Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bringing you up to speed...

Sorry for the rather substantial drop in output on my part. In the absence of any reasonable excuses, I’ll blame twitter. (You have been following my twitter feed, right?)

Well, there’s a lot to cover, so let’s get to it…

Libya still leads in the news, and at this point it seems as though the only thing holding the Libyan government together is utter terror. In addition to the defection Moussa Koussa on Sunday, another high profile defector got out of the country two days ago. As the article mentions, we aren’t seeing more defections because anyone who leaves the country without their family is endangering their lives.

The most substantial change In Libya has been General Abdel-Fattah Younis’ return to a military leadership role for the Liberation forces. Younis, a former Libyan Interior Minister, was one of the early high-profile defections from the pro-Ghaddafi camp. He initially assumed a leadership position, commanding a brigade of other Libyan army defectors. This created some conflict among the rebel forces, many of whom questioned his fitness for command (given his long career as a Libyan government insider). Additionally, the rapid initial success of the rebels had bolstered their confidence in their own ability to overcome Gaddafi’s military, and they wanted to preserve the spontaneous nature of the uprising, rather than rely on military assistance (this is also why they initially opposed the idea of a no-fly zone).

General Younis stepped back from his leadership role, and the anti-Gaddafi military forces took a backseat in the fighting until the rebels began to lose in a spectacular fashion a few weeks ago. Even with the advent of the NATO no-fly zone/civilian protection order, there seems to have been continuing debate over the military’s role in the revolution. It was only a few days ago that Younis was restored to his leadership role, something that probably should have happened some time ago.

With Younis in command, the rebels on the front lines (recklessly courageous, but under-equipped, untrained, and unguided) have been supplemented and/or replaced by actual soldiers. Facing stronger opposition, Gaddafi’s forces have redirected some of their attention to the small undefended southern towns that are opposing him but have not yet been integrated into the resistance.

As the Libyan conflict has unfolded, it has caused some major strategic realignment in both Africa and the Middle East. This can be seen in the recent actions of Algeria, Turkey, Jordan, and Qatar.

Algeria has been serving as a main conduit for the arms and mercenaries flowing towards Ghaddafi, a fact that will probably soon bite Algerian president Boutiflaka's regime in the ass. Like Libya, (and unlike Tunisia and Egypt) Algeria’s military serves as an enforcement wing of the ruling party, and Ghaddafi’s failure to stop the Libyan uprising with brute force means that Algeria may have a similar fate in store for them. Not only that, their actions in support of Ghaddafi will not likely be forgotten in a post-Gaddafi state.

Turkey’s role in the Libyan situation has been deeply ambivalent, which has created a great deal of frustration towards turkey on the part of many Libyans. Although they initially opposed intervention, they followed that by assuming a prominent role in NATO’s actions in the Med. They have tried to position themselves as potential interlocutors between Qaddafi and the rest of the world, while decrying his brutality but they don't seem to have been successful with either side of the conflict.

Jordan, on the other hand, has conclusively settled itself on the side of the Anti-Ghaddafi forces by becoming the third Arab country to contribute planes to the NFZ/civilian protection action. This may be a move by the King to strengthen his support among his base. Jordan is fairly unique, demographically - close to 2/3 of its population is ethnically Palestinian, which creates a very odd power dynamic. (Anyone who says that Palestinians are really Jordanians is slinging BS or playing semantic games). For a better understanding of the Jordanian situation (and why there won’t be a revolution in Jordan any time soon) I highly recommend this blog post. King Hussein of Jordan is a sharp guy, and the advantages of having good relations with the emerging new Libyan state are pretty clear.

Qatar, more than any other Arab nation, has recognized the opportunities that a new Libya represents. Their enthusiasm for the NFZ/civilian protection action was evident from the start. I get the impression that the Qatari government sees the future of the Arab world more clearly than any of their neighbors, and has been taking bold steps to ensure their place in it, despite their small size and limited oil resources. Towards this end, they have already signed agreements with the provisional government in Benghazi to purchase a tanker full of oil. (Note – most Libyan oil is what they call “Light Sweet Crude” - extremely high-grade oil that requires less refinement and purification than most other types of crude oil.)

All of these Libya-centered power struggles can be seen as expressions of a larger struggle – the push for stronger standing on the international stage and in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Saudi Arabia is probably the strongest player in the GCC, given their close ties to every US administration since Nixon and their staggering oil wealth. For the past 30+ years Saudi Arabia has been furthering its interests in a number of ways, and one of the most notable is the promulgation of its own distinctive Wahabist brand of Sunni Islam. Wahabism is a particularly conservative strain of Salafism, a strict back-to-basics rigidly fundamentalist form of Islam. Salafism, especially the Wahabist variations, has little tolerance for alternate interpretations of Islam and the Quran, which has created some serious conflicts within the Muslim world – especially with Shi’a and Sufi Muslims.

This is important to note because expressions of the Salafi vs. Sufi conflict have been flaring up in Egypt lately – in particular several Sufi shrines have recently been destroyed by Salafist mobs. Sufis regard the burial places of their saints and teachers as being somewhat sacred and often use them as places of prayer and pilgrimage, a practice that Salafis regard as tantamount to idolatry or even heresy. (Note – don’t confuse the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood. The MB represents and includes a much more diverse range of Islamic expression.)

I raise this issue because Saudi Arabia heavily funds their Salafist brethren in Egypt and the increasingly aggressive public actions by Egyptian Salafis carries the imprimatur of Saudi interference. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are not known for cordial relationships with each other, but the recent events are likely to drive even more wedges between the two states and push Egypt towards the other big player in the Gulf – Iran.

The Middle East realignment can also be seen in some notable recent events in Syria (though in some rather counterintuitive ways). Shortly after the protests in Daraa started rapidly escalating the King of Saudi Arabia called Bashir Assad to assure him of Saudi Support. This is strange for a number of reasons, but most particularly because for the past 40+ years Syria has been either loosely or tightly aligned with the Baathist/Nasserist bloc of Arab nationalists (particularly Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and to a lesser extent Libya and Algeria). This group has traditionally been locked in competition with the pan-Islamist royalists, especially Saudi Arabia. Not only that, but Assad, his family, and the rest of the Syrian government are Alawites, a sect of Shi’a Islam (remember what I just said about Salafis/Wahabis and Shi’a?).

One of the commonly heard chants in the streets of Syria last week was "No Iran, no Hezbollah, we want a Muslim who fears God." (it's catchier in Arabic) The accusation that Assad is insufficiently religious seems to have struck a nerve, and Assad seems to be trying to get more support from the religious conservatives in Syria by rolling back some of the social reforms of the past few years. (He’s not rolling back political reforms because there haven’t really been any) It could be that he’s backing away from Iran and towards Saudi Arabia to preserve his power structure. He's also taking big steps to gain the favor of Syria's substantial disenfranchised Kurdish population.

More on Syria's tenuous stability here.

Well…that’s plenty for now. Barring some other major upheaval I’ll be getting around to addressing Iraq and Bahrain this weekend.

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