Sunday, March 20, 2011

Libya: This Had Better Work

Photo by B.R.Q. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Muammar Qaddafi isn't big on that forgiveness thing.

Almost exactly 25 years ago, President Ronald Reagan decided to send Qaddafi a little love letter, in the shape of some cruise missiles with his name on them. That was for some nasty shit Qaddafi had pulled in West Berlin some time previously. Qaddafi narrowly escaped that time. Lockerbie was his thank-you note to the USA. Hell, it's 1986 all over again, even a nuclear disaster going on at the same time.

If he survives, you might not want to fly Air France for a while.

I blew my strategic overview big-time a few blog posts ago. Sorry. At least I'm in fairly good company; not a great many people have been guessing this one right. I really wish the War Nerd weighed in, he's uncanny. But then perhaps his secret is to only call the obvious ones and leave the rest to us amateurs and wannabies.

Over the past week or so, Qaddafi has gotten his military shit together, and he decided to go for the jugular. He repelled the attack on Sirt easily enough, and decided to let Misrata sit for the moment and go straight for the rebel capital, Benghazi. He's been pushing towards it really fast, on the order of 30 km/day or more. That means that he's not been meeting much effective resistance on the way. No surprise there; now that he's got his air force and armor working together again, you really don't want to face them in the open, and everything between Tripoli and Cyrenaica is open. Next on the menu would have been some really brutal urban fighting: the rebels know it's a fight to the death, and will fight house to house. I wouldn't even guess how that would go, except that I thought Saif's "all will be over in 48 hours" was a tad optimistic. The Libyan army hasn't been fighting all that well; the rebels have captured armor and other heavy gear intact, which is pretty good for irregulars.

But in a symmetrical face-off between improvised infantry with light weaponry and a combined-forces assault by a regular army, the guerrillas will lose, unless they're the Hizbollah or the Tamil Tigers, and even the Tamil Tigers ended up losing. And that's the action we've been seeing lately.

So what happened? If I had to guess, I'd say that the officer corps that was wavering between sticking with the devil they know or going with the revolution, decided to coalesce around Qaddafi. That got the machinery rolling. After that, it was a bit like the Russian Civil War scenario, with Qaddafi playing the role of the Bolsheviks—they lost most of the country but kept Moscow, then they got their military act together, and then recaptured everything they lost, and eventually more.

And then the United Nations passed that surprise resolution in practically no time flat. I didn't see that coming either. So what's the deal with that?

If you want my wild guess, here it is: France and Lebanon. Nicolas Sarkozy is in very hot water domestically, and there's nothing like a short, victorious war against a universally hated villain to sort that kind of unpleasantness out. Libya was a godsend. And in Lebanon, the Hizbollah is currently the top dog, and they have some very personal beef with Qaddafi: he disappeared Imam Musa Sadr, the founder of the Movement of the Disinherited, which got the ball rolling on the whole Lebanese Shi'ite thing. Musa Sadr is like Jesus to the Lebanese Shi'ites–his face is all over the place in Shi'ite parts of town there. Deserved it too. If he had lived, things might've gone very differently and altogether better.

Hizbollah isn't very big on forgiving and forgetting either. Almost as bad as those guys going on about the Japanese tsunami being karmic retribution for Pearl Harbour. I guess it really is that hard to let go of old grudges.

Anyway, France and Lebanon have very close ties. Lebanon has very close ties with the rest of the Arab countries. The Hizbollah wants Qaddafi's head on a plate. Sarkozy wants a distraction. Voilà, leadership: the Lebs take care of the Arabs, the French take care of the West, and together they find some way to pay off Russia and China to stop them from vetoing the thing. Nice and clean, and everybody's happy, except Qaddafi.

There's just the small matter of winning the damn thing, and I don't see that as a given at all.

