Forecast as of New Year’s Eve 2018 (What is this?)
Stable yes, unified no. The momentum is towards increased stability and some form of power-sharing, coalition style government. But at its core Libya is as much a tribal society as Afghanistan is – and I think one of the risks in countries like that is pushing for a western-Westphalian styled “sovereign state” suppressing tribal differences. That usually happens with colonization, or colonial hold-overs, or dictators who appreciate the power that comes with sovereign status. Left to their own devices loose power sharing among tribes can actually be more advantageous than a traditional sovereign configuration. That’s what I think Libya is heading too with General Hatrifa and his faction leading the way.
Two interesting contingencies to look for in 2019:
General Hatrifa ain’t no spring chicken and his health scare underlined the risks in Libya. If he dies unexpectedly, there’s no ready in-the-wings heir-apparent (at least that I can see.) And that kind of power vacuum and lack of orderly transition can really create instability.
The second big contingency in 2019 is the rise of the “quietest” Salafi movement. This is a reactionary against the ‘activist’ Salafi branches which include Whabbism, “reform” Salafism like the Muslim Brotherhood and violent-revolution salfisim such as the salafi-takfiri of ISIS, AQ etc. that sprung from Whabbism.
This makes it an interesting development because it is attacking these movements as being corruptions of salafism, from within the salafist ideology itself. This doesn’t mean we’d find much in common with the “quietest” movement – they still preach the return to 14th Century ideals. But interestingly they are about doing so through existing government regimes – so they are counter-revolutionary in nature. And Libya is turning into a surprising stronghold. This creates the first geographical counterweight to Saudi Arabia that can (eventually) have access to sufficient resources to counterpunch the Wahhabist expansionism Saudi has been funding for decades.
The great thing about this forecast is how many different ways I got it wrong. Libya is less unified AND less stable than it was this time last year. Not only that, General Hatrifa, the “OK Boomer” of Libya is at the source of much of it. Just before a final resolution to the Civil War was to be made he launched a series of offensives from his base in eastern Libya. He succeeded in encircling Tripoli on eastern and southern sides, but despite repeated attempts have failed to take the city. It’s reached a sort of homeostasis grinder status on the ground as the southern zones of the city remain in conflict even as the rest of the city is untouched.
But that hardly means Libya’s instability is contained. Far from that Hatrifa’s move has allowed space for ISIS to reform, and the outflow of weapons, trained militants, and extremist ideology from Libya is at least in part (though not in total) a remaining consequence of instability in northern Africa. This instability has spread into Mali, Niger, Burkino Faso. Again the Libyan instability isn’t the sole cause of these conflicts, but much like the disaster of Bush’s post-invasion Iraq set seeds for instability elsewhere in the region, mixing with local conditions and altering the balance of power, so to did the disaster of Obama’s Libyan abandonment create ripple effects that are still playing out. And foreign intervention is far from over, it’s increasing.
In a very interesting development over the last few months two new players have arrived in Libya, and they’re backing opposing side. Russia has sent it’s Wagnar Group a mercenary group with suspected ties to the government, into Libya to back General Hatrifa beginning in the fall. This introduced highly trained snipers and access to sophisticated drone technology against the less well trained militia forces of the UN recognized government in Tripoli. Just in the last week, President Erdogan of Turkey announced a military intervention on behalf of that UN recognized government. Turkey and Russia’s current Facebook relationship is “it’s complicated” as they both made strong agreements (with Iran) in the Red Wedding but often are on opposite sides of both support for Assad and the intervention into Northern Syria last year and this year by Turkey. Now they’re entering into another conflict where on the micro level they will be supporting opposing sides but may still coordinate on other issues on the macro scale. This sort of transactional relationship plays to both their strengths, it allows them to pick and choose conflict, but it’s a game of balancing interests and a miscalculation could have them shooting at each other in the proxy scenario; as has happened several times in Syria.
Perhaps more stunning from this development is what it means to Mediterranean. This is hard for people to see perhaps who aren’t familiar with Go and the “fuzzy vision” of seeing how small stones great broad influence if unchallenged. And I might do another map video to illustrate this. But if you look at the map of the Mediterranean we are accustomed (almost resigned) to having ceded the eastern portion to Russian, Turkish and Iranian interests.
Libya is not in the eastern Mediterranean.
So imagine white and black both playing stones on the opposite side of the board from where their bases are. In Go this divides the space between in terms of influence, meaning that in some ways Russia and Turkey are “claiming” the Mediterranean between Syria and Libya as ‘their playground’ if they are able to successfully intervene in Libya. Remember neither side has to ‘win’, they’ve demonstrated the ability to advance through division and partial gains in Syria without going to war with each other.
Now look at that map again. See what’s right across the water from Libya? If you picked Italy and the underbelly of Europe you would not be wrong. I may be overreading, but the strategic decision to intervene in such a far flung area from their normal bases as Libya may be plays for hegemony or spheres of influence in the Mediterranean for everything east of Gibraltar and the Spanish coast.
And in such a scenario it begs the question: Who is going to stop them? The United Kingdom is consumed with torturing itself. France’s Navy is a gig-economy WeWork sharelease with the United Kingdom. Germany is on the wrong side of Europe. Italy’s Navy is more like a bulked up Coast Guard, having relied on NATO and the US for much of the 20th Century. They only have 2 light aircraft carriers a smattering of attack vessels and less than 10 submarines. The United States, at least under its current administration, isn’t capable of confronting anything that isn’t a soundbite on cable news.
I’m not saying this is going to play out like the Battle of Jutland or Midway with ship to ship conflict. But it’s all about projected influence. Remember last year when a Russian supply ship heading to Syria was successfully stopped for a time in the Mediterranean? Imagine instead that Russia, or Turkey, has navy bases in Libya and significant military presence there. All the sudden the military, and thus, political calculus changes.
And really the Russian and Turkish interventions are just one possible angle I could explore. The rising and spreading instability flowing from Libya south into Africa could be another.
Suffice to say I not only got this wrong, but wrong in many interesting ways. I also was reminded again there is no demographic on earth with a longer natural lifespan than aging despot in his 80’s…
Score: 0, Goose Egg, Nada, Nothing
Running Score: 5.5 out of 12