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Egypt and Libya – A Grand Alliance in the Making?

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The Arab Spring is giving way to a rather uncertain winter. In Egypt, the Brotherhood is bubbling, the Army is busy containing, and the people are getting restless for the change promised by the departure and trial of Mubarak. In next door Libya, the echo of the bullet that liberated the rebels from the world’s most bizarre pariah of a dictator will soon give way to reality. A fractious and bloody civil war is almost certain to ensue in this colonial afterthought of a country, that’s never known anything but a lunatic totalitarianism.

In the vacuum of Gaddafi’s death the tribal, factional power-grab will be a nasty affair, made worse by the release of a powerful Islamist faction, the rise of tribal and city militias, a split between East and west, deep distrust of collaborators, a thirst for revenge, a big pot of black gold, and a strategic position just to the south of very vulnerable Southern Europe. NATO is gone in a few days, and the Libyans will be left to their own devices, their only support being the stirring and useless rhetoric of democratic idealism. They badly need a national army but won’t get one for decades. Without a cohesive national force to rely on, securing Western oilfields will be tough sledding and the Islamists will take full advantage of that weakness to impoverish and destabilize Libya, so Allah can pick up the pieces and give succor to a disheveled and desperate population.

Meanwhile, links between heavily armed Islamists in Libya, now free of Gaddafi’s yolk, and the Bedouin and fringe Islamists in Egypt and Sinai, will add to the headaches of an Egyptian Army that dreams of making money and playing with its armored American toys while the people get one wall away from lynching six Israeli security officials in their embassy and causing all out war. The Army would like a democracy that they can control, but worry that won’t be possible. They’d like to remove the State of Emergency Egypt has been laboring under for decades but dare not loosen their grip, especially now the Coptics are readying their own protective militias against the bubbling Islamic fundamentalism.

So what is a self-respecting Supreme Military Council to do protect itself from the gnawing threat of having to fire on its own masses? What can prevent a conflagration that will force the Egyptian Army to watch as tourists avoid the place like the plague, and foreign aid dwindles, sending Egypt into a turmoil that could easily make it the next Pakistan?

The answer is simple. Get control of Libyan Oil.

Libya’s oil is plentiful, high quality, and available.  Invading your neighbor is kind of outre these days, so it has to be something a little – well – smarter. One possibility is for the Egyptian Army to offer itself as the ‘stopgap’ security force protecting Libyan oil from ‘domestic and foreign threats’ until the Libyans raise their own army. Of course, that will never happen, so the Egyptians will be there – with the full support of the oil-thirsty West – for years, decades perhaps. In that time, the Egyptians could be paid for Libyan stability in oil, shoring up Cairo’s foreign trade accounts and enabling it to pay for handouts to the mob to stop them rebelling against Egypt’s military rulers. It’s a win-win-win for everyone. The Libyan National Transitional Council gets protection for its only asset, and the ability to protect itself against Islamism with a thoroughly Arab solution. The Egyptians get oil on the cheap to buy-off their mob and shore up their sagging economy, get to protect themselves from Libyan Islamist incursions by going after the bad guys before they hit Egyptian soil, protecting Egyptian security and Tourism. And as for the West, they get a security force to protect the Libyan oil supply, stabilize world prices during a very soft economic patch, and help maintain stability in North Africa, which will also help Tunisia, and even Morocco.

It’s almost certain that none of this will come to pass, because there almost never is a plan, but it’s fun to conjecture that this could be a rather interesting solution to a problem that’s going to be a thorn in America and Europe’s side for many years to come.

Written by coolrebel

October 22, 2011 at 11:14 am

Libya Liberated. Oil Running Out.

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The liberation of Libya from Gaddafi’s “Green Book” insanity is the beginning of at least a ray of hope that Arabs could begin to catch up with the rest of the developed and developing world. Saudi Arabia is tougher nut to crack, of course, but the last thing that Riyadh wants is to see Libya’s transformation be successful. They’re hoping against hope that tribalism, factionalism, and incompetence deal a blow to its hopes of transformation.

Libya’s proximity to Europe and its huge oil wealth at least give it the chance of bucking the trend so far apparent in the “Arab Spring” that it’s been a rather drab, superficial affair, in which one set of despots has merely given way to another, in uniform, usually.

But behind all the flag waving, behind the obvious success of the US and its Allies in maneuvering Gaddafi out of power with a frankly excellent display of surgical air power, and superb work giving the rebels a semblance of command and control is a horrible specter.

Time.

It takes time to build institutions, to overcome the crushing let-downs that a “spring” brings to a people waiting for decades to find its voice. It takes time and perseverance to overcome the factionalism, the greed, the religious zealotry, the poverty, the incompetence, the sheer lack of practice that new Arab leaders are about to face. Years at the least, most likely decades.

But decades is exactly what they don’t have.

Because just as the Arab world finally has at least the potential to throw off its dictatorial chains, and needs all the financial resources it can muster to build its institutions and its dignity, the world will have to move away from the source of that revenue. It’s a crushing indictment of the Arab world and its leadership that it never even got close to diversifying its productive capacity away from the easy seductive power of oil.

