Middle East troubles.

The latest wave of internal unrest in the Middle East – Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya – is an indicator of the threats faced by all totalitarian regimes. Whether regimes survive in the face of popular protests is largely a factor of whether they can retain the loyalty of their security apparatus. When the military switches sides, as they did in Iran in 1979, Romania in 1989 and Egypt in 2011, regimes fall. When they remain loyal to their leaders in cases such as Iraq under Saddam Hussein, North Korea under the Kim Dynasty and – as seems increasingly likely – Libya under the Gaddafi clan, the regime survives.

24th Mar 2011


Middle East troubles.

The latest wave of internal unrest in the Middle East – Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya – is an indicator of the threats faced by all totalitarian regimes. Whether regimes survive in the face of popular protests is largely a factor of whether they can retain the loyalty of their security apparatus. When the military switches sides, as they did in Iran in 1979, Romania in 1989 and Egypt in 2011, regimes fall. When they remain loyal to their leaders in cases such as Iraq under Saddam Hussein, North Korea under the Kim Dynasty and – as seems increasingly likely – Libya under the Gaddafi clan, the regime survives.

At the time of writing there is a very active debate in Western circles – principally NATO – about whether air strikes or mandating ‘no-fly zones’ should be implemented to weaken the Gaddafi regime to the point where it gives up power. The country showing most enthusiasm for this course of action is France, which is not usually considered to be belligerent in matters of foreign policy, though it does have a few historical grievances concerning Gaddafi’s support for terrorism. Also it should be remembered that France and Libya actually clashed militarily in neighbouring Chad over a ten-year period.

Much of the fighting was carried out by proxies supporting various factions struggling for control of the country in a series of shifting alliances, but Libya and France nevertheless were always on opposite sides, mainly because of Colonel Gaddafi’s desire to annex a significant strip of land from Chad. This long-forgotten event is a reminder of the ambitions of Libya during the 1970s and 80s, which also brought the country into direct conflict with the United States Navy on several occasions.

The culmination of these clashes was a decision by President Ronald Reagan to launch a major air strike against Libya in 1986, mainly in response to several terrorist provocations. The attack, which was not supported by many other nations, was conducted by F-111s flying from Britain and also carrier-based aircraft in the Gulf of Sirte.

This time around the United States is far more reluctant to become involved militarily, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton questioning the effectiveness of air strikes in assisting regime change, pointing out that Saddam Hussein survived many years of such treatment. However, the 1986 attack on Libya – which came close to killing Gaddafi - actually did appear to have a moderating effect on his behaviour, though not immediately. Gaddafi himself disappeared from public view for two years and gradually the regime gave up the open support of terrorism, abandoned the development of weapons of mass destruction and cancelled its fledgling nuclear weapons programme.

Air strikes have also been instrumental in the downfall of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic in 1999. The stated aim of the two-month campaign involving 1,000 aircraft at its peak was to force the Yugoslav Army (in effect the Serbian Army) to withdraw from Kosovo. But the unstated aim was to force regime change so that Milosevic’s aggressive and de-stabilising Balkan adventurism would end. The logic of the air campaign was simple – there would be few, if any, allied casualties and the effect on Serbia would be to progressively ratchet up the level of destructive pain. Very early in the campaign a significant number of military targets were destroyed and the attacks then shifted to infrastructure such as bridges and power stations. Because of the extensive use of new generation precision-guided munitions, collateral damage was limited – though still not zero.

While the air campaign was not the total success that it was first believed to be, there is little doubt that it had a major role in the decision of the Yugoslav Army to pull out of Kosovo and led to the consequent downfall of Milosevic. Other factors included the unusual decision of Russia to side with the West and the threat of a NATO ground invasion. While these influences were important, it nevertheless seems highly likely that as more of Serbia was reduced to rubble every day, even hard-line nationalists decided that they were paying too high a price for supporting the policies of the regime.

Hilary Clinton has said that the air strikes in Serbia were not decisive, but that seems to be an incorrect argument designed to talk everyone out of similar action against Libya. There is little doubt that air strikes by just a few NATO members such as the United States, Britain, France and Italy would have the potential to inflict major damage on Gaddafi’s security apparatus. Much of Libya is flat and without cover, the locations of major military installations are well known, and Western aircraft have a considerable technical advantage over what is now a rudimentary air defence system.

However, the US does not want to involve itself in yet another conflict in the Middle East. Having been bruised in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is understandably little enthusiasm for a new military campaign that might not be over as fast as is hoped. That could change if Colonel Gaddafi continues to attack his own people and if opposition to him in the broader Arab community continues to grow, but even then Washington will be reluctant to move.
 

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