Eight years ago, a wave of popular opposition similar to the current one in Sudan and Algeria toppled Muammar Gaddafi but unleashed death and destruction in its wake. The leaderless mobs splintered into warring factions. Now, as Anver Versi writes, a new strongman Gen Khalifa Haftar is pushing to take over the country. Is this the end of the dream of the Libyan uprising
In hindsight, the 40-odd years during which Muammar Gaddafi was the leader of this oil-rich North African country appear to be a period of blissful serenity compared to the total dystopia it has descended into since his callous murder, in 2011, at the hands of rampaging mobs egged on by the US, UK and French-led NATO military forces.
Contemplating the chaos that followed the NATO airstrikes and Gaddafi’s murder, then US President Barack Obama said in an interview in Atlantic magazine that this was the “worst mistake of my life”.
Obama, it later transpired, had been very reluctant to go along with his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s obsession with a military strike against Gaddafi, especially as there had been no clear plan for the aftermath.
The decision to intervene militarily on the side of the insurgents who had used the cover of the Arab Spring to settle age-old scores and were seeking to oust Gaddafi, now has an honoured place on the infamous list of disastrous Western interventions in the affairs of foreign countries.
Despite unleashing chaos and violence, not only in Libya itself but also in its neighbouring countries and opening the space for the dreaded ISIS to establish camp and ironically, plan and execute a series of terrorist attacks in European cities, Western countries seem to have learnt nothing.
Instead of nursing their burnt fingers and making a pledge not to stomp with their big boots into territory that is complex and fragile, they are at it again in Libya – just when it seemed that the hard work by the UN Special Envoy, Ghassan Salamé, was bearing fruit.
Allying his enormous diplomatic skills with an innate and deep knowledge of the people, he had somehow managed to get the myriad warring factions in Libya to agree to work out a plan of reconciliation and national unity. The talks were scheduled to take place in mid-April.
Salamé said he had finally negotiated a deal that would have seen a reunification of Haftar’s forces in the east with the government in the west. The conference, he expected, would outline a single set of economic and political institutions across the country for the first time in four years.
But this did not suit vested interests. General Khalifa Haftar, the 75-year-old leader of the selfstyled Libyan National Army (LNA) and at one time Gaddafi’s comrade-in-arms, who had established himself as de facto ruler in the country’s east as a rival to the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli, refused to play ball.
While diplomatic manoeuvrings were going on in an effort to patch together the broken country, Khalifa Haftar, early in April, marched his army to Tripoli and launched a series of artillery barrages on the outskirts.
It then quickly transpired that France, backed by Egypt and UAE and Saudi Arabia, was pulling the strings and had been fully behind the warlord’s lightning strike. The aim was clearly to scupper the UN-brokered peace talks in Tripoli and set a collision course against the GNA, led by PM Fayez al-Sarraj.
Cat among the pigeons
This put the cat among the pigeons and exposed the cynical business-first attitude to the appalling humanitarian situation in Libya. The US-based Politico magazine says: “Like the police captain in (the film) Casablanca, feigning outrage at gambling in Rick’s Café before being handed his winnings, France was ‘shocked, shocked’ to find that the Libyan generalissimo, whose forces it has covertly helped arm and train, was marching on Tripoli.
“Paris has been quietly involved at least since 2015 in building up the flashy uniformed baron of Benghazi as a strongman it hopes can impose order on the vast, thinly populated North African oil producer and crack down on the Islamist groups that have flourished in the ungoverned spaces of the failed state.
“In doing so,” the writer, Paul Taylor says, “it has trampled none too subtly on the economic and security interests of its EU neighbour Italy, the former colonial power in Libya and the main foreign player in its oil sector.”
Matteo Salvini, the Italian Interior Minister who has backed the Tripoli-based government of Fayez al-Sarraj, reacted with barely concealed fury at France’s support for the offensive. He said: “Someone tried a blitz in Libya. It didn’t go well. Someone certainly supported this blitz, not Italy. The Italian government is working as a firefighter. Let’s hope that there are not just a few of us doing that. Let’s hope that the international community helps us to restore peace to the centre of Libya’s objectives.”
At the time of writing, the UN estimates that some 500 people have been killed since the offensive against Tripoli began, and 55,000 displaced. Yet another grim statistic to add to the toll of deaths and destruction visited on this country since the demise of Gaddafi.