Written by coolrebel

August 22, 2011 at 11:28 am

Libya – Where Do We Go From Here?

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About 200km east of the Egypt-Libya border begins the Qattara Depression, a vast low-lying stretch of desert banked by steep cliffs to the North. It’s essentially an impassable, virtually uninhabited world of soft, sinking sand, brittle salt-lakes, and sucking swamps. During WW2 it was regarded as a no-mans land through which any heavy vehicle would disappear into the abyss. Essentially once you were in you’d be lucky to get out.

It’s a useful metaphor for NATO’s involvement in Libya. Four months after our glorious entry in that nasty little desert dogfight, it’s starting to look like we wandered into a military and diplomatic equivalent of the Qattara Depression. By now, it’s beginning to become painfully clear that unless the “Rebels” get real lucky, we’re looking at a massive stalemate. Reports of successful bombing runs by NATO jets have reduced to a trickle. Gaddafi has almost completely adapted to not having air-superiority. Indeed his shift to non-uniformed forces operating out of pick-ups and covered Katusha trucks pretty much leaves NATO air support blind to who is and who isn’t a bad guy. NATO frequently get it wrong and their propaganda war takes a big hit every time.

It helps Gaddafi that the Rebels are essentially militarily useless. They’re poorly equipped, have little or no training, little or no command cohesion, break quickly under fire, and do minimal damage. And each time they fail to make any real headway they shore up the Gaddafi regime, which seems to be showing remarkable longevity under assault, its morale seemingly very high. To make matters worse, NATO has shown little or no interest in sending in advisors to help build up the rebels. Turning around that rabble would be near impossible, and Europe, not exactly settled just now, would start whining – rightly – about mission creep.

NATO’s last ditch effort was to wish the problem away with cash. By recognizing the rebels ‘transitional council’ and handing them access to a big chunk of Gaddafi’s stash they’re basically hoping that the Libyans will organize, energize, and use the money to oust Gaddafi. History tells us that when a large group of disorganized, fragmented guys in a never democratic desert country get a boat-load of money, things don’t end well.

Which leaves NATO in an awkward spot. Do they halt airstrikes and negotiate with Gaddafi? That may be out of the question. Not only would they be handing him a huge victory, but the ICC indictment hanging over the Colonel would be a good enough reason to tell NATO to sit and stew.

And just to make matters a little worse, Syria’s body count seems to rising even higher than Libya’s, and all we’re doing there is messing around with a few offshore bank accounts.

Finally, Italy has a debt crisis brewing, and the desperation to avoid a refugee crisis would have been better served by keeping Gaddafi in the hot-seat rather than bombing the bejesus out of his compound every night.

It all boils down to a very simple thought. Before you let the neo-con blood rush to your head, have a think about the consequences. Another six months of this and we’re going to own a problem that we really want nothing to do with.

Is this a mess or what?

Written by coolrebel

July 18, 2011 at 5:51 am

Winner Syria. Loser Libya.

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It’s a sure bet that Colonel Gaddafi or Qaddafi or however he spells his name isn’t the envious type. He’s too busy right now lobbing shells onto his own people for that. But if he were a jealous kind of guy, you can bet your bootstraps that he’d be full of schadenfreude for President Assad of Syria.

I mean, see it from the Colonel’s rather warped POV. There he was successfully compromising and cajoling the West into a rapprochement (including a deal with the US and handshake with Tony Blair) when suddenly Tunisia goes up in smoke, Egypt follows, and then the restive tribes around Benghazi decide to go all freedom fighter on his ass. So he does what any self-respecting dictator would do. It says it right there in the manual. Page 2. If there’s any organized dissent of any kind, crush it with obvious and public brutality. All he did was follow the book to the letter and suddenly the Brits and Frogs are down on him with everything they’ve got (which granted isn’t that much). With President Obama as a cheerleader and even the Russkis and Chinese sort of on board, everyone wants the Colonel gone, and to prove it they bomb the crap out of his compound nightly, for humanitarian purposes, of course.

One can only guess what’s going through old Muammar’s mind as he lounges about in his bunker with his Amazonian bodyguards, the soft pounding of NATO missiles thunking into his compound outhouses a hundred feet above his head.  But I’m guessing that the one word that is never uttered within earshot of the old man is “Assad”.  The very word probably brings Muammar out in hives. After all, Assad’s pretty much doing the same stuff in Syria as Gaddafi (insert your own spelling as required) is doing in Libya, and nobody is doing anything to stop the Syrian dude. Sure, the West does an awful lot of talking and whining and trots out ye olde sanctions (as if these guys didn’t prepare for that possibility), but when it comes to, well, action, they’re doing bupkis to stop Assad’s assault on his own towns and cities.

