The swings in fortune in the Libyan conflict that have seen dramatic rebel advances from the east followed by equally dramatic retreats, in part reflect the country’s wide-open desert terrain.
It is not without precedent: rapid advances by British, German and Italian forces in Libya during World War Two also resulted in over-extended supply lines leaving them vulnerable to counter-attack.
But for the present-day Western military intervention in Libya, this is only part of the problem.
The international coalition appears divided over the critical issue of whether to arm rebel fighters — a move that could mark the beginning of deeper involvement in another conflict in the Arab world — which some doubt will work, Reuters reports.
“The rebels really haven’t shown so far that they are a competent fighting force,” said Marko Papic of political risk consultancy Stratfor. “Their military capacity is extremely low and this explains this back and forth going on.
“While they do have some experienced members among them, these seem mostly to spend their time trying to stay alive from the gunfire of the less experienced members,” he said.
“So it’s not clear that giving the rebels complex weapons will achieve anything — for a start, it’s not clear they would know how to use them.”
Quick rebel gains at the start of their uprising in February suggested leader Muammar Gaddafi would quickly be toppled. That thinking was spurred again when Western powers began air strikes 11 days ago, allowing rebels to regain ground.
But subsequent reverses have exposed the rebels’ military limitations and have also shown Gaddafi and his forces to be more resilient and tactically adept than expected, leaving the West in a quandary.
A conference of 40 governments and international bodies in London on Tuesday agreed to press a NATO-led aerial bombardment until Gaddafi complies with a U.N. resolution to end violence against civilians.
It also set up a contact group of 20 countries and organisations, including Arab states, the African Union and the Arab League, to coordinate international support for an orderly transition to democracy.
But it remains far from clear how this can be achieved.
Barak Seener, a Middle East expert at London’s Royal United Services Institute, said the rebels should be given military training and “game changing” weapons such as anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems.
“It is clear that Gaddafi will not leave his position as a result of any negotiations, or because President Obama declares that he must go,” he said.
Seener also said Western policy should go beyond the existing U.N. mandate to protect civilians, instead allowing the “targeting and decapitation of the Gadaffi regime”.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Tuesday he had agreed to provide communications equipment, medical supplies and potentially transportation aid to the rebels, but he has yet to decide whether to provide military hardware.
“I’m not ruling it in, I’m not ruling it out,” he told NBC while on a trip to New York.
Analysts said that while the British also appeared open to the idea of arming the rebels, France was more cautious, with its Foreign Minster Alain Juppe making clear a new U.N. resolution would be required — something unlikely to get necessary Russian or Chinese support.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, having to maintain a consensus among 28 allies, said NATO had no mandate to arm the rebels.
Rebels returning from the frontline have no doubts.
They say they have been overwhelmed by Gaddafi’s superior firepower and need heavier weapons than their Kalashnikov rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, truck-mounted machine guns and light rockets.
Rebel spokesmen say they particularly need anti-tank missiles, more ammunition and communications equipment.
Training is clearly a pressing need, with most fighters lacking tactical experience and oblivious to basic requirements such as reconnaissance or protection for their flanks — something that has caught them out in recent days.
Some fighters say they have had a day or two of training from military defectors, but most have not. They would have more ammunition if they did not keep firing into the air.
While some fighters say they do have officers, they are hard to detect and do not seem able to keep much discipline.
Decisions are often made after heated arguments or by following whoever shouts loudest and despite the courage of some, the tendency is to flee in disarray when the Gaddafi forces start firing in a sustained way.
In some cases supply lines have been so over-stretched or are non-existent that advancing rebels have had to scoop petrol from abandoned filling stations using plastic bottles attached to string as they have no other fuel supplies.
Daniel Keohane of the Institute for Security Studies said that while there were clearly divisions among Western governments over how to proceed, he would be surprised if Western special forces were not already trying to advise the rebels on how to organise themselves.
However, arming them covertly was a different proposition and politically difficult.
“This has to be seen as a Libya victory, not a coalition victory,” he said. “I find it hard to see how the coalition can agree politically to arming the rebels, but without arms I can’t see how the rebels can win.”
One possible option would be for Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Egypt to provide arms, Keohane said.
“That would be a politically more acceptable route — it would be Arabs helping Arabs. Even if it happens to be Western technology, it would be much more politically acceptable than the Americans directly doing this,” he said.
Brigadier Ben Barry of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said the rebels were so disorganised that providing them with better weapons would make little difference in the short term.
“What might have greater effect is deployment of teams of trainers and advisers to assist the rebels in better co-ordinating their efforts. Capability could be provided by Special Forces, which should ideally be from Muslim and Arab states,” he said.