Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s elite forces hold the key to crushing the rebellion in the North African country as he can no longer count on the regular army, analysts said Monday.
Gaddafi’s forces have won a string of victories in recent days as they move east from Tripoli, and were battling on Monday for Ajdabiya, a key town which the rebels have vowed to defend at all costs.
Dave Hartwell, a Middle East and North Africa analyst for IHS Jane's, the London-based defense information group, said Gaddafi 's paramilitary unit, the Revolutionary Guard Corps, was seen as his most loyal forces.
"The revolutionary guard is about 3,000 strong, and we are confident that they are fighting at the moment," Hartwell told AFP.
"They have access to a variety of weapons, including battle tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopters."
Known as Liwa Haris al-Jamahiriya, the guard is hand-picked from Gaddafi 's tribal region around the port town of Sirte, "and their main duty is to protect Gaddafi and his family," Hartwell said.
"They are pretty well knitted into the fabric of the regime."
Soviet-made battle tanks T72s, dating from the early 1970s, are the most modern vehicles available to Gaddafi 's forces, the analyst said.
A second crack battalion, the Khamis Brigade commanded by Gaddafi 's youngest son, Khamis, in theory has access to 260 of the tanks, though it is unclear how many are fully functional.
The regular Libyan army, meanwhile, numbered 45,000 before the rebellion started, but Hartwell said only a third are still fighting after several thousand either defected to the rebels or "just melted away."
"Loosely, we estimate that only 10,000-15,000 troops are loyal to Gaddafi -- but this is probably still enough to seize the initiative," Hartwell said.
Morale is probably improving due to victories over the rebels in the key towns of Zawiyah, Ras Lanuf and Brega, he said. "If they maintain the advance (in the east) of the country, that will continue to boost morale."
A 40,000-strong reserve force, or People's Militia, which have strong tribal links to Gaddafi, is another, "more ideological" asset that Gaddafi can call on, Hartwell said.
"Militarily it is not considered an effective force, but they have a stake in the preservation of the status quo," he said.
Gary Li, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), said there were signs Kadhafi was altering his military strategy away from air attacks to more ground-based assaults.
"The forces that took Zawiyah last Friday were the dreaded Khamis Brigade, one of the best equipped of Gaddafi 's forces," Li told AFP.
"Arguably even their tanks would have been vulnerable to RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) attacks from the lightly armed rebels but what seems to have been the deciding factor was artillery.
"The Gaddafi forces moved away from relatively ineffectual air attacks to more traditional ground based artillery barrages."
He said using artillery "smacks of desperation", but the psychological impact of artillery strikes on untrained volunteers "far outweigh actual damage -- which in itself was already considerable".
Li believes the change of tactics was a sign of Gaddafi's increasingly ruthless approach towards the rebels.
"I think the general feeling is that Gaddafi has abandoned any thoughts of possible reconciliation with the rebels and the gloves are now well and truly off so to speak," Li said.
"The employment of heavy artillery on his own people is ten times worse than air strikes."
He also conceded that a a no-fly zone would have "no impact" on an artillery-led battle.
The revolutionary guard is about 3,000 strong, and we are confident that they are fighting at the moment
Dave Hartwell, a Middle East and North Africa analyst