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By John Helmer, Moscow

The armchair warriors in London and Washington love nothing so much as an excuse for an invasion against an enemy too small to put up much of a fight, or inflict too many casualties on the invaders. But that’s because the parlour fires, in front of which their armchairs are placed, have a limitless supply of gas, no matter what the price.

But last week, when 25 million cubic metres of daily gas piped from Libya under the Mediterranean to Italy was switched off, guess what the Italians ordered from their armchairs? They didn’t threaten war against libya, although the Italians have more experience than anyone else of how to kill Libyans (two wars, 1911-12, 1923-31). Nor did the Italians charter tankers to pick up the emergency gas they require from Qatar or Nigeria. Instead, they picked up the telephone to Moscow, and started buying extra gas from Gazprom – overland (no pirates, no terrorists), at $7 million more cash for Gazprom per day.

That, plus the spike in oil prices as export loading of Libya’s 1.7 million barrels of crude oil per day also stopped, are ringing cash registers happily all over Moscow. So why doesn’t the Kremlin endorse a nice little invasion of friendly forces to make everything worse in Libya for as long as possible – say the eight years it has taken for the US invasion of Iraq to produce “normal” oil output from Iraq?

Ask the armchair warriors in Italy, which takes the lion’s share of Libya’s exports of crude (28%), France (15%), China (11%) Germany and Spain (10%), if they are ready to save Libya and their oil supplies with a fresh little war, and their answer is quite muted. At least compared with their counterparts in the UK (4%) and US (3%).

Italy has already counted the cost of its military occupation of Libya, the long guerrilla war against Omar Mukhtar, and the failure of the kowtowing depicted here in an Italian poster of 1912:

Gareth Evans, a retired Australian foreign minister who has spent a career doing the bidding of his bellicose betters abroad, advocates war in the guise of a no-fly zone in the London Financial Times today. “Sanctions, embargoes and the diplomatic isolation of Mr Gaddafi are the inescapable minimum of what is now required,” according to Evans. “ But if they do not bite immediately, and the carnage continues, there will be no option but to do more. Military options should always be a last resort, but they cannot be excluded in extreme cases. Libya is as extreme as it gets. It will be desperately difficult to get agreement on foreign boots on the ground, quickly or at all. But a strongly enforced no-fly zone is a realistic option, easier to contemplate as the last vulnerable expatriates leave the country and likely to be just as effective in forcing Mr Gaddafi’s capitulation.”

Evans is one of those Australians who advance their official careers by trying to punch above their weight. (The current Australian foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, is on record as telling the US he favours a little war against China, should that be necessary.) In Australia’s colonial and neo-colonial history, whenever London or Washington has needed an ally to call for aggression in a good cause, there was always a little Australian handy to say so. In the Libyan case today, Evans isn’t satisfied with the sanctions voted by the UN Security Council (including Russia and China) on the weekend. “These measures are necessary and important, but they fall short of the threat or use of military force. Will they be enough to stop the killing? Or is it instead time to apply and enforce a no-fly zone, or to go further still and send in ground forces?.” That’s a rhetorical question – Evans means the answer to be yes, and yippee — let’s go to war in Libya.

Evans himself has been famous for airborne intervention since 1983. That was when he ordered an Australian Air Force F-111 and a Mirage fighter-bomber into action against environmentalists protesting and blockading construction of a dam in the southern Australia state of Tasmania. That was described at the time as non-threatening surveillance.

Russian strategy towards Libya isn’t so gung-ho. Here’s why. On February 2, Yevgeny Primakov, the former prime minister and former head of the Foreign Intelligence Service – the most accomplished intelligence agent the Soviet Union had on the Arab world, with one exception – warned that the revolution in Egypt, which ousted the Hosni Mubarak regime, was driven by social factors, not by religious ones, initiated spontaneously without foreign intervention, and “supported by online and mobile phone communications.” But after comparing the latest events with the military coup of Gamal Abbdel Nasser in 1952-53, Primakov warned there is “[no] guarantee that Islamists won’t try riding on top of the revolutionary wave. Incidentally, just such an attempt was made by the Muslim Brotherhood during the revolutionary events of 1952-1953 in Egypt. Then, Gamal Abdel Nasser was able to suppress the organization’s activities. How the events will unfold this time around, only time will tell.”

