Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Libya: The tumultuous middle of the wider chess game.

   Gaddafi and his forces seem to be holding out for the moment.

   The country has fallen into two camps, in the East and West, with the rebels centered around Benghazi and Tobruk. Yeah, Tobruk. Doesn't it make you salivate for the good old days of the 8th Army v the Afrika Corps? Gadaffi holds Tripoli but has rebel skirmishers bothering his stronghold from the nearby town of Zawiyah. The Rebels and the Libyan army say they have secured 80% of the oil resources in the East so Gaddafi's threat to set them afire and cause an oil apocalypse have been minimized. That's a bit of a popcorn killer and the reason oil prices retreated somewhat today. In fact, shipments resumed yesterday when two full tankers left Tobruk with some sleazy oil whoring company saying things are all cool with the rebels. Those guys will ship no matter who dies on the streets.

   Still, Gaddafi must be seriously pissed.

   There were reports today in Western media that Gaddafi may have the components necessary to whip up some mustard gas. Sounds fishy to me and more like an attempt by Western interests to lead public opinion in the direction of direct intervention. The usual playbook is in force here which first means 'sanctions' on everything except Libyan oil exports. That is, we stop selling you shit and stop buying shit from you except for the stuff we absolutely need like oil. Much like sanctions against Iran, they have minimal effect and right now, Gaddafi is so far gone, I doubt if he cares whether or not he can import soybeans and pork bellies. He's more concerned with counting his ammo and digging up his buried cash reserves to pay off his loyalists.

   He gave a delusional speech today to the BBC about how his people love him.

     Last time I heard such a lolworthy denial of apparent reality it was Comical Ali in Baghdad in 2003. Obviously, we are dealing with a delusional subject here. There is much to be said for bluster and denying the facts when you are trying to court an audience of loyalists at home, especially when your hold on those loyalists is tenuous at best and based on how much gold you can supply to buy that loyalty.

   But with NATO trying to figure out how to end this shit for "humanitarian reasons", one is forced to wonder what the wider game at play is here. For one thing, the longer this 'Arab revolt' goes on, the more pressure it puts on the 'jewel in the crown' of oil exporters, Saudi Arabia.  Crown Prince Abdullah dropped 35 billion this week to placate the plebs in his country as an insurance policy against them wondering why they're getting a peanut share of the oil wealth in Saudi Arabia. The West seems to agree that the longer the instability in Libya continues, the more precarious things could get for the stability of the world economy, that is, petro dollar flow, Saudi oil supply and the possible cost for the plebs back home commuting to work from suburbia.

   So right now we've got a motley crew of Western interests willing to close the deal on Gaddafi. The Americans are moving the USS Enterprise from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean (seems Suez is a free flow zone now considering Iran floated two destroyers through there last week). The British are ready to enforce a "no fly zone" over Libya (the next standard step in the playbook after sanctions) with Tornados and Typhoons within range from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. Some in British circles are starting to miss the carrier Ark Royal after its recent decommissioning but those Harriers it fielded were never a safe bet especially for a BARCAP mission like this over Libya. With limited radar, a shitty top speed, no one outside the Daily Mail sees those Harriers as anything but a lucky score against the Argentinians 30 years ago.

   The French seem game to enforce a no fly zone too and that would be fun since they sold Gaddafi a bunch of Mirages in the 80s, obviously previous generation, but its interesting how things change. Also, it's unclear exactly what Gaddafi has left considering a shitload of his air force defected to Malta and elsewhere after their pilots realized the deranged nature of an order from Gaddafi to bomb their own citizens. The latest word is that two Soviet era Mig-23s bombed Benghazi today, one of the targets being the water supply to that city which they missed.

   Still, you can see how this is about to play out.

   Gaddafi has an interest in stretching this out as long as possible. The longer he can hold out means he can keep this story in the headlines in the Arab world and the longer he can court wider instability in the region, the more valuable his poker hand. This is a direct play against the West and it weakens the Saudi position the longer it goes on. There is a delicate chess game at work here. Gaddafi is inviting the West to overplay their hand here. If the US and its Euro partners wish to shut this down by imposing a 'no fly zone' over Libya or if there's some wild amphibious landing, (the US has the USS Kearsage offshore currently) then Gaddafi can scream invasion and claim a wider Zionist plot which is a trope that easily gains adherents in the wider Arab world.

   So what do? How does the West play this?

   It's a delicate game. And hard to play even with a winning hand.

   Right now, the protesters are closing in on Tripoli. It's tempting to let things take their course and have Gaddafi toppled 'in house'. But if the protesters need a little extra then that's where things could get sketchy. As soon as the West imposes any kind of intention on an otherwise 'in house' rebellion, they risk 'jumping the shark' on the whole deal.

   Gaddafi right now has those Migs at his disposal and also a bunch of my favorite angry looking choppers, Mil Mi-24 'Hind' gunships. They can do serious damage against infantry not equipped with decent AA. Probably the best bet right now for the West is to sneak some shoulder mounted AA into Benghazi to help them out. Less obvious than a 'no fly zone' or sanctions that aren't going to impact Gaddafi in the short term.

   You know what I hate about this whole thing? How we in the West have robbed the protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya of their whole revolution. Sure, it's natural for the West to measure things from their own perspective but ultimately, it is the people of these country's victory. They did it! All by themselves! They made it happen and Western interests positioning forces offshore to play global chess emasculates their achievement. Still, you can't hope to escape geopolitics but it is worth mentioning. If I were there, I know I'd be amongst that crowd, flinging rocks to prove a point.

   But it's a very big game right now and even though it's well known Gaddafi is mulling over a losing position, overplaying its hand by direct intervention and taking victory away from the victors is the riskiest move the West could play right now.