Libya Skirmishes as Saudi Quivers and Iran, Iraq under Pressure

Aljazeera reports that by Wednesday morning pro-Qaddafi forces had retaken Gharyan and Sabratha in the northwest, and had tried and failed to take the oil town of Brega in the east. Qaddafi’s jets also bombed arms depots in rebel-held Ajdabiya.

Pro-Qaddafi forces had secured the country’s Western border with Tunisia on Tuesday and then attacked the city of Zawiya, just to the west of the capital. Zawiya’s partisans, joined by defectors from the Libyan army, successfully defended the city. There is said also to have been an attack by Qaddafi’s forces on Misurata (Misrata) to Tripoli’s east.

In other words, Qaddafi still controls only parts of Tripoli, a bit of territory to the far west, and his birthplace of Sirte, and is not proving able to retake lost territory. As it stands, I still think he has lost 90% of the country. But until the Tripoli officer corps decides they cannot win and throw in with the rebels, or until the rebels manage to mount a credible military campaign to take the rest of Libya, it appears things have settled for the moment into a stalemate– though one that overwhelmingly favors the rebels with regard to people-power, despite Qaddafi’s continued military assets (a small military force that is well-equipped and relatively well-trained can sometime trump a big civilian population).

It increasingly appears that outside intervention via the UN or NATO is off the table, and so the end game will likely play out inside Libya and based on Libyan dynamics.

Brent crude oscillated between $112 and $114 a barrel on Tuesday, and West Texas crude hit $100 on Middle East uncertainty, but analysts say that the price would have to stay high for weeks or months to have a serious impact on Western countries’ economic recovery. Prices may in fact stay high for a while, since Saudi Arabia is said to be willing to have Brent crude go as high as $120 before intervening with another increase in its own production.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s major swing producer, is afraid of unrest itself and attempting to buy off its own population, so needs the extra money for this purpose. Saudi Arabia had traditionally attempted to hold prices down, because its vast reserves meant it could always make its money in the future, and its relatively small population (22 mn. citizens) left it with limitations on its economic absorptive capacity, i.e., it couldn’t put a lot of oil profits to work in its own domestic economy.

So the Saudi government is handing out $37 billion, all of a sudden, to its people for housing and unemployment relief.

Saudi authorities on Tuesday detained a Shiite clergyman in the Eastern Province who preached a sermon calling for a constitutional monarchy. Shiites are probably about 12 percent of Saudis and are culturally and politically repressed by the Wahhabi establishment, which typically views them as idolaters. Had the call for constitutional monarchy come from other quarters, it would be more significant, since it is hard to imagine Wahhabi-Shiite political unity. Unrest among Saudi Shiites might affect the oil-rich Eastern Province where they mostly reside, but the Saudi state has significant repressive capacities in that area.

So far, Iran and Iraq are the only Middle East countries to have seen significant protests this winter that have regular parliamentary elections. Significantly, Iran’s elections are now viewed as fraudulent by a plurality of Iranians. Protesters came out into the downtown area of Tehran on Tuesday, and were repressed, while opposition leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi may have been taken off to prison (they were under house arrest).

The March 9, 2010 elections in Iraq produced no change from the previous government, and power inheres more in the oil-rich central executive than in parliament. There is a big protest planned next week on the anniversary of those elections, which is pretty scary– as Libyans and Egyptians demand parliamentary elections, Iraqi’s are protesting against theirs. Many Kurds outside the Kurdistan Alliance establishment, many Sunnis, and many Sadrist and other Shiites feel as though high political deals brokered behind closed doors determine their fate more than elections. Otherwise, most of the major protest movements have been against authoritarian regimes that had ceased making sure the people shared in national resources. Ironically, Iraq is dealing with its protests with a combination of violence and hand-outs, and so is behaving more like Saudi Arabia than like Tunisia and Egypt.

The Great Middle Eastern revolt of 2011 has not written its last line yet.

9 Responses

  1. According to a Fatemeh Keshavarz e-newsletter that I’ve since deleted, I seem to recall that she believes Mousavi, Karroubi and their spouses are now in a Tehran prison called Heshmatiyeh (sp?).

  2. I understand that the Benghazi-based insurgents desperately need surface-to-air missiles to fend off Gadaffi’s planes….can’t anyone supply them ,as the airport at Benghazi is open.???

  3. While I agree that NATO or U.S. military intervention would be inappropriate and unwise, it seems to me there could be actions labeled as humanitarian relief in insurgent-held regions that would be helpful. I don’t know about Brian’s suggestion of sending weapons, however.

    Beyond that, it does not seem helpful at this time for Hillary and others to be threatening Qaddafi with prosecution for Lockerbie. Yes it would probably be justice, but obviously that leaves him with no way out. What they ought to be doing is trying to peel off his generals with suggestions of amnesty for defectors. But I haven’t heard anything of that nature, just condemnation and threats against Qaddafi, and obviously he doesn’t give a shit about that, except maybe to dig in harder. The imperative right now has to be to maneuver him out of power. Deal with his sorry ass later.

  4. I wonder if the decision makers in Iran have the foresight to offer the following ultimatum:

    “Allow us our nuclear fueled electricity generators, with which we provide electricity (and therefore water and therefore food to Iraq), and we will be able to pump more oil.

    Deny us our electricity, and we will deny you your future civilization.”

    Or, perhaps Rumsfeld’s decision maker, the esteemed Douglas Feith, will again convince the world (read the US and Northern Europe)that Iran’s oil is ours for the taking, as easy as a piece of cake.

    If there were justice, he and Wolfowitz would be made ambassadors to Lybia and Yemen (or any other country on the peninsula), and sent to their posts immediately.

  5. Thank you, professor, for your work, especially lately. I come here at least twice a day now, and the gulf between the quality of your coverage and what else is out there is huge.

    The developments in the Arab world are the most interesting geopolitical events for at least twenty years, and its hard to imagine that the unrest will be confined to these societies. I know that the unrest has inspired activists in Iran and Africa, but are you aware of increased dissent in Central Asia? The Stans are undeniably similar to the mideast dictatorships in many ways, and have recently seen some pretty serious unrest.

  6. Let’s consider why a western country might assist the Libyan people. While some protagonists might still support the cause of Gaddafi and restore the authoritarian regime (principally Israel and US Zionists) the smart money is on supporting those who oppose Gaddafi. Oil is a great lubricant and the removal of the Gaddafi regime as rapidly as possible would minimise disruption to the flow of oil to the US.
    While it would not be appropriate for western military intervention, ‘advisors’ and the supply of suitable weapons to the opposition would be expedient.
    The progress of government forces could be seriously hindered by IED’s and booby traps and the disruption of food, water and electricity supplies to Tripoli would likewise hasten the decline of the Gaddafi regime.

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