Primakov is well aware that Qaddafi’s military coup against the Senoussi clan and the so-called King Idris in 1969 was modelled on Nasser’s revolution in Egypt. Primakov hasn’t said what he thinks of the internal dynamics of the rebellion now under way in Libya, flying the Senoussi regime flag. He is categorically against foreign intervention, however. “Nobody should be getting involved in these events. It is important to understand the mentality of the Arab people and the history of the Arab countries… foreign military intervention [in the region] is often counter-productive.”

On Februay 16, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned at a press conference in London that “calls for revolutions are counterproductive. We have had more than one revolution in Russia, and we believe that we don’t need to impose revolutions on others. We don’t think that we need to tighten the screw, or take sides.”

As for sides in Libya, the Arab textbooks have reported up to 140 different tribes and family clans in the country, with about 30 of noteworthy size, social and political influence, and the capacity to unify around a military or political regime. So far, none of the westerners calling for intervention in Libya knows which tribe or clan they wish to support, unless they are rebels against Qaddafi.

On February 22, President Dmitry Medvedev warned that taking sides and intervening militarily would trigger unforeseeable implications that may be worse than the status quo ante. He didn’t mention Libya. He did speak generally of Arab anti-regime protests: “The situation is tough. We could be talking about the disintegration of large, densely-populated states, talking about them breaking up into little pieces. These are not simple states and it is highly probable that there will be difficult events, including fanatics coming to power. This will mean fires for years and the spread of extremism in the future. We need to look this straight in the eyes.”

Medvedev was saying this at a meeting of security officials in Vladikavkaz, in the northern Caucasus. “Those who want blood can drown in their own blood,” the president added.

Medvedev was interpreted in the anti-Russian press as warning against interventionism in support of rebels in the Caucasus, including Chechnya. “Let’s face the truth. They have been preparing such a scenario for us, and now they will try even harder to implement it. In any case, this scenario will not work.” This was not understood in Russia as support for Qaddafi.

On February 23, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin issued a similarly worded warning at talks with the European Commission in Brussels. “The situation in Libya cannot but affect other parts of the world…it is necessary to let people choose their own destiny and future.”

According to Putin, “it is necessary to respect what is happening in other parts of the world…Any interference from outside is unacceptable.”

Putin did not ignore the danger to foreign nationals, including Russians, working in Libya.

“First of all, we are concerned about the number of victims, and we are concerned despite the reassuring statements that the rise to power or strengthening of radical groups in the North African countries is unlikely.”

In Brussels Putin also tried also to address the armchair warriors with a trip down memory lane. “I would like to go back in history a little bit. The former leader of the Iranian Revolution ¬ where did he live? He lived in Paris. And as a whole, he was supported by the Western community. Now the entire Western community fights against the Iranian nuclear program. I remember just recently our partners were very active in supporting democratic elections in the Palestinian autonomy. And Hamas won. And immediately they declared Hamas a terrorist organization and started fighting against it.”

As Putin was speaking in Belgium,, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow issued a series of cautions against international sanctions being considered at the UN Security Council in New York. On February 24 the Foreign Ministry said that “while [they] might work in some situations, you can hardly say that they are an effective method of international action,” ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich announced. By then, the first airlift of Russian nationals in Libya had been successfully evacuated from Tripoli by the Russian Ministry of Emergencies. Several hundred remained to wait for chartered ferries to arrive.

The Foreign Ministry position was clear ahead of the evacuation. “We condemn and consider unacceptable the use of military force to break up peaceful demonstrations,” Foreign Minister Lavrov signed in a joint statement with his European Union counterpart, Catherine Ashton. “Supporting the peoples of Arab countries in their aspirations for a more just and prosperous life, the European Union and Russia stand ready to provide economic and other assistance to interested countries at their request,” the statement added. This meant carrots, not no-fly zone and other sticks.

