Getting out of the Libyan impasse

By Claude Salhani

When will they ever learn? Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi so riled Western powers during his long rule that when the opportunity presented itself to remove him from power, they jumped on the occasion.

The NATO-led military campaign in 2011 led to Qaddafi’s ouster and death in Libya. It was a historic opportunity to introduce the democratic system they so much promoted. It turned out to be a historic opportunity all right, albeit a missed one. In certain regards, it was an opportunity doomed to be missed.

One of the campaign’s fatal flaws was French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s role in mobilising the international community in favour of military intervention.

Sarkozy is suspected of a personal vendetta against Qaddafi, who had failed to fill business and military orders from France. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said recently that the Sarkozy-led drive for war in Libya “was triggered more by economic and commercial interests than by humanitarian concerns.”

Another possible consideration was Sarkozy’s embarrassment over Qaddafi’s threats to disclose Libyan illicit financing of Sarkozy’s presidential campaign.

Democracy in Libya was the last concern on the French president’s mind. Only destroying Qaddafi and his regime seemed to matter.

With US President Barack Obama “leading from behind,” NATO launched air raids that eventually toppled the Libyan regime but not before causing much “collateral damage” — in other words, heavy civilian casualties.

The campaign achieved its objective but at what price?

It left Libya in shambles with no post-combat plan and a gaping leadership void. What ensued was worthy of Dante’s worst vision of hell. After unleashing all the demons they could muster on the country, the allies upped and left.

It was not just a leadership void that ensued but Libya found itself without any real institutions and no real army standing. Post-Qaddafi Libya became a large weapons and ammunition depot. It was pillaged by all would-be militiamen who eventually took the country hostage.

That explains, at least partially, how the country was left awash in unsecured weapons and at the mercy of lawless militias, the type of which UN-backed Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj has relied on and that made his position so precarious.

By the time Europe snapped off its victory-lap mode in Libya, the North Africa country had already become a huge transit zone for human traffickers and jihadists.

Then an old name popped up, former Libyan Army officer who spent more than 15 years in the United States — Khalifa Haftar.

Amid the chaos and mayhem that Libya went through, hard-line Islamists were executing military and police officers from the Qaddafi era. Haftar put together a small military group to meet the threat. Then his ambition grew to form a national army.

Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which took control of large parts of eastern Libya and the oil-rich south before moving towards Tripoli, appears to be advancing on two fronts, from the south and south-east of Tripoli. Coastal roads east and west of the city are defended by fighters loyal to Sarraj’s Government of National Accord.

The LNA’s advances on Tripoli will not come without a cost in property and in human lives. Ironically, NATO, with its record of high human toll in Libya eight years ago, said it is “deeply concerned” by the escalating violence in Libya, as declared April 10 by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

The tired Libyans are unlikely to be impressed by NATO’s concern for the humanitarian situation in their country. They are not likely to be impressed neither by European countries jostling over Libya’s oil riches.

It was essentially NATO and the West’s rash engagement in Libya without a proper exit strategy, as well as their leaders’ lack of foresight about the need to help Libyans rebuild their country after the fall of Gadhafi, that contributed to making Libya the mess it is today.

At least for lack of other alternatives, many Libyans are tempted to bet on Haftar, hoping that when or if he wins he does not block the political process leading to a final settlement. So are the French and the Russians. French diplomats are betting on Haftar gaining the upper hand in the military showdown or in his being driven by war fatigue to seeking a peaceful resolution. All stakeholders in Libya, including Haftar, will eventually have no choice but to return to the negotiating table.

Stoltenberg, who insisted “there is no military solution to the situation in Libya” and called on all parties to pursue the political path, should remember that NATO did not heed such wisdom when it was in command of Libyan operations eight years ago.

It will be up to the Libyans now to chart their country’s course. Hopefully, they will do so but in the right direction.

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