Libya: undermined by the world’s mistakes on IS

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It is unnerving, sometimes, just how swiftly irony operates.

Last week, I criticised the international community for its continued freeze (now into its sixth year) of Libya’s sovereign investment fund, which has prevented every single democratically-elected government in Libyan history (a total of three, to date) from rebuilding after a war in which NATO played a part in smashing its infrastructure into rubble.

It also noted that a new ‘government’ – the ‘Government of National Accord’ (GNA), which has not been elected by anyone, and instead has been imposed on the state by the United Nations Support Mission In Libya (UNSMIL), which has in turn been ‘strong-armed’ into the measure by the US and France with backing from the UK and Italy – had recently landed in Libya, and was attempting to run the state from a secured Naval base in Tripoli.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, this may make Libya the first state in history ever to have three governments simultaneously – an achievement only overshadowed by the fact that literally none of them has either any legitimacy or power, and are forced to watch from the side-lines as a four way civil war approaches its third year around them.

In any case, as noted on a number of occasions on this site, the reason for the US, France, the UK and Italy’s ‘support’ (in fact, US Secretary of State John Kerry has gone far further than mere ‘support’, shouting at UN representatives at a multi-actor meeting on Libya in December last year that they must deliver a government ‘we can work with’) for the GNA is based largely on the fact that they believe that it, unlike the (admittedly certainly illegitimate) alternative ‘governments’, the General National Congress (GNC) and House of Representatives (HoR), will invite them to attack IS.

IS in Libya entered the Libyan Civil War late in 2014 (by which point the conflict – between the Libya Dawn militia; Operation Dignity, a force led by retired General Khalifa Haftar; and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Al Sharia militia – was in its sixth month. IS is a bit-part player in all of the conflicts it has forced its way into), and swiftly took the cities of Derna and Sirte.

It was chased from Derna by the Al-Qaeda-supported Ansar Al Sharia militia, but it has remained in charge of Sirte – a city which was my home for several months in 2011-12 – since February 2015.

But in the wake of NATO bombing of IS in Syria and supposed ‘moving’ of some of that force to support the Libyan cadre, and recent attacks on EU states, the US and France, in particular, have begun to push for renewed air strikes on Libya, to attempt to defeat IS there.

And on 12 April, just one day after I had written that the international community had prevented Libya from using its money to rebuild after a war which included intensive airstrikes from NATO forces, six states attended a meeting in Tunis hosted by the UK and UN. Those nations, including the US, Germany, Italy and the UK, pledged more than $24m to ‘support’ the GNC.

That is, having spent five years preventing democratically-elected Libyan governments from using their own money to rebuild the state, the six states (Switzerland and Qatar complete the party) have pledged entirely new money to a government they support solely because they hope it will invite them to launch more airstrikes on Libya.

Irony – even of the darkest and grimmest variety – seems to see no reason to waste time.

And the week in Libyan politics has continued in much the same vein as it began.

The GNA remains holed up in a secured naval base (in which it has an extremely close view of ships destroyed by NATO’s 2011 airstrikes and as yet not only unreplaced but actually not even cleared from the water) to prevent it being chased from Tripoli by the GNC, although it had, by Monday 19 April, managed to ‘take over’ two ministries – Housing, and Public Works – taking its total to two, and meaning the GNA is literally taking the corridors of Libyan government by attrition.

The GNC, whose own mandate – and therefore legitimacy – expired in December 2014, remains steadfastly opposed to the entire initiative, and retains its threat to use police and armed forces (neither of which it has full control over) to remove the GNA’s members from Tripoli.

And the HoR’s President Aguilah Saleh was responsible for another moment of grim irony – the dismissal as ‘illegitimate’ of a government by a man who runs a government whose own mandate expired in October 2015, and had been declared as illegitimate almost a year before by Libya’s own Supreme Court (the HoR was recognised internationally as Libya’s government despite these inconvenient truths), and the fact that despite that fact, his analysis appears absolutely accurate.

