There’s a hell of a lot happening in the Middle East right now, with protests and violence from Morocco to Bahrain. It seems likely that more governments will fall in coming days. In every instance, these revolts appear to be genuinely grassroots movements. The West is turning a blind eye to some government crackdowns. Its support for democracy is overridden by the need for stability to secure its oil supply.
Libya: Acting on the UN mandate, US, Britain, France, and other countries have attacked the Gaddifi regime’s air defences and armoured forces. A French squadron destroyed up to 70 Gaddifi-loyalist armoured vehicles in a pre-dawn attack on their encampment near Benghazi, forcing the loyalist forces into retreat. The rebels say 8,000 of their people have died in the fighting. Undoubtedly, if those armoured forces had been allowed to attack Benghazi today, the city would have fallen and there would have been a bloodbath. But what happens now if Gaddifi’s forces retreat into the towns they hold? Air power alone can’t dislodge them and bombing in built-up area risks civilian causalities. It will come down to the rebels becoming a more effective fighting force (probably with the assistance of Western special forces, which aren’t barred by the UN resolution) and the loyalist leadership fracturing.
The US has signalled it doesn’t want to lead the UN force and, having supplied the cruise missiles for the initial assault, is handing over to NATO. Obama clearly wasn’t keen to get involved in this and I still think intervention was left too late.
Bahrain: Hypocrisy is the meat of realpolitick and while doing the right thing, eventually, in Libya, the US is turning a blind eye to what is happening only kilometres away from the base of the US 5th fleet in Bahrain. Last week, the Saud monarchy sent in troops to defend the Al Khalifa monarchy from the growing Shi’ite uprising. With this new firepower behind it, the monarchy imposed martial law and cleared the streets of protesters. There have been a number of deaths on both sides and many opposition leaders have been arrested. The US has called for calm but it won’t intervene to protect the Shi’ites. The stark reality is the US needs Saudi oil and the Saudis want the Shi’ites in Bahrain repressed so that their own Shi’ites (who live in the oil-making regions of Qatif) don’t get inspiration from their neighbours.
Yemen: violence in Yemen stepped up a notch with government snipers killing at least 52 protesters at a university on Friday. In recent days, soldiers have been ambushed and killed, apparently by Al Qaeda members who have bases in the country. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has fired his cabinet and pledged some reforms but the opposition, including his own tribe, say he must resign. The US has been training the Yemeni military to fight Al Qaeda and that assistance, apparently, has still not been cut off despite teh use of the military against civilians.
UPDATE: It would seem the tide is turning against the president, three top generals have come out in support of the protesters taking 60% of the military with them. Mummybot
Syria: thousands took to the streets on Friday in the largest protests since the Ba’ath Party (cousin of Saddam’s Ba’ath party) took power in 1963. Security forces tried to disperse protesters, killing several. As so often happens in these revolts, the funerals the next day became protests of their own and in turn came under attack from the police. The Syrian government is keen for this to not get out of hand and have sent a governments commission to the hot spot of Deraa to apologise for the deaths. The strength of Syria’s regimes means a serious uprising is not expected but the whole arab revolts have been one surprise after another.
Oman: in a move that is sure to set the oil markets aflutter, refinery workers have gone on strike, shutting in up to 200,000 of oil barrels a day (more than NZ’s consumption).
There are also reports of protests in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Iraq (Shi’ites protesting Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain), Lebanon (this one was against secularism, gulp), and Jordan. In fact, the only Arab countries that appear completely calm are Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, the last two of which are involved in the campaign against Gaddifi.