Libya has oil, holds the threat of a massive refugee crisis when the EU least needs it, and is run by a pariah of a dictator (it’s conveniently forgotten that the US and Europe were trying to bring him back into the fold until very recently). It’s also of limited strategic value (at least in the short term), so bombing the bejesus out of the weird bad guy with the Starsky and Hutch sunglasses is really a no brainer.  Of course, the three month air campaign is doing plenty of superficial damage but not changing the ground game in the slightest.  Gaddafi’s ground forces have been weakened but they’re still far stronger than anything the disorganized rebels can field, and consequently the chances of a successful rebel assault on Tripoli are, at this point, nil. It’s a likely stalemate, the only proviso on which is whether Gaddafi’s bankroll is dwindling too fast to maintain loyalty from his entourage and the contracts of his mercenaries. Thereisnoplan’s guess is that the Colonel is pretty confident he can wait out NATO, which he knows will never commit the ground forces needed to change the strategic balance. He has the added advantage of no golden ladder for him and his peeps. He has nowhere to go except to the Hague or to hell, so he might as well stay and fight it out to the death. And just as importantly, you can be sure that even if his henchmen ‘defect’, they’ll have a hard time leaving too – which is probably tantamount to a death sentence when the Benghazi boys roll into Tripoli. In the Arab world, having no better way to go than sticking with the evil dictator guy often translates to undying brotherly love.

Syria, on the other hand is a poor as muck country with no oil, and no refugee problem either, but it does have strong ties with Iran and Hizbollah. The West is probably making the correct realpolitik calculation that is Assad falls, the Sunni majority may take over after a nasty civil war and weaken ties with both Tehran and Nasrallah. And even if they don’t, there will be a total fracturing of the country, which will certainly complicate Hizbollah’s pipeline from Iran. But if the West – and with the UK and France committed to Libya – that means the US, were to intervene militarily in Syria, that would raise the tension in the region to breaking point, and probably boost the Assad regime’s chances of long term survival. An attack on Syria would also unsettle the intensely fragile peace in Iraq. In short, strategically and diplomatically getting medieval on Assad is probably a really bad idea. He knows it too.

Of course, the lofty humanitarian rhetoric that the West delivers on Libya and Syria almost daily runs contrary to their calculated and calibrated response to each crisis. The hypocrisy is utterly palpable, yet hardly noticed. One wonders whether there’s a downside to it. It’s hard to see the wily, slippery Assad overstepping the mark in his assaults on the Syrian people to the point that the West has no choice but to actually do something concrete. Indeed the biggest threat to the West’s wholly inconsistent stance might be time. If this keeps on going like it is, the situation starts to get obvious and people might start talking. But is that talk going to impinge on the campaign of a President whose re-election depends entirely on the US economy?  Not a chance. Nobody really cares that much. After all, the mess is someone else’s and it’s far, far away.

So the rhetoric of freedom will continue to soar in London and Washington while the bombs continue to fall on Libya, while other dictators from Damascus to Riyadh continue to linger in the their gilded cages.

Summer has arrived.  So much for the Arab Spring.

Written by coolrebel

June 10, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Libya – A Quick Military and Geopolitical Overview

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Crazy But Not Stupid.

Libya, a nation in name only, is in the early stages of a tribally driven and brutal civil war.  But for all the comparisons between Colonel Gaddafi and the other ranter du jour, Charlie Sheen, there is very little that’s deranged about the Colonel. Indeed, he’s probably been prepared for the eventuality that Benghazi would fall for longer than we imagine.

Gaddafi kept the army small and disorganized for precisely the reason we see now. The rebels are too poorly trained and lack the cohesion to beat Gaddafi’s family and tribal led elite units and African mercenaries in a head-on clash. They’re small but far better trained and equipped than the rebels will ever be. Gaddafi’s men also have their backs to the wall. If Tripoli falls, they are clearly dead. Which is why he’s counterattacking to head off the possibility that the urban mob in the capital will turn on him and end the game through the back door.

The battle will most likely center around the oil terminals on the coast to the east of Tripoli, as is already happening. And as took place during 1940 and 1941, the battleground will be the coast road, although neither side has anything like the skill and determination of the Desert Rats or Afrika Korps. But Gaddafi has to control the spigot. It’s the only way he has any hope of controlling the battle.

The problem for the Colonel is that he probably loses even if he is able to see off the rebel threat. The world has U-turned. The embarrassing rapprochement with the West engineered to secure Libya’s agreement to scrap its probably non-existent WMD threat has backfired dramatically. Even if he’s able to survive, his financial situation will become more tenuous over time, and with it his ability to pay mercenaries to help keep him in power. His only hope, without a doubt, is to control the oil terminals and keep oil prices high. If he can maintain and build his grip on the terminals, then he at least has some leverage to help him survive. But, ultimately, that requires moving through Benghazi and onto Tobruk, which seems a tall order, unless his units have some unlikely victories to the West and build up a head of steam.

What is more likely – because neither side has much military skill – is a bloody, messy, protracted war of attrition that might go on almost indefinitely. The US and NATO could of course put a stop to it fast, but there is little stomach in Brussels, Washington and the capitals of Western Europe for anything other than a token humanitarian intervention.

That might change if the Libyan crisis takes oil prices up the $120+ range over time. $4 gas has a habit of stiffening the backbone of even the most reluctant Commander-in-Chief, especially if it risks stifling a nascent and flimsy American economic recovery on which his reelection hopes may depend.

Written by coolrebel

March 4, 2011 at 10:53 am