Saturday, 19 March 2011

Prognosis for the EuroAmerican intervention in Libya

EuroAmerican intervention in Libya has started inauspiciously and it will take something like a miracle for the EuroAmerican powers to bring this conflict to a happy conclusion. Having given a commitment to save Benghazi and presumably its eastern hinterland from recapture by Gaddafi's forces, France, Britain and the United States cannot back out until they at least stabilize a front line between the government and the rebels. That's very difficult to do by air power alone and the potential for 'mission creep' is enormous. Assuming that Gaddafi's forces do not collapse and retreat in disarray, the 'Allies' will have to decide where it would be acceptable for such a front line to lie and how long they could accept a stalemate along that line. Would they, for example, ensure that the rebels have full control of the eastern oilfields and of the pipelines and oil export facilities in that part of the country? That would be a logical step, so that the rebels could at least finance their own operations and would not become a financial and logistical burden. Without oil revenue, eastern Libya would soon be impoverished unless the 'Allies' diverted some of the Libyan government's foreign assets to them.
    In the medium term, the EuroAmerican intervention at the minimal level they now envisage is likely to lead to the partition of the country into a rebel-held east and a government-held west, with all the instability that implies. The east would be a proxy entity reliant on EuroAmerican protection, much like Iraqi Kurdistan in the years between 1991 and 2003. If they decide that that outcome is unacceptable (and their rhetoric already includes maximalist 'regime change' elements incompatible with their UN mandate), they might have to go on the offensive, attacking Gaddafi's forces on the ground along the ceasefire line, in the hope that military defeat will provoke regime change from within as military units defect and Gaddafi's inner clique loses patience with his leadership. That strategy did not work with Saddam Hussein, who shares many of Gaddafi's psychological traits. Saddam dug in his heels and survived 12 years of very severe sanctions and political isolation. If anything, Gaddafi is likely to be even more stubborn that Saddam, who at least had moments of clarity.
    A major failure of the EuroAmerican initiative is that they have not been able to win over the Tunisians and the Egyptians, where the governments have the revolutionary credentials to offset the impression that this is an imperial venture. The token support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates does not have the same credibility and we have not yet seen any signs that these Arab states are willing to commit their military assets to the campaign.
    Another question mark hangs over the fate of rebel pockets in the west of Libya. Are the 'Allies' planning to protect them as well and, if so, how exactly? In the case of Misurata and possibly Zawya, Gaddafi forces are deployed close to inhabited areas, making it difficult to dislodge them by air power alone.
    The overthrow of Gaddafi is a desirable objective, just as the overthrow of Saddam was desirable in 1991, but the EuroAmerican intervention has all the appearance of a hasty response to domestic public opinion, rather than a considered policy choice. It makes a difference that the intervention follows a genuinely popular uprising in many parts of Libya, but with time that distinction may wear off and the 'Allies' may find themselves tied up in just another open-ended Middle Eastern conflict. I hope I am wrong.

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