Muammar Gaddafi’s forces were rolling into Benghazi, past broken buildings and charred cars. There had been ambushes by the rebels, but it did not stop the tanks – there had been little preparation for defence in the early, exultant days of the revolution. The city, we thought amid the flames and smoke, was surely about to fall, with horrendous consequences.
There was fear of vengeance, of widespread retribution among those in opposition. Some had managed to escape, but many more were trapped, expecting the worst. Mashalla, my translator and friend, who had several brothers in the resistance, put it simply: “They will kill us all.”
Libya’s revolution, we felt that day eight years ago, would be stillborn. Among the many painful facts of life being learned was that the nationalist fervour expressed in posters in the city – “No foreign intervention, Libyans can do it alone”, highlighting uneasiness about what had happened in Iraq and Afghanistan – was misplaced hope. The crowds were now pleading the few foreign journalists left to call the Americans, the British, the French, to tell them there would be a massacre unless they stepped in immediately.
Gaddafi could, perhaps, have taken Benghazi at the time. He had a much larger force for the attack than the one which had been laying siege in the west of the country, in Misrata, where the rebels were better armed and prepared. But the regime commanders chose instead to withdraw and set themselves outside the city for reinforcements before another assault.
It was a fatal mistake. The bombing, by British and French warplanes, began late that night. We saw the effect the next morning, a terrible scene of desolation laid out on a field edged with wild flowers. The regime’s forces had been caught; vulnerable, in the open. What lay before us was a ghastly miniature of the carnage on the road to Basra when American and British warplanes had bombed and burned Iraqi forces retreating from Kuwait.
David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy had been the cheerleaders for the mantra “Gaddafi must go” and instigated the Nato military action which would eventually lead to the Libyan leader being deposed, captured and killed. But in those days it was the French, rather than the British, who got most of the credit: the rebels celebrated the airstrikes as “Sarkozies”, with a nod to British efforts.
In the following years, on visits to Libya, I saw fighting erupt between paramilitaries, between tribes and dismembered. Foreign states tried to manipulate the fledgling political process and then largely abandoned the benighted country. But then they returned, with their own geopolitical agendas, to back feuding factions and added to the violence.
Today there is another strongman seeking to take power in Libya, and he is doing so with international support. The forces of Khalifa Haftar, who helped Gaddafi seize power in 1969 before falling out with him and becoming a rebel commander, and who has since promoted himself from major general to field marshal, are at the outskirts of Tripoli.
The offensive by Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” began just before the start of a conference which was supposed to chart the course to an end to the fighting, but he has vowed his attack will not stop until Tripoli is taken. However, developments on the ground will depend a lot on international players enmeshed in Libya’s conflict of attrition.
Haftar has been backed for several years now by Egypt and the UAE – their original aim to use him to confront groups backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Qataris such as the one headed by Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a former leader of the LIFG (Libyan Islamist Fighting Group) known in the UK for taking legal action in London over MI6’s role in rendering him to the Gaddafi regime.
There is also support for Haftar from Russia, viewed as one of the more pronounced examples of how the Kremlin is now, once again, an active player in the Middle East and Africa. The field marshal was given a tour of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov two years ago and Ukrainian intelligence has charted flight paths of aircraft which, they claim, have been transporting weapons and Russian mercenaries to Benghazi and Tobruk.
The G7 group of western states has condemned the Haftar advance, but the French are late but avid backers of the field marshal and there have been claims that French special forces have been helping his operations.
The French intervention has caused an increasingly open and acrimonious rift with the Italians. Libya’s former colonial occupiers were initially against the overthrow of Gaddafi and have subsequently been one constant diplomatic presence in Tripoli, while other European countries pulled out. Italy has been backing the UN recognised government of Fayez al-Sarraj in its Tripoli enclave.
Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister in Italy’s populist right-wing coalition government, has declared: “In Libya, France has no interest in stabilising the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to that of Italy.” He accused the French government of responsibility for chaos and the subsequent refugee crisis through instigating the war, and wanted to stress: “We won’t be taking any lessons in morality from Macron.”
Britain, another midwife of post-Gaddafi Libya, has little influence over what is happening there now, with its interest in north Africa, as well as many other regions, diverted by Brexit. Haftar met a group of Conservative MPs in Libya, in a visit organised by a think tank, two years ago after he had embarked on his journey of seeking international support. But he has, as we know, got plenty of other backers now – powerful ones with money and arms to supply.
Haftar became a US citizen after fleeing to America following his estrangement from Gaddafi. He lived in Langley, Virginia, where the CIA has its headquarters. There is no evidence that the field marshal has ever worked for the agency, one should add, but, it is also the case, that the Americans have not shown that much hostility to his actions until now.
The US announced on Sunday that a small military contingent it has based in Libya will be withdrawn for the time being. American, British, French and Italian special forces had taken part in operations against Isis in Libya, although their numbers have been much reduced since Sirte was retaken from the Islamists.
So what happens now?
The UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, who was in Libya in to prepare for the peace conference when the Haftar offensive began, is insisting that the talks, followed by an eventual election, will go ahead.
Haftar has not, as he and his supporters, had predicted, been joined by large numbers of fighters from other militias. The UN backed national unity government, meanwhile, has announced that it has launched a counter-offensive – “Operation Volcano of Rage”. The Tripoli administration retains the support of Misrata which has been acting effectively as a city state since the civil war and has a well armed force. The field marshal will not find taking over the capital a walkover.
The numbers of casualties, so far, has been relatively light – around 21 killed and 55 injured. Some of Haftar’s backers, Russia and Egypt, called for an end to the fighting. Sergei Lavrov, on a visit to Cairo, said: “We are still in contact with Maj Gen Khalifa Haftar and prime minister Sarraj ... and we call for an end to these clashes and for parties to start negotiating.” It is unclear whether the veteran Russian foreign minister’s demotion of Haftar in rank was a sign of forgetfulness or disapproval.
There have been similar messages from the US and G7, along with a warning to Haftar that sanctions may follow. The French are said to be towing the line, at least publicly, on this.
It may be that Haftar will, for now, stop where he is, holding the ground on the outskirts of Tripoli. An attempt to capture the city is likely to lead to street fighting, and could be a long and bloody process, as his forces found when taking Benghazi in the east.
Meanwhile Libya, a country with immense oil wealth and a tiny population of just over 6 million without a sectarian dividing line between Sunnis and Shias, remains a fractured land of strife and struggle. And the assertion of belief in “no foreign intervention, Libyans can do it alone” remains a dream unfulfilled.
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