is reported to have launched multiple airstrikes, including dropping bombs on the oil terminal.

Qaddafi is continuing his operations against the opposition-held industrial town of Zawiyah, just 40 kilometres from his powerbase in Tripoli. The town is the site of a major oil refinery and two export terminals, but has been surrounded by loyalist forces since 28 February and has been cut off from Zuwarah, another opposition enclave to the west for more than a week.

The Libyan leader’s advances come as calls from the international community for a no-fly zone over country grow. Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the head of Libya’s caretaker opposition government in Benghazi is reported to have pleaded for international assistance, saying “It is our desire that friendly nations and nations that have the power to decide should come forward and assist us … I also appeal to the international community to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya”.

Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defence has pointed out that a no-fly zone over Libya would require direct military intervention, including the elimination of Libya’s current air defence systems and then providing air cover.

Qaddafi responded on Turkey’s state-run TRT news channel saying Libya would resist the imposition of a no-fly zone.

“They want to take your petrol. This is what America, this is what the French, those colonialists, want,” said Qaddafi.

As things stand, it is also unlikely that China and Russia would lend their support for enforcing a no-fly zone at the UN. In any case, these may be inadequate to deal with Qaddafi’s remaining forces. Most of the conflict has taken place with ground forces and the extent to which Qaddafi’s regime has used of fighter jets and helicopters remains unclear.

The Arab League has so far failed to take the lead in the crisis and the wider international community has not yet reached a consensus on the best course of action. Suggestions have ranged from arming rebel forces to implementing a no-fly zone over the country. But after Iraq, few will want to be drawn into another intervention in the Arab and Muslim world.

After protests began on 15 February in Libya’s main cities, the Libyan uprising is now in its fourth week and the body count has moved well into the hundreds. It shows no sign of ending soon. Saif al-Islam, Qaddafi’s son warned on 21 February, that Libya might slip toward a bloody civil war if the demonstrators do not capitulate .A protracted conflicts looks more likely, according to political analysts.

Libya military strength

Before the conflict began, Qaddafi’s army constituted only 50,000 men, half of which were conscripted, according to the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Egypt on the other hand has more than a million soldiers and reservists. It is difficult to estimate how many have remained loyal in Libya.

Simon Henderson at the US’ Washington Institute for Near East Policy highlights that each every atrocity ensures the loyalty of those units still linked to the dictator. “After all, if the regime falls, those soldiers implicated in the violence could face the gallows”, says Henderson.

Fearing the kind of military coup that brought him to power in 1969, Qaddafi has limited his military’s resources. Military spending was low compared to its neighbours, averaging only 1.2 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Qaddafi does have the advantage of being able use the existing military command and communications infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the opposition forces has been hindered outside Benghazi by a lack of organisation and limited firepower.

“There is a real possibility that this will become a long-term stalemate between the rump of Libya and the eastern ‘free’ Libya,” says Theodore Karasik, a security analyst at Inegma, a Middle-East think-tank.

“But before this happens, a series of other events will have to occur, such as the solidification of a line of combat.”

The opposition will also need the establishment of a functioning government in the east, Currently, Libya’s ministries, officials, police forces and all the institutions are associated with the state. “We are not there yet, but it is still too early to tell,” says Karasik.

The National Transitional Council in Benghazi is taking steps towards this, launching a website on 9 March in English and Arabic. The 31-member council has established local councils to “manage daily life in the liberated cities and villages”.

Qaddafi’s loyalists are mounting an organised and determined fight to preserve his rule, but are essentially fighting to retain control of an enclave within his former domains.