Militarily, things suddenly do look pretty grim for Qaddafi. He's been pushing fast for Benghazi, which means his armor is nicely strung out in the open desert. Suddenly he's lost his air supremacy. Hell, he can't even take off after the US-British cruise missile strike taking out his airfields. Those tanks are sitting ducks for French and British fighters. He must now be hoping that the French and the Brits take that "no-fly zone" thing to the letter and ignore the "all necessary measures" bit, and just settle for parading around keeping the air clear of jets, letting that armor make its way to Benghazi, win quickly and decisively there, and that would be that. I'd like to say that they couldn't possibly be that squeamish or stupid, but unfortunately I can't rule that out either. The French and the Brits didn't use to be squeamish at all, but their warfighting glory days are long gone.

But let's assume they're not, and do intend to wipe out that armor. Then what? Back to technicals and RPG's, that's what. And I really have no idea how that'll play out. Or, rather, I have way too many ideas, and all of them seem totally possible. Maybe Qaddafi's army will cave and whack him and the show will be over by Wednesday next. Or maybe they won't, and will beat the rebels even without armor and air support. Maybe the country will split into two warring halves. If Qaddafi survives, he'll face a post-Gulf War I style blockade, and we'll see mysterious explosions on Air France jumbo jets. Maybe he will invite in Al Qaeda and let them set up training camps right in the open just to spite the French and the Americans, like he threatened.

But the stakes just went up big-time. If he survives, he'll make life very uncomfortable for really lots of people. His list of friends is awfully short. There's Chavez and maybe Cuba, and Syria and Turkey are sort of lukewarm-ish about it, but that's about it really.

I'm feeling very conflicted about this intervention. On the one hand, there's a really big urge to do something—anything—but on the other, this is damn risky and could end up making things worse, and even in the best remaining scenario, it'll rob the Libyans of their revolution. Better that than being shot in the back of the head or tortured to death, I suppose, but a hell of a lot worse than the Arab Spring that looked like it was flowering just a few weeks ago.

Fucking Middle East. Never hope, that's a recipe for heartbreak.


  1. Thanks for the insight. It's moving so fast right now its difficult to grasp just what's in play.

    I'm wondering if you feel there is any kind of consensus going on between what's being referred to as "the Western Coalition," the US,UK, France,Canada and Italy,and others to a lesser extent, and the Arab League, and if this is all playing out via the UN resolution? I have read that Libya's League of Arab States membership was 'frozen' back in February--I'm wondering what their real position is on all this, and what part they will play. (Assuming they have any one position and not just a lot of opposing elements bringing things to an impasse.)

  2. There has to be, or there wouldn't be a UN resolution. Everybody wants Qaddafi gone. He has pissed off everybody except a very few countries he has for some reason decided are his comrades in the revolution-to-be. At the 2009 summit he called the King of Saudi Arabia a liar and a dog, which probably didn't go down very well.

    Beyond that, this has been moving too fast to get a deep consensus on anything. The logic of war has now taken over, and it's pretty murky. At least there is a strategic objective of sorts—get rid of Qaddafi and hand the place over to the folks at Benghazi. Despite the paranoia from the revolutionary Left, I do not believe anyone has the stomach for an occupation.

  3. Yeah, since asking read that the Arab league had called for a no-fly zone specifically. AFA US stomachs go, I don't think the Big O is about to commit ground troops unless Qaddafy kidnaps Hillary--and possibly not then.

  4. Nah. Not for Hillary. Bo, though...

  5. I've been thinking, and there's a lot about this that doesn't add up. Somehow I have a feeling that I'm missing something big. The biggest thing that bothers me is the apparent lack of contingency planning. Suppose Qaddafi doesn't fold. Then what? I don't think the Brits, French, or Americans want another ground war, and I'm pretty damn sure they don't want to occupy yet another country. Occupation is nasty and expensive, and neocolonial arrangements work much better.

    Could there be a backroom deal in place with the Egyptian army? They have the capability and the numbers, and they're just next door. A short, victorious war in Libya could be very much in their interest—it'd strengthen their revolutionary street cred, the Egyptians don't like Qaddafi any more than anyone else, and they wouldn't have to do anything at home. It'd be a great way for them to consolidate their position after the knock it took in the revolution.

    That could be very bad for the future of democracy in the Middle East.