At the time of going to press, Haftar’s ill-disciplined force, composed largely of young men forcibly recruited, was bogged down outside Tripoli, but the warlord has shown no signs of withdrawing or agreeing to a cease-fire. Instead, he rejected the UN’s plea for a weeklong humanitarian truce during the holy month of Ramadan. On the contrary, he told his forces to “teach the enemy a greater and bigger lesson than the previous ones” during Ramadan.
Haftar’s assault appears to have caught everyone, bar his backers, by surprise, leading to a series of almost comical reversals of official positions.
Britain, the UN and the EU called Haftar’s LNA the aggressors and Britain took it upon itself to draft a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire and an end to the offensive, with written support from Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State.
Russia asked for amendments to make the resolution more ‘balanced’ and less explicitly anti-Haftar, but did not threaten to veto it.
Then a week later, Trump made an abrupt aboutface, contradicting his own words as well as the official position taken by Pompeo. This shocking volte-face followed a meeting between Trump and one of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, President of Egypt and a phone call to the Abu Dhabi crown prince, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, both principal allies of Haftar.
According to White House insiders, Trump was persuaded to call Haftar following which, says Bloomberg, he and his National Security Adviser, John ‘who can we bomb next?’ Bolton expressed support for Haftar’s offensive – a direct slap in the face of Pompeo as well as the British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt.
An official White House read-out of a telephone call between Trump and Haftar said the US President “recognised Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources”.
The UK Guardian reports: “The state department went from encouraging a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire and an end to an offensive on the capital by the eastern Libyan warlord, Khalifa Haftar, to threatening to veto the same resolution a few days later.”
Speaking to journalists, a European diplomat described the situation in this manner: “The green light had come from a senior official at state (US). There was a complete switch in the course of a week. From greenlighting it they went to completely opposing it.
They weren’t saying: we think this is a bad idea. They said: we are going to veto this. We don’t want a resolution to go forward.”
This left the UK Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt with egg on the face. Having taken the lead on drafting a UN Security Council resolution against Haftar’s offensive, he now found himself isolated.
He told The Guardian: “We do not agree with what Haftar is doing. We do not think it is possible for Haftar to achieve a military victory, and as a government he will not be seen as legitimate by whole swathes of the country. So we want a political process.”
But aware of Britain’s severely diminished clout in world politics and aware that its ability to influence decisions either in Europe or the US is now virtually negligible, he responded to questions on whether Haftar’s offensive in Tripoli had forfeited him the right to be a major figure in the future of Libya by saying: “We have to be careful about making those kinds of judgments. We have not covered ourselves in glory with our policy on Libya. Let us face it, if we knew in 2011 we would be in the situation we are now we would be asking ourselves some searching questions, so we had better be careful about ruling people out and ruling people in. The right way forward is a ceasefire, political talks and a political settlement.”
But with the US, France, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE all in Haftar’s corner, it seems unlikely that a meaningful ceasefire is on the cards. The people of Libya, already brutalised by a decade under the nightmarish reign of ISIS and a multitude of warring factions, can only brace themselves for more of the same as Haftar tightens his hold on Tripoli and in so doing, effectively over the country.
Jonathan Winer, a former US special envoy for Libya says: “The risk here is that Libya winds up looking more like Syria with a broadening civil conflict, a large number of people fleeing, a humanitarian crisis and resurgent terrorism. We need a political solution, not a military one.”
UN mediator, Salamé has warned of Haftar: “He is no Abraham Lincoln, he is no big democrat. Seeing him act, we can be worried about his methods because where he is governing, he doesn’t govern softly, but with an iron fist.”
In short, another Gaddafi, but while Muammar was a 27-year-old idealist when he seized power and somehow managed to keep the country with its imploding mosaic of clans and age-old tribal feuds together for 40 years while delivering the highest standards of living in Africa to Libya’s citizens, Khalifa Haftar is 75 years old and was made cynical during his long years of exile in the US. Unlike the mercurial Gaddafi, he will not stand up against foreign vested interests in favour of a people when, as Hunt says, most would not recognise him as a legitimate leader.
But if he can somehow bring the bloodshed to an end and start rebuilding the shattered country, it will all have been worthwhile.