While Gaddafi was taken aback by the scale of the initial uprising and it seemed that he was on the ropes, his forces managed to rally and with armor, artillery and air power was just about to enter Benghazi, the headquarters of the opposition in the East of Libya, when NATO air power smashed his tanks and turned the tide of the (civil) war.
While no one knows the final outcome it appears that with NATO air power ruling the skies and the fact that his tanks are easy targets from the air on the mostly flat and sparsely populated Libyan coastline, the tides of war can only appear to go against Gaddafi. He can’t sortie out from his strongholds of Sirte and Tripoli but the rebels are free to move up the coast, take the oil rich areas, and start to plan some sort of siege against the remaining areas in Gaddafi’s hands.
The reason for the huge groundswell against Gaddafi that allowed the West to pass a security council resolution allowing for armed intervention are two words that Gaddafi said in a speech as his forces appeared ascendant and heading towards Benghazi:
By effectively telegraphing IN ADVANCE that he INTENDED to commit atrocities against civilians in Benghazi, Gaddafi gave the coalition the perfect “smoking gun” that enabled them to rally the Arab and the Western world against him.
If he wouldn’t have given this “gift” to the opposition it seems clear that he would have utilized his air power and heavy weaponry to crush the rebels and reassert control over Libyan oil. With that and the passage of time (Gaddafi had huge foreign reserves) it is likely that someone like the Chinese or Russians (who abstained from the Security Council resolution) would have become partners with him in order to leverage his oil and it would have been some sort of “business as usual” for Gaddafi, although he would have a hard time shopping at the finest stores in London and Paris.
I never thought my knowledge of Libya, gained from playing years of WW2 military simulations related to the 8th Army and the Afrika Korps, would ever amount to anything useful or relevant in today’s terms, but in fact the situation Gaddafi faces is similar to Rommel’s last attempts at advancing on the British before the tide turned when he faced overwhelming air power.
Anyone who has to fight, even with the most modern weapons, against an enemy in complete control of the air, fights like a savage
Gaddafi is finding that out fast and his forces are likely to disintegrate much faster than the Germans in WW2 in the same situation since their morale and cohesion is far lower.
But for those 2 words, it is highly likely that Gaddafi would have won.