A lot of people think international relations is like a game of chess.” But, it’s not a game of chess, where people sit quietly, thinking out their strategy, taking their time between moves. It’s more like a game of billiards with a bunch of balls clustered together.”
Madeline Albright, former Secretary of State
The analogy to billiards applies very much to the current state of civil war in Libya. The balance of power between the eastern faction, or “Tobruk government” and the western faction, or “Tripoli government” is one, seems based more on military strength than popular support. Military strength comes from external funding, so the civil war looks more like a proxy war.
Libya’s only international airport, may be captured any moment by a military force lead by General Haftar, representing the government established on the eastern side of Libya. He has the support of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE and for the most part Russia.
In the years following the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, the sequence of events seemed to follow the unpredictability of billiards, Yet, I believe in this case, one can argue that the table is larger than anyone could imagine, and there are many balls on the table that may not be as visible, but strongly influence the game.
I note that Trump seems to believe international relations is a game of one on one poker and plays by a series of threats and bluffs. He couldn’t be further off the mark and the US has lost its role as a negotiator in resolving crises. He also seems intent on reversing as many Obama era policies, even ones that were working. He is a strong believer in nationalism, but then feels he can bully around lesser countries, such as Guatemala and Honduras.
A bit of background to the first civil war (2011) and second civil war (2014- present)
The spark that set off Arab Spring was the death of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia on January 4, 2011.
The catalyst for the escalation of protests was the self-immolation of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi. Unable to find work and selling fruit at a roadside stand, Bouazizi had his wares confiscated by a municipal inspector on 17 December 2010. An hour later he doused himself with gasoline and set himself afire. His death on 4 January 2011 brought together various groups dissatisfied with the existing system, including many unemployed, political and human rights activists, labor, trade unionists, students, professors, lawyers, and others to begin the Tunisian Revolution.
The rapid spread of rebellions during Arab Spring was really incredible. It seemed in early 2011, a new spirit of change toward honest and open government had swept through the Middle East. The common people were in the streets, directly confronting their leaders first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The list of grievances were hardly new – lack of democratic process, government officials who were stealing from the people and anyone who protested would be thrown in prison. Fear was the driving force. All these countries were run by a single strong dictator, but no one could match the erratic, flamboyant and egotistical Muamar Ghadaffi, leader of Libya. He compared protesters to cockroaches, and proudly waved the “green book” during speeches, saying that the protesters were traitors, punishable by death. Arab Spring was a battle of the people against autocracy, which is defined as follows:
An autocracy is a system of government in which supreme power is concentrated in the hands of one person, whose decisions are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanisms of popular control (except perhaps for the implicit threat of a coup d’état or mass insurrection). Absolute monarchies (such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Brunei and Swaziland) and dictatorships (such as Turkmenistan and North Korea) are the main modern-day forms of autocracy.
We have for decades simultaneously rallied against autocracies, and maintain friendly relations with their leaders. This includes both Republican and Democrat administrations. When the US has intervened, such as in Libya Afghanistan, and Iraq, they were based on national security issues, principally that these countries would be a danger to other countries or support radical groups in the future. We intervened in Libya, through NATO bombings to opponents of Gadaffi However, we never sent troops to Libya. Our Libyan intervention was supported by the UN Resolution 1973 passed 10-0 in March 2011.
This is somewhat personal, as I was in Libya in the early part of the Arab Spring in 2011 and ultimately had to be evacuated along with a large number of expats by a British frigate. I went back in 2013, at a period of relative calm. There was a lot of optimism for a new Libya.
It was clear to me by June 2017 that the long road to re-unify Libya might end in disaster, because key players, including Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, were quietly backing their man (General Haftar) to the east of Libya. I wrote the following in my blog of June 26, 2017:
“The only path forward is re-unification through UN Negotiations. On the Tobruk side, Chief of the Army, Haftar must not be allowed to purchase arms and escalate the war. The conflict in Libya will only become worse if the US turns a blind eye towards the arming of the Tobruk government by the Saudi supporters. Washington and the EU need to work jointly on the the massive refugee problem. This is a rapidly developing story. To follow it, it is best to do a Google search on the news. The latest story to appear, is the release of Saif al-Islam Gadaffi and some discussion that he could play a some leadership role. I have very serious doubts. The areas under control by the various rival groups seems to change regularly. The New York Times, The Guardian and Al Jazeera seem to be the best sources of information.”
I post a three part blog, posted on June 25 to 26, 2017. To explain recent events, it was really necessary to give some recent historical facts on the situation. I began with a simple statement, “Nothing is normal in Libya. At least, in the last 3 years, what happens doesn’t seem normal or logical to outsiders.” The three key outside players in Libya are Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE. There is a major rift between the public policy (UN negotiated re-unification) and their actions – namely military and financial support to the Tobruk side. The players back the strong man, not because his policies will lead to a more stable country, but because they perceive him as the likely winner in the conflict.
I began the series with an observation, that the Tobruk administration had announced it was cutting off diplomatic relations with Qatar This was very weird because there was never the normal recognition of the eastern government as being the legitimate government of Libya. But, it made sense in terms of regional politics, as Haftar was just aligning himself on the side of the new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia (Mohammed bin Salman) and other members of the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC), in particular the UAE,
To gain control of Libya, military success is more important than diplomatic success
The civil war in Libya is not about ideology. It is all about getting outside support to buy military equipment. Simply put, Money rules.
General Haftar need Russia on his side. Russia seemed to be hedging its position, but I think at this point, it is firmly supporting General Haftar, because his success at capturing the oil fields held by the Tripoli government. I said in 2017, that Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam would play some role on the side of General Haftar. He has been busy lining up Russian support for the General’s plan to take over the country by force, since it can’t be won in the UN negotiations.
In early April, 2019, a window of opportunity opened for General Haftar. The Tripoli government lost one of its key supporters. The 82 year old president of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, stepped down amid widespread protests in the streets of Algiers. Protesters are now attacking his replacement either, so Algeria is in chaos right now.
While losing one key supporter, General Haftar’s efforts were paying off gaining another, much more important ally – Saudi Arabia. To understand this relation, it is necessary to understand Hafter shares with Saudi Arabia a a deep animosity towards the Muslim Brotherhood, because this has become an international political organization. It was instrumental in electing Mohammed Morsi to replace Hosni Mubarek in Egypt after his fall in 2011.
So these are some of the factors which lead to General Haftar’s success. Next blog, I will focus more on the current situation.
Fighting echoes through Tripoli as thousands continue to flee
WHO says it fears the outbreak of infectious diseases among the thousands of families fleeing their homes in Tripoli.
As events have unfolded in the past week, the Al Jazeera news reporting has been excellent. See https://www.aljazeera.com