The people of Libya are barely an afterthought in this naked struggle for control

The heir of Gaddafi has arrived at the gates of Tripoli

Monday 08 April 2019 19:08
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Fighting continues in Libya's Tripoli

Who will save Libya? Variously described as a “renegade general” through to “strongman” and full field marshal, Khalifa Haftar clearly believes he is the one to bring order and unity – though not democracy and human rights – to the miserable, fractured, failed state of Libya.

From his base in the east of the country, he has already taken control of the oil-rich southern provinces in a blitzkrieg earlier this year. Now, emboldened by his unexpectedly rapid and easy gains, he is set upon capturing the capital Tripoli, and with it the remaining parts of the country he does not yet rule, mostly the old western province of Tripolitania. Tripoli is itself host to four rival militias; while Isis has established its foothold south of the city of Sirte. Human trafficking; modern slavery; rape as a weapon of war; the abolition of human rights; no jobs; no prosperity; Libya has become a kaleidoscope of horror.

Mr Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (it is anything but) has shown itself capable of casually violating the rules of war – not least now by the bombing of the Libyan capital’s last functioning airport. Civilians are collateral damage; his commanders and their troops are protected from the attentions of the international court.

By all accounts the UN-recognised government and the various armies camped there in Tripoli will put up a struggle, and the city will not fall without some bloody hand-to-hand, street-to-street fighting through rubble that could echo some of the worst episodes in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. If Libya is ever to be united under this would-be dictator – once a disciple of Colonel Gaddafi – it will first have to be broken. The Haftar offensive is uncomfortably reminiscent of the ruthless strategy of President Assad.

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Like Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the conflict in Libya has its origins in an arbitrary colonial era drawing of borders; more recently misguided, however well-intentioned, intervention by foreign powers; and owes its medieval brutality and persistence to its status as a proxy battleground. Libya was always a ramshackle assemblage of ancient provinces dating back to the Ottoman Empire and beyond. The end of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 was sponsored through air power exercised by David Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France. As President Obama later pointed out, the greater part of the fault, as in Iraq, lay in the failure to plan for the aftermath of the removal of a dictator who had held an arguably artificial state together for four decades. Libya fell into a state of civil war from which it has never recovered.

Today the people of Libya find themselves being used in a proxy war. Nations line up on either side on an almost random basis. Oil interests, never frankly acknowledged, motivate some of their support, with the various powers making bets on who will eventually prevail and rule over the nation’s vast reserves of oil and natural gas. Mr Haftar has the better of this cynical international coalition: Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and Russia support his enterprise in varying degrees. The United States and Britain seem unsure as to which dog to pick in this particular scrap.

Even old Sunni/Shia and regional identities, let alone lofty ideas about national aims or values, seem less important in this war than a simpler, cruder battle for supremacy – gang warfare writ large.

It is an obvious tragedy. Libya could be one of the richest nations, per capita, on Earth thanks to its natural resources, yet its people are barely an afterthought in this naked struggle for control.

The beleaguered UN-endorsed government of national accord in Tripoli, under prime minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj is backed by Italy, the former colonial power and the Saudis’ enemies the Qataris. Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister of Italy, pours scorn on President Macron’s motives in backing Mr Haftar – oil money. For Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, Libya is simply an alternative site to Yemen for them to rain bombs down on one another’s proxy forces.

The truth is that no one can save Libya. The European Union has admitted as much – declaring that there can be no military solution. The UN envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, has also limited himself to urging all sides of the fighting to deescalate and commit to the political process. None of Mr Haftar’s backers in the UN or EU seems to have yet got round to telling him that, and ordering restraint upon him, assuming they even could. The heir of Gaddafi has arrived at the gates of Tripoli.

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