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Libya ‘one hell of a mess’ as civil war spirals into international free-for-all

In the days after NATO airstrikes helped oust strongman Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, Libya had hope. 

The night that news of Gadhafi’s death spread, people flooded the streets of Tripoli with tears of joy in their eyes, waving the country’s new flag and anticipating its new economic and democratic opportunities. Enthusiastic debates about Libya’s future filled the air.

After all, the international community, Canada included, had justified waging war in order to protect civilians from what the UN Security Council said “may amount to crimes against humanity” and to deliver food and medicine.

Libya’s new leaders had called for “forgiveness, tolerance and reconciliation.”

Nine years later, there is very little of that. The UN seems powerless, and civilians are once again suffering. Some 350,000 have been displaced inside the country. Tens of thousands risk dangerous sea crossings into Europe, where they are barely tolerated if they make it at all.

Libya’s civil war continues, spiralling into an international free-for-all. 

“It’s one hell of a mess,” said Ahmed Dahmani, a 30 year-old engineer from Tripoli. 

A member of the troops of loyal to the GNA is pictured on July 6 flashing a victory sign before heading to Sirte, where troops from Libya’s two main factions have been amassing. (Ayman Sahely/Reuters)

‘Always fear’

In 2011, he was with me in a dim meat locker in the city of Mizrata where Gadhafi’s body was on display, and where groups of Libyans lined up to see the fallen dictator and celebrate. Back then, Dahmani was excited.

“This will give us a future,” he told me.

Now he and his family face power outages that last 16 hours a day, frequently have no running water and “always fear” shells landing in their neighbourhood. Medical supplies are limited in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most NATO forces, including Canada and the United States, have long abandoned Libya.

“This idea that we’re there to protect civilians is no longer appealing,” said Emad Badi, an analyst with the Atlantic Council in Toronto whose family also lives in Tripoli. 

For him, Libya is a living example of how the world has become a less caring place, where meddling and self-interest trump international co-operation.

Members of Libyan National Army (LNA), commanded by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, get ready before heading out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli, on April 13, 2019. (Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters)

“You no longer have this humanitarianism that permeates foreign policy,” said Badi. “It’s more ruthless, it’s more authoritarian, it’s more xenophobic even.”

Vacuum left by NATO

In the vacuum left by NATO, his country has been torn apart by many groups seeking to control it: two main warring factions, dozens of tribal leaders and regional warlords, and more than half a dozen foreign powers, some with thousands of paid mercenaries and troops on the ground.

For months, Tripoli was under siege by the rebel forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a rogue military commander who controls most of the country, including key oil production and export facilities in the east. 

A Turkish mine expert enters a house through a hole in the wall with a warning about the presence of mines in the Salah al-Din area, south of Tripoli, on June 15. Human Rights Watch has accused pro-Haftar forces of laying Russian and Soviet-era landmines as they withdrew from Tripoli’s southern districts. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP via Getty Images)

His self-declared Libyan National Army (LNA) and its allies have blocked oil from leaving the Libya since January, depriving the economy of some $1.5 billion US every month.

The LNA is backed by Russia, with a large force of battle-hardened mercenaries fresh from the Syrian conflict on the ground and advanced MIG jet fighters in the air over Libya.

Other countries are also onside. France helps diplomatically; the United Arab Emirates supplies arms. Neighbouring Egypt has threatened to invade Libya in support of Haftar.

They are all lined up against Libya’s so-called Government of National Accord (GNA) — the government recognized by the UN and based in Tripoli. 

The GNA’s most powerful ally is Turkey, which has sent its own contingent of several thousand Syrian mercenaries, as well as armoured drones and sophisticated air defence systems which helped repel LNA forces from Tripoli.

Qatar also supports the government in Tripoli, as does Italy.

Ceasefires broken

Last month, two NATO allies — Turkey and France — almost clashed off the coast of Libya, with Paris accusing the Turkish navy of targeting a frigate that was trying to enforce a UN arms embargo by inspecting a ship suspected of carrying Turkish weapons to Libya. 

A member of security forces loyal to the GNA points to what the government says is a mass in Tarhouna city, Libya, on June 11. (Ismail Zitouny/Reuters)

That UN embargo has been widely ignored, and ceasefires promised by Russia and Turkey have been broken in Libya even as they were being made at conferences in Europe.

None of the players — not even permanent members of the UN Security Council — seem to pay any attention to the world body or to complaints by UN Secretary General António Guterres of “foreign interference reaching unprecedented levels.” 

“It tells us lots about the failures of the international system,” said Tim Eaton, a senior research fellow at London-based think-tank Chatham House. 

When agreements are made and so easily broken, he said, “it really undermines the nature of any consensus.” 

“It’s only those engaged in military battles on the ground who count.”

As for the United States, it has long lost interest in Libya. It has no significant military presence and little involvement in efforts to end the conflict.

Washington was traumatized by an attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi in 2012 which left four Americans dead, including the ambassador to Libya. Never re-engaging, it has “diluted” its power and influence, said Eaton.

That’s not good enough for Mark Kersten, a researcher into international law at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre. 

He said the U.S. and even Canada, which has largely stayed silent on Libya since the NATO intervention, share blame for “not having any coherent plan to ensure that [Libya] is actually on a track to democratize” when they left.

“If you break it,” he said “you certainly have a responsibility to help fix it.”

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