Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Failed Revolutions - Bahrain and Libya

This is the view from my window as I sit here in quiet Qatar next door to Bahrain; speculation is rampant on what will happen next in Bahrain – important from a Saudi, US, Iranian and European foreign policy and geo-political perspective – and Libya (not so important except, perhaps, to Europe). While two weeks ago the predictions for Libya were that the regime would fall, those were clearly premature as it struck back with efficient force from a loyal army and put the rebellion on its heels with astonishing rapidity. Today, the last stronghold before Benghazi has been taken and Qaddafi has vowed to crush the rebels, whom he characterized last night as traitors and several forms of vermin. Read bloodbath. The collapse of the rebellion will not be pretty.

A resolution has been tabled in the UN to impose a no-fly zone. That will do nothing to change the momentum on the ground. It didn’t in Kosovo until NATO began to target ground units and the capital, Belgrade and time is vanishing for the rebel government as Europe – divided as ever – freezes in its tracks. Despite the Lieberman-McCain tired, old song of unilateral US intervention whether it is a good idea or not, that sort of adventure has not worked out so well. It would be profoundly stupid for the US to intervene. Perhaps if the US sent a neo-con/neo-Nazi tea-bagger delegation to Tripoli it could convince Qaddafi to stop or else be subject to a massive hissy fit of tired, old white men.

But then there is Europe. French recognition (as well as the Arab League’s) of the rebel government may come back to haunt it. Will France have the nerve to go it alone? Will they risk a terror campaign in France by Libya? What were they thinking at the time they recognized the rebellion as the legitimate government? Was there even a plan for the next steps – or even a first step? The problem with all the hand wringing in Europe over the fate of the rebels is that they are prepared to do nothing unless the US handles it, which will get no credit and all the blame. Germany doesn’t even like the idea of a no-fly zone – an expected reaction from a nation that has become a little too fat and comfortable at the expense of its fellow EU members. But Libya is ultimately a European issue – as I have said before. Strategically it is meaningless to US interests and the blow-back from even a scintilla of US for intervention with what it has remaining available in military assets will be huge. For the US, assisting Egypt is far a key to any Middle East strategy, including the job of reigning in a vengeful Qaddafi & Son.

If Europe does nothing in time or at all (par for the course – just look at the Balkans) then Qadaffi’s tanks will roll into Benghazi and rout the rebellion. Even if they put down their arms, Qaddafi is not the forgiving type and his Western educated MBA son has shown his true colors. If there is a bloodbath, what will Europe and the US do about it? Because at that point it is likely that all will remain of the rebel opposition will be an underground movement. Not exactly the type of internal support needed if NATO chose to attack. Of course, Qaddafi or an over-zealous officer could take the disastrous step (for Qaddafi) of launching a missile at a European ship or, more to the point, a US warship. We all know what would follow and the question of a no-fly zone or Qaddafi military victory over the rebels would evaporate. Highly improbable, but not impossible.

There are so many variables regarding actions to be taken regarding Libya – including variables that no one has thought about – that the consequences of even imposing a no-fly zone are unknown and make no mistake that a no-fly zone is the equivalent of a declaration of war – for which Europe has no stomach.

Bahrain. No one should be surprised at Saudi intervention. Unfortunately for the Shiite majority, this is not about Bahrain or democracy. It is about Iran. It is about control of the Arabian Gulf (it is not called the Persian Gulf here). It is about destabilization on the Arabian Peninsula and Iranian dominance in the region. It is about oil and gas. The legitimate grievances of Shiites in Bahrain are, for the Saudi’s, completely irrelevant at this point. It is likely that some reforms will take place sometime in the future, but not until Saudi Arabia is assured that any Iranian plan has been derailed. So what will happen next?

As of today, the police in Bahrain are dispersing demonstrations and some violence with two killed has taken place. Films of a few protesters attacking police are being used by Saudi Arabia to show that the demonstrations are not peaceful. The government of the ruling minority Sunni has offered to hold talks but the two opposition Shiite groups are divided – one wanting to talk but fearful it will be labeled a pawn of the regime and the other not willing to negotiate until its demands for reform in the government (including the reduction of the ruling family to figurehead status) is met. With Saudi military intervention, it is unlikely that the second Shiite group will prevail – thereby flushing any hopes by Tehran for toppling the government. For the Shiites, the use of tanks, helicopters and live ammunition against them will be effective as will the 3 month state of emergency. But not forever.

Iran could intervene directly like the Saudi’s. Similar to an attack on a US or NATO ship off the Libyan coast, the result would be catastrophic for Iran as the US fleet is sitting in its backyard. Although a remote possibility, if it were to occur, then the Iranian coast would become a very dangerous place to be – for the Iranians. The excuse would be handed to the US to cripple Iranian sea and shore defense military capabilities and who knows what else. Oil prices would head to $200 and the economic ripple effects would likely be severe. Internally, the clerical dictatorship would become worse and Iranian strategy in the region, which has so far worked remarkably well, would be in shambles. Improbable? Yes. Impossible? No.

Iran could also create a diversion – either with Israel through Hezbollah or in Iraq. Neither of those scenarios is good for Iran as it is not clear that Hezbollah wants another confrontation with Israel at this time which would involve, by default, Syria, which itself wants control of Lebanon. Action by Iran in Iraq would stop – if not reverse – the US withdrawal. Neither diversion would do anything to help its plans for dominance of the region in general or for Bahrain in particular and both are unlikely; but they remain possibilities and an idea of how to deal with them needs to be considered.

The point is that trying to predict the future in Bahrain and Libya is pretty much just a guess as the remote possibilities or even events of which we are not even considering could take place. Prediction in these scenarios is impossible and intervention in Libya by NATO or any one or more European countries, not to mention the US which would be the case with NATO, simply multiplies the possible resulting scenarios.

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