Last Friday, February 25, Medvedev edged towards the problem of Libyan treatment of Russian nationals, other foreigners, and the threat of hostage-taking by the sides in a civil war. “Moscow is deeply concerned about the events taking place in Libya,” Medvedev said. “The numerous victims cited in media reports are cause for profound sorrow. Russia condemns the use of force against civilians sanctioned by the country’s leadership. We resolutely call on Libya’s current authorities and all responsible political figures in the country to show restraint in order to prevent further deterioration of the situation and deaths of civilians. Such acts, if they continue, will be qualified as crimes with all the ensuing consequences under international law.”

This was it — after years of friendly back-channel communications between Qaddafi and the Kremlin, not to mention heavy investment by the Libyans in St. Petersburg real estate and vacations for Saif Qaddafi on the yacht of oligarch, Suleiman Kerimov, Medvedev’s declaration was the signal that Qaddafi senior and junior are washed up; that the Kremlin won’t save them; and that they had better negotiate terms for a peaceful exit rather than fight on.

But fighting in Libya by foreign interventionist forces is also ruled out in current Russian strategy. According Yevgeny Satanovsky, President of the Middle East Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, “the Kremlin has been very cautious about giving much comment on Libya, and that is for its own good, when compared to the leaders of foreign nations who have already said much nonsense. Picking a greater evil out of the two [civil war or an outside intervention] is as pointless as picking a worse disease out of cholera and plague, as both are deadly.”

Satanovsky pointed to the impossibility for any European government, or its intelligence service, to anticipate, let alone determine the course of the war now under way between the tribes and clans, the army and the Qaddafi loyalists. “Nobody can predict what turn the Libyan events will take and will there be a country at all. Libya can break up into several enclaves, and the oil areas can be occupied [by an outside force]. I wouldn’t compare Libya to Iraq directly, because Iraq was submitted to an armed intervention, the people weren’t protesting against Saddam, while it is the people of Libya who are trying to overthrow Qaddafi now. Qaddafi has no chance to stay on top, he will be removed.”

“[Civil war] is already underway. And we don’t know who in the end – and with what bloodshed – will stop it and who will take control over Libya. This territory is inhabited by people, who are in North Africa, as the Chechens in the Caucasus – the Libyans are warlike people, and we can’t predict what oasis can give us the one who will crush every other force and take over the country. Let’s recall that at the time when Qaddafi overthrew the aged King Idris, Qaddafi was an unknown man as well.”

“The whole Arab East is crumbling. And the non-Arab East, up to Pakistan, could collapse after it. There are all sorts of people behind it all. Al-Jazeera, as always, helps Qatar, the emir of which is not meant to like people like Qaddafi. Especially, with his exotic Green Book Qaddafi is a very doubtful Muslim. Saudi Arabia is helping islamists as hard as they can. The West helps bring down any non-democratic regime.”

In concern about the unpredictability of regime change, Satanovsky noted a parallel with the Russian revolution of 1991, much as Lavrov had done early this month. “Qaddafi came after Brezhnev. Where is Brezhnev, where is the Soviet Union? – and Qaddafi still reigns. With that in Libya there are the tribes, and not everyone is happy with the situation. With that, [Qaddafi] again tried to move into the leadership his exalted sons, and in this too, noone delights. Moreover, [Qaddafi’s] habit of personally shooting companions made a slip, to put it mildly, which does not engender a big commitment from the leadership of the armed forces. That’s why the six and half million person country exploded – and very cruelly.”

Satanovsky would not assign a probability to the chances of the Senoussi clan, headed by London-backed Mohammed el-Senoussi, great-nephew of the ex-king Idris (he calls himself the prince of Libya in exile), rallying enough support to make a comeback, at least to the old Senoussi capital of Benghazi. That is where the Anglo-American media have emphasized the strength of the rebellion against Qaddafi. Benghazi was also where, in 1946, Idris el-Senoussi (right image) was returned to his emirate by the British after they had defeated the German Army in the region. He died in Egyptian exile in 1983.

Asked how Russian experts interpret the significance of rebels in the Benghazi region flying the flag of the Senoussi regime, Satanovsky said: “I see a pattern similar to the one in Russia after the Communist government was toppled, the rebels were flying the three-coloured flag of the Russian Empire and the White Guard. It’s getting back to the roots, the negation of the negation. Will all of the rebels fly the flag of King Idris is yet another difficult question.”

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