Saleh has reason to feel angered by the GNC – and by the international community’s support for it. Not – as he himself might argue – because the HoR is the ‘rightful’ government of Libya, (it is not), but because he and the GNC’s Prime Minister Khalifa Al-Ghwell had actually drawn up an alternative solution to Libya’s political division and announced it in November last year, only for this unprecedented step forward to be cast aside by UNSMIL in favour of the imposition on Libya from without of the GNA.

He and Al-Ghwell are also two of three named individuals (the third is GNC President Nouri Abusahmain) against whom the EU has imposed ‘sanctions’ for not supporting the GNA – perhaps the first time a political bloc used has attempted to impose regime change on a state by singling out individual people for sanctions.

It is inconvenient, therefore, that last Wednesday, 13 April, Saleh was interviewed on Jordanian TV and accurately described Martin Kobler, the UN’s Special Representative and UNSMIL head of mission as having ‘shifted himself from head of UNSMIL to governor of Libya’.

This statement was inconvenient not only because it was true, but also because if recognised as such, it also has the potential to inflict severe damage not only on Kobler and UNSMIL, but also on the wider United Nations.

In essence, there seems little wrong with Kobler as a person. A German diplomat with experience in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he entered Libya in November last year, when the state’s civil war was 18 months old.

Faced with two governments which seemed implacably opposed, and four dangerous and illegal violent militias, his role was always likely to prove extraordinarily difficult.

But it is not his reaction to Libya’s situation, but to the pressure placed upon him from outside, which has proved most destabilising to Libya, and potentially to the United Nations.

Because Saleh is not wrong. In chasing from group to group, attempting to gain wide agreement (which has still not been forthcoming: neither of Libya’s democratically-elected governments have indicated support for the GNA. The HoR, which was due to vote on the matter on 18 April, postponed the poll for a day ‘at least’ due to ‘impossible differences within the House’), and in attempting to force a government on Libya from outside, or above, Kobler has taken the role of Libyan ‘governor’.

And this is not the role of the United Nations. The organisation does not exist in order to force regime change on nation states. And in this case, the situation is potentially even more damaging.

Because Kobler and the UN are not just attempting to force a government on Libya from the outside, they are doing so under the direct orders of the US and other leading NATO member-states, who want the new government in order to pave the way for new air-strikes on Libya.

In a world where suspicion of the US and NATO are rife, the United Nations’ choice to carry out their ‘orders’ – especially to enable aerial bombardment of a North African state – could prove one of the most damaging episodes in its existence, and may even hasten its demise: a UN which is seen as no more than a puppet of Western states is a body populist leaders all over the world could disobey to gain support.

But casting these very real concerns aside, on Monday (18 April) UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond arrived in Tripoli to show support for the GNA, becoming the fourth Western foreign minister to do so (Italy, France and Germany’s ministers all did so last week)

Hammond and the GNA’s leader Fayez al-Sarraj met and discussed rebuilding Libya, tackling IS and refugees.

He said the UK will offer £10m to ‘help the GNA strengthen political institutions, the economy, security and justice’, though it is yet unclear whether this will be in addition to the $1m it pledged at the Tunis meeting last Tuesday.

He then added: ‘Fighting Daesh and fighting illegal migration is part of the same agenda, and of course it must be for the Libyan people, the Libyan government, to decide how to recapture their country from the Daesh invaders, but the international community stands ready to support them, to provide training and technical assistance in any way.’

This is, unfortunately, a deceptive statement, in as far as it actually appears less useful with every closer look.

Its opening line, that: ‘Fighting Daesh and fighting illegal migration is part of the same agenda’, is in fact absolutely not the case.

Not only are IS only a bit-part player in the Libyan Civil War (and are not populating the EU with activists via dangerous Mediterranean crossings), but the Libyan Civil War itself is only one small cause of refugees travelling from Libya to Europe.

Because the vast majority of those refugees have not fled Libya, but instead have run from war, terror, oppressive regimes, food shortage and lack of access to basic medicines across the African continent, in Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and far too many other states beside.

