Libya: A Country Fraught with Civil War and in Need of Washington’s Help
By John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer
Starting in 2011, Libya started falling apart, commencing a state of civil war which has continued in fits over the past eight years. It began with a Western-Arab aerial action from the air to keep Qadhafi’s army from decimating Benghazi. As a result, the army was destroyed and Qadhafi was captured and assassinated. No military or civilian support from the allies was rendered in the aftermath. In the meantime, vying governments in the east and west of Libya have been unsuccessful, even in the case of the UN-supported government in Tripoli, in governing. Renegade general Khalifa Haftar has upset the apple cart by attacking the people and government in Tripoli.
Origins of the Civil War in Libya
An escalation of Libya’s problems began recently, in April of this year, with the launch of a concerted military move on the western part of Libya’s capital. Led by a one-time general in Qadhafi’s army, Khalifa Haftar, this action negated the negotiations being carried out under the United Nations to broker a peace among competing factions of government. It also resulted in a new stage in Libya’s continuing civil war. That began in 2011, coincident with the destruction of the Libyan army by an air attack. This aerial attack was rendered by an alliance of American, European and Arab air forces, formed to shield the city of Benghazi from a full ground attack by Qadhafi’s army. While the army was destroyed from the air, saving Benghazi from destruction, it resulted in the assassination of Qadhafi. Governance and civilian life in Libya since then have done nothing but go downhill.
Continuing episodes in the Civil War
Haftar’s goal, according to Fred Wehrey, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is nothing short of becoming Libya’s new Qadhafi; that is, it’s next brutal dictator. Even though the U.S. had given Haftar refuge after he defected from Qadhafi’s army, his several years spent in Virginia apparently did not deter his appetite for dictatorial power once he returned to Libya to lead armed militias from the Benghazi or the eastern side of the country. He has steadily moved his so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) westward and has been relentlessly pounding Tripoli. Countering him are militias organized under the UN-supported Government of National Accord forces. Hundreds of Tripoli residents have been killed and many thousands displaced. The attacks have seriously disrupted the tentative negotiations going on and there’s a fear that a cease-fire would only widen Haftar’s offensive.
Latest gruesome news from the Libyan Front
On July 3, an airstrike attack hit a migrant detention center near Tripoli. Some 40 migrants were killed and over a hundred injured. Many of those affected were originally caught trying to flee across the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe and then returned to the detention center. According to Carnegie’s Wehrey, heard on a recent National Public Radio interview, most of the refugees are from sub-Saharan Africa who has been risking the rough crossing to Europe by boat to find a better life. In the Libyan detention camps, whose operation is subcontracted to militias, they are grossly mistreated, including torture and sexual abuse.
A different interpretation of the attack on the detention camp outside Tripoli in Tajoura derives from Al-Jazeera. Based on UN reports from the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Al-Jazeera reported that Libyan guards shot at migrants fleeing the air attacks. The UN reports reflect higher death and injury rates than other sources. Security guards have denied these accusations.
The Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) recognized internationally, including by the UN, blamed Haftar’s forces for the attack on the detention center. Furthermore, the UN envoy to Libya averred that the air raids “could constitute a war crime.” While reporting attacks on nearby militias, Haftar’s LNA denied attacking detention facilities.
Meddling in Libya by outsiders and Washington’s counter-productive actions
The U.S. role in Libya is complex for a variety of reasons. First, it is partly responsible for the mess left on the ground in Libya following the 2011 aerial attacks. With no follow up to help control the dysfunction after the attack, including Qadhafi’s assassination, the Libyans were left to fend for themselves. Second, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates’ military support of Haftar’s LNA with both ground and air power, complicates the politics of Libya’s situation, since both are allies of the U.S. Third, Tripoli forces have called on Turkey (also an ally of the U.S.) to support them with arms, which is now occurring, and fourth, for some reason, President Trump initiated a telephone conversation with Haftar, the result of which was not divulged, but which is reflective of a tendency of this President to sidle up to autocrats around the world. Carnegie’s Wehrey speaks of Haftar as a:
“renegade general… who launched an attack on the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. He was claiming to liberate the capital from militias. But in fact, it was really just a power grab, and it’s plunged the country into another round of civil war.”
Haftar has interrupted what was until recently a more stable situation in Libya than it had experienced in years. International assistance and the UN role in mediating a more tranquil political-military environment, which is now disrupted by power blackouts and displacement of many residents. Now the militias are visible in Tripoli—not a good sign for a strong democratic future for the country. According to Wehrey, who just returned from Libya, there is excessive suffering in Tripoli and a sense of despondency which has seeped into the population. According to him, “…the social fabric of this country of six million has been really torn apart, and it’s been worsened also by foreign meddling in the country.”
Washington should take a role in supporting the UN arms embargo and to help that body to bring accountability to the warring parties. It should also provide moral, ethical and legal support to the UN in implementing the latter’s plan to bring peace and governance to Libya. Washington also needs to support a future in which Haftar plays no role.
(References: Aljazeera, “UN Reports Libyan guards shot at migrants fleeing air raids,” July 4, 2019; Fred Wehrey and Wolfram Lacher, “Libya’s new civil war and what the United States can do about it,” Foreign Affairs, May 30, 2019; Fred Wehrey, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Interview, National Public Radio, All Things Considered, July 3, 2019; the author lived, researched, and worked in Libya during 1968-70 and 1977-79.)
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle
East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.