Compared to the past few days in Libya that were marked by aerial bombardments on opposition strongholds, bizarre speeches by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and deadly clashes between protesters and African mercenaries, Wednesday was eerily quiet in the North African country.
The reason behind this apparent sense of quietude is because Libya is currently stuck in a historical east-west stalemate, with the threat of civil war looming.
The Gadhafi regime has effectively lost control of the east, where opposition forces are concentrated in and around the cities of Benghazi and Al Baida. The opposition is also encroaching on Libya’s dividing line, the energy-critical Gulf of Sidra, with the directors of several subsidiaries of the state-owned National Oil Corporation announcing they were splitting from Gadhafi and joining the people.
To the west, Gadhafi and his remaining allies appear to be digging in for a fight. Residents inTripoli, many of whom turned on Gadhafi after witnessing the gratuitous violence used on protesters, are reportedly stockpiling arms, unsure of what will come next, but expecting the worst.
“Without a clear alternative, and with Libya fundamentally divided, there is no Plan B for theGadhafi regime that generates much enthusiasm.”
A swath of nearly 500 miles of desert lies between the opposition and Gadhafi strongholds. And herein lies the historical challenge in ruling Libya: the split between ancient Tripolitaniaand Cyrenaica. The Cyrenaica region has a long and rich history, dating back to the 7th Century B.C. This is a region that has seen many rulers, including Greeks, Romans, Persians, Egyptians, Ottomans, Italians and British, and has long been at odds with the rival power base of Tripolitania, founded by the Phoenicians. At the time of Libya’s independence and through the reign of King Idris I (whose base of power was Cyrenaica), Libya was ruled by two capitals, Tripoli in the west and Benghazi in the east. For most Cyrenaics, Benghazi — and not Tripoli — is seen as their true capital.
It was not until Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s 1969 military coup that overthrew the monarchy that the Tripolitanians could truly claim dominance over the fledgling Libyan state. But in a country divided by myriad dialects, tribes and ancient histories, Tripolitanian power could only be held through a complex alliance of tribes, the army’s loyalty and an iron fist.
Gadhafi thus finds himself in a serious dilemma, with what appears to be a winnowing number of army units and tribes remaining loyal to him in Tripoli and Sirte, his tribal homeland located on the western edge of the Gulf of Sidra. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to see how Gadhafi will be able to project power militarily to the east to retake the resource-rich territory and ultimately save his regime. It is equally difficult at the moment to imagine a contingent of opposition forces from the east charging across the desert and successfully retaking Tripoli. Even if a coup is attempted by Tripolitanians in the west against Gadhafi, the successor will face an extraordinary challenge in trying to exert control over the rest of the country to resolve the east-west split. When it comes to the Tripolitania-Cyrenaica divide, neither side is likely to make a move until they feel confident about their ability to co-opt or destroy enough forces on the enemy side.
A period of negotiations must first take place, as the Cyrenaica-based opposition forces attempt to reach a political understanding with forces already in Tripoli, who may already have ideas of their own on how to eliminate Gadhafi. That way, if they do move forces, they will at least have prior arrangements that they are not going to be challenged and ideally can be logistically supported from stocks in Tripoli. This explains the current quietude, as each side maneuvers in negotiations and conserves forces.
Whether those negotiations actually lead somewhere is another question. Gadhafi may be losing more credibility by the day, but he appears to be gambling on two things: that he can retain enough military and tribal support to make the cost of invading Tripoli too high for the opposition to attempt, and that the foreign bystanders to this conflict will be too fearful of the consequences of his regime collapsing.
The fear of the unknown is what is keeping the main external stakeholders in this conflict in limbo at the moment. From the U.S. president to the CEO of Italian energy firm ENI, nobody appears willing to rush a regime collapse that could very well result in civil war. This may explain the notably vague statements coming out of Tuesday’s U.N. Security Councilmeetings that focused on condemning the violence and not much else, as well as U.S. President Barack Obama’s statement on Wednesday, in which he said, “I have asked my administration to prepare a full range of options. This includes unilateral options, those with partners and those with international organizations.”
It is no coincidence that to this day, not a single leading opposition figure in Libya can be named. This is a testament to Gadhafi’s strategy of consolidating power: to prevent the creation of alternative bases of power and keep the institutions around him, including the army, deliberately weak. Without a clear alternative, and with Libya fundamentally divided, there is no Plan B for the Gadhafi regime that generates much enthusiasm.
And so we wait. Opposition forces in the east will conduct quiet negotiations in the west to determine who will defect and who will resist; the United States and Italy will be lobbied endlessly by the opposition to enforce a no-fly zone over the country; the external powers will continue to deliberate among a severely limited number of bad options; and Gadhafi and his remaining allies will dig in for the fight.
If neither side can acquire the force strength to make a move, Libya will return to its historic split between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica with separate bases of power. If one side takes a gamble and makes a move, civil war is likely to ensue. Sometimes it really is that simple.