It is true that one should ‘fight’ IS and the refugee crisis in the same way – because IS thrives in war, and warfare is a major cause of people becoming refugees, working to end wars would be a significant step in putting an end to IS and to bringing to an end situations in which people are so desperate that they leave everything behind simply to escape an early death.

But that is not the method of ‘fighting’ IS that Hammond and his government have so far espoused. In Iraq and Syria, they are bombing IS. It is impossible that they believe they can ‘fight’ the refugee crisis by bombing refugees.

As a result, there is literally no world in which ‘Fighting Daesh and fighting illegal migration is part of the same agenda.’

And this may be why Mr Hammond’s statement then went on to focus solely on IS (‘it must be for the Libyan people, the Libyan government, to decide how to recapture their country from the Daesh invaders, but the international community stands ready to support them, to provide training and technical assistance in any way) and not to mention ‘illegal migration’ at all.

But there is a potential contradiction at the heart of this analysis: just last week, I wrote a piece stating that a large factor in Libya’s failure since 2011 was that its governments had all been starved of cash: now, it seems, the international community is falling over itself to hand cash to a Libyan government.

Why is this not something to welcome?

The problem is that there are good reasons to oppose this initiative. As noted above, the imposition of a government by the UN acting under the direct orders of NATO is an episode in forced regime change, and potentially extraordinarily damaging to the United Nations across the globe. Even now, if it were to step back, it could perhaps rescue some of its reputation for independence and integrity, which is at present under severe threat.

Equally, the GNA is not the government Libya has had any chance to show it wants, and where opinions have been expressed, they have been generally negative or lacklustre. It is simply not acceptable to force a government on a state – that is exactly how dictators behave (in fact, Muammar Ghaddafi was actively supported in Libya when he rose to power, making him at that stage considerably more popular than the GNA is now) and it is unacceptable for the UN and NATO to abuse their positions and behave like dictators.

Then there is the fact that the last thing the people of Libya need is to endure yet more missiles and airstrikes – even if they are to be aimed at IS. For the United Nations to be forcing a government onto a state to enable it to be bombed by several nations far richer and with far more advanced military technology than that state is actively counter to its reason for existing.

But as importantly, the very fact that the US and France are so desperate to be invited to bomb IS in Libya reveals a vital flaw at the heart of their response to IS in general.

A number of posts on this site note that because IS is an organisation which requires war and the chaos it wreaks to recruit, prosper and survive, firing missiles at it is unlikely to destroy it.

In Iraq and Syria, it remains strong despite well over a year of attacks by US and other air forces.

And yet even if that were not the case – even if bombing IS was reducing its strength and capacity in either state – that would not change the fact that the reason the US in particular feels it needs to bomb Libya is because it believes Libya is where IS members in Syria and Iraq are running to (in fact, there is little evidence for this. A large number of IS in Libya’s forces are Libyans, Tunisians and Algerians who had never fought in either Syria or Iraq).

If we follow that logic to its conclusion, the bombing of Libya is not likely to ‘destroy’ IS. It is far more likely to scatter its members to another state, which will then need to be bombed, and then another, which must also be bombed, and so on ad infinitum.

At present, the NATO ‘plan’ for IS – to bomb it where it is, and then bomb it where it runs to – does not have any defined end. It could literally require airstrikes on the majority of the world’s states, because there is no moment at which a line can be drawn and IS declared ‘defeated’.

Bombing IS will not defeat it, and bombing Libya will not end either Libya’s Civil War, the operation of IS in Libya, or IS as an international terror organisation. It will simply mean we have to bomb Iraq, Syria, Libya and wherever NATO believes IS goes to next, potentially endlessly.

As such, the GNA already appears to be a project whose negatives – the undermining of the United Nations, the imposition of a third government on a state which does not want it, and the gateway to even greater destruction and death in Libya – massively outweigh its as yet unclear positives.

It isn’t too late for NATO and the UN to reconsider, and if they do not do so now, it will only postpone the moment at which they must. The GNA is not the answer to IS, or to Libya’s problems. In fact, the answer to Libya’s problems is the only possible answer to IS. We should be working harder to deliver the former, in order to enable the latter.

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