Posted on 22-02-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The slide is complete.  Libya is now in civil war as Muammar Gaddafi pulls out all the stops in desperate attempts to hold on to power.  The Libyan air force has been ordered to strafe the country’s two largest cities and a few pilots defected by flying off to Malta.  Earlier today there were reports of Libyan navy ships opening fire on Tripoli.  Its been a long time since a ruler indiscriminately strafed his own capital from the air (Gaddafi’s son claimed they were targeting ammunition depots) or the sea, let alone had such a gambit keep him in power.  Later in the day came a declaration from some Libyan officers asking their troops to switch sides.  Whether this will have any effect is still unclear.

Libya’s diplomatic outposts appear to think that the die is cast.  From New York to New Delhi the regime’s ambassadors are turning in their papers refusing to obey the diktats of a ruler willing to massacre his own people on a scale not seen since Tiananmen or perhaps even since Syria’s Hafez Assad blasted his own city of Hama (mention must be given to the Soviet pulverizing of Grozny, though the Chechens at the time were in open revolt and would have angrily denied suggestions that they were part of Russia).

On Monday, Khaled Al Ga’aeem, under-secretary of Libya’s foreign ministry, phoned Al Jazeera to create a Baghdad Bob moment in stating all was well in Tripoli.  Video below:

Also on Monday night, Gaddafi himself made a very brief and odd appearance on state TV with his umbrella to deny that he had fled Tripoli for the welcoming embrace of his buddy Hugo Chavez.  Video below:

The usually impotent UN Security Council is expected to huddle behind closed doors on Tuesday to figure out an international response to the situation.  Ironically, Libya is currently on the Security Council but no longer has any lackeys in New York willing to obey the beleaguered Gaddafi.  Other than the usual platitudes, travel bans and sanctions there are two things that the UN could do.  One is direct military involvement.  The obvious candidate for such an action would be Egypt’s bloated but well equipped army.  I think that outcome is unlikely.  The other would be to declare a no fly zone over Benghazi and Tripoli that would restrict Gaddafi’s ability to draw blood.  Whether China (which is actively censoring news of Middle East unrest) or Putin’s Russia will allow such action remains to be seen.

It is hard to imagine Gaddafi surviving this revolt.  If by some miracle he does wade through rivers of blood to hold on to power, his regime would revert to North Korea type pariah status.  Having tasted the lures of international acceptability the last few years, would Gaddafi’s henchmen be willing to put up with this?

If the insurrection does succeed, Libya is likely still headed for turmoil.  United by the Italian conquest of the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica in 1912, Libya like Iraq (the fusion of the Ottoman provinces of Basra, Mosul and Baghdad) is very much an artificial creation of the colonial era.

Ottoman provinces that make up modern Libya

Tribal loyalties are still paramount and Gaddafi’s long rule has largely been a tribal balancing act instead of an exercise in nation building.  One of the few things that were probably accurate in Gaddafi’s son’s incoherent rant yesterday is that a post-Gaddafi civil war cannot be ruled out.

Libya's ethnic quilt

Post Gaddafi Libya will have to devise means to balance the interests of its tribes and ethnicities without Gaddafi’s brutality and cronyism.  The oil hungry countries of the world looking to harvest Libya’s oil wealth will be watching this exercise intently.  But before we can flesh out the post Gaddafi scenarios, the tyrant still has to fall.

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