BY: Begona Arechalde
PEJOURNAL – It has been a turbulent week in Libya. Following the UN-backed GNA government’s announcement to recapture the city of Sirte on July 18, Egypt declared that it will deploy its troops in the neighboring country next Monday to protect its national security “from criminal armed militias and foreign terrorist elements.” Turkey, the main GNA supporter in the war, warned Cairo that such a move could be considered an invasion. The United States, concerned about Russian influence in the region, has accused Moscow of breaking the arms embargo in the country.
The Libyan Civil War began in 2011 after the fall of General Muammar al-Qaddafi in a coup promoted by Western governments and carried out by NATO. The deposition was followed by the disintegration of the country into multiple militias – the Islamic State among them – and the rise to power of the pro-democratic National Accord Government (GNA) led by Fayez Al-Sarraj. Opposition to the government has since been embodied by General Khalifa Haftar’s Liberation National Army (LNA), determined to fight extremism after the coup.
The LNA controls most of the territory, mainly the east and center of the country, where a large part of Libya’s oil fields are located. The GNA controls the northwest and the capital Tripoli. On May 18, Haftar’s forces suffered a severe blow in their 14-month military enterprise to capture Tripoli when Turkish-backed GNA forces retook the al-Watiya Air base (see map below).
Now the GNA has declared that it will move towards Sirte, a gateaway to Libya’s main oil terminals. Egypt sees the city as a ‘red line’ that, if crossed, will compel it to consider direct confrontation in Libya. So far, on July 20, the Egyptian parliament approved the deployment of troops in the country, a movement that Ankara has described as “very dangerous.” Egypt had conducted air strikes on armed groups in the past, but the deployment of troops is a major escalation.
Furthermore, the United States, a supporter of Turkey in the conflict, has accused Russia of breaking the arms embargo imposed on Libya since 2013. Satellite images show evidence that the private military contractor Wagner Group has recently assisted the LNA with Russian mercenaries and weapons. However, Turkey has openly flouted the embargo since day one providing the GNA with Syrian mercenaries, drones and military equipment in exchange of a permit to access some of the contry’s gas fields.
FOREIGN INTERESTS: POWER AND OIL
The high number of third parties involved in the conflict makes sometimes hard to remember that it is a Civil War. The main GNA supporters are the UN, Turkey, Qatar and Italy, the latter being the former colonizing power of Libya. General Haftar has the backing of Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia and, surprisingly though unofficially, France.
The United States and the European Union claim to take a neutral position although they favor both sides depending on the day. Washington’s influence in the region under the Trump administration is in jeopardy as it needs to secure its geopolitical status in Egypt at the same time that it must confront the shadow of Russia. The crossroads at which the United States finds itself is hampered by Haftar’s American citizenship and his proximity to the CIA during his exile under the government of Muammar Gaddafi.
As for the EU, the conflict has shown how far member states can drift in their posturing against one another. Italy has allowed the oil company ENI to hire criminal militias to secure the western Mellitah oil complex, whose members are in the UN’s blacklists.
France has clandestinely supported Haftar since 2015, when its foreign policy discourse turned to the fight against terrorism following the Paris attacks. In addition, the French company Total has interests in the lands controlled by the LNA.
Another key participant is Israel whose advanced air defence systems have helped the LNA to batter down Turkish drones. The Mossad coordinates operations and policies regarding Haftar with the Egyptian intelligence. Between 2017 and 2019, Mossad envoys met on numerous occasions with Haftar in Cairo, and have facilitated the training of some of his key officers in war tactics, intelligence gathering and analysis, as well as control and command measures.
Therefore, the motivations of the foreign actors involved in the conflict, far from having a moral or humanitarian basis, are the preservation or advancement of geopolitical power and oil supply.
THE WAR THAT NEVER SHOULD HAVE HAPPENED: QADDAFI AND THE WEST
Libya’s problems are not new. The country has been a source of dreadful news since before the fall of al-Qaddafi. To understand the development of current events, one must go back to the 2011 coup and the reasons behind it.
Although the NATO bombings in 2011 were carried out on humanitarian grounds, the emails exchanged between the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, and attorney Sidney Blumenthal, published in 2015, suggest otherwise. They read:
“The Qaddafi government has 143 tons of gold and a similar amount in silver… This gold was accumulated before the current rebellion and was intended to be used to establish a pan-African currency based on the Libyan golden dinar. This plan was designed to provide Francophone African Countries with an alternative to the French franc. ”
In other words, Qaddafi wanted to leave behind the international financial system based on petro-dollars and the issuance of loans by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, for which developing countries, historical debtors, are essential. He wanted to create a new pan-African currency that would unite African sovereign states, most likely it was to be minted in Libya.
France would come off badly if Qaddafi succeed. The French President at that time, Nicolas Sarkozy, later called Qaddafi “a threat to the world’s financial security” and sponsored the 2011 coup on monetary, oil and power grounds. The emails showed no evidence of humanitarian intentions.
To many’s surprise, France’s stance towards Libya radically changed after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. Renegade Haftar and his LNA seemed now the best option to fight the Islamic State. Although Haftar’s authoritarian character was not in line with French democratic values, the general’s goals did coincide with France’s efforts to develop military alliances with authorities in other parts of Africa, secure the Sahel, and protect the interests of its main oil company, Total.
In fact, France blocked a European Union resolution against Haftar and is believed to have procured LNA military equipment.
By then damage was done. Gaddafi had been executed and NATO bombings had destroyed civil irrigation systems, a war crime under international law. The democratic project carried out by the GNA failed and plunged the country into a state of chaos that turned into a civil war in 2014.
A GLOOMY FUTURE FOR LIBYA
So far, the Civil War in Libya has plunged 1.3 million people into poverty and displaced another 200,000. The total number of victims is difficult to verify. After the recent rise in tensions between Egypt and Turkey, the country resembles a balloon about to burst.
Libya’s Civil War has never been just a civil war, but a chessboard for the economic, energy and power interests of other nations, divided into two alliances, regardless of the victims their ambitions leave on the battlefield.
Imperialist claims, the imposition of liberal canons on modernization policies, the ferocious bite of capitalism and the impunity of the international arms trade industry are all complicit in the continued suffering of thousands of people in Libya and the escalation of insecurity in North Africa.
To this day, the voice of the Libyan people remains unheard.