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Op-ed: Libya - Teaching the World Lessons for 20 Years

By  Jeffrey A. Stacey

Libya is at a crossroads. Its civil war, with legions of foreign powers intervening on both sides, has become a kind of Mediterranean Great Game. The prominent coastal city of Sirte has recently fallen, Turkey is only the latest country to intervene and the epic battle over the capital Tripoli has been joined by fresh foreign mercenaries who are simultaneously cutting off Libya’s all-important oil exports.

Crucially, the United Nations — stymied by malign neglect not only from the U.S. but also to a lesser degree Europe — is at its wits’ end trying to broker a mere ceasefire, let alone sustainable peace. After making measurable progress, to the surprise of all parties, U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for Libya, Ghassan Salamé has just resigned (apparently for personal reasons, but the Sisyphean SRSG will be missed at this crucial juncture).

In light of this, it is somewhat ironic that Libya, perhaps more than any other country, has been attempting to teach the world a series of geopolitical “lessons learned” over the past 20 years — redolent of everything from “Responsibility to Protect” to “Lead from Behind” to “the Day After.” For these reasons, this shattered crucible is worth giving our attention to, including supporting a promising U.N. effort to forge a ceasefire and ultimately a comprehensive peace deal.

A child runs through the debris and wreckage of downtown Benghazi in Libya, which has been wracked by conflict ever since the ouster of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Photo: ©UNICEF / Giovanni Diffidenti

Downward Spiral Ever since the ouster of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, Libya has steadily devolved into lawlessness. The current bout of fighting began a year ago when Khalifa
Haftar, the leader of the self-styled, Benghazi-based Libyan National Army (LNA), attacked Tripoli, home of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).

Haftar — a former general under Qaddafi who had been living in exile in Northern Virginia for two decades before his return to Libya — says he launched his offensive to rid Tripoli of the terrorist groups and militias that had “infested” the U.N.-backed government. But critics say Haftar is just another warlord and authoritarian in the same vein as Qaddafi — bent on amassing power and Libya’s riches.

At present, Hafter is supported by Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and France, which to varying degrees see the strongman as a bulwark against Islamist militants. Meanwhile, Italy, Qatar, Turkey, the regional northern, western and Tripoli-based Libyan militias, and the international community are on the side of the U.N.-backed GNA.

To help Haftar in his bid to take over the capital, the UAE has carried out hundreds of airstrikes while Russian mercenaries joined the front-line last fall. In response, Turkey launched its own military offensive, providing the GNA with weapons and manpower while also signing a deal with the Tripoli-based government for gas-drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

Ghassan Salamé Libya
Ghassan Salamé, special representative of the secretary-general for Libya, briefs reporters following the meeting of the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission in Geneva on Feb. 18. Salamé recently resigned, dealing another blow to the stalled U.N. mediation talks to resolve Libya’s civil war. UN Photo / Violaine Martin

Despite the push by outside proxies, the civil war has essentially stalled, killing hundreds, displacing an estimated 150,000 people and sparking fears that the population could be vulnerable to a major outbreak of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, U.N. appeals for a ceasefire and its longstanding efforts to mediate between the two sides have stalled as well.

But had the international community actually learned merely one or two of the geopolitical lessons that Libya presented over the last 20 years, this war may never have happened.

“Responsibility to Protect”
In the early days of what would become known as the Arab Spring, in late 2010 average Libyans rose up against their autocratic leader Col. Qaddafi. As Qaddafi ordered his armed forces to attack the protestors in Tripoli, Sirte and the eastern city of Benghazi, the U.S., U.K. and France decided to intervene forcefully to protect civilians and foment regime change, consistent with the principle Responsibility to Protect (R2P) that was in vogue at the time and called on the international community to use force if necessary to protect vulnerable populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

R2P did not end up becoming a guiding principle of the United Nations and the world’s most powerful countries as its promoters had hoped. Though these were heady days for foreign policy idealists, R2P was only partially applied in Libya, and in a manner leading largely to its eclipse. Qaddafi’s regime was toppled due to a brief Western air war, but although his brutality toward his own people led to the support of Russia and China in the U.N. Security Council Resolution that imbued the intervention with the authority of international law, these non-Western Security Council permanent members vowed never to approve such “interference in the internal affairs” of a country again, which they have stuck to for the next decade.

“Lead from Behind”
As the top NATO allies swung into action with a withering air war against Qaddafi’s forces, initially the U.S. was in the lead by all measurable means, beginning with the most aircraft in action and ships in support off the coast. But at the time, President Obama was thinking through his preferred strategic approach — what would become known as “the Obama Doctrine” — taking a multilateral approach if possible, and a unilateral approach only if absolutely necessary.

With France and the U.K. fully engaged, the U.S. informed them that they needed to take the baton in hand and spearhead the operation. Better known as burden sharing, the reformulated plan worked. The Anglo-French punch with the the support of the U.S. toppled the regime and saved thousands of lives without the need for ground troops. However, due to a rueful slip of the tongue by a senior administration official, this became known as “leading from behind,” which was misperceived and even years later continues to cause analysts and critics to misconstrue the Obama Doctrine.

Palmaria self-propelled howitzer tanks belonging to Muammar Qaddafi’s forces are seen laying in ruins after being destroyed by French Rafale airplanes during the Western-led intervention in Libya in 2011. While the mission successfully ousted Qaddafi, neither the U.S. nor the EU followed up with any post-conflict stabilization operations, leading to political jockeying among Libya’s various militias and tribes that has divided the country ever since. Photo: By Bernd.Brincken - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

“The Day After”

But all did not end well, giving rise to the lesson known ever since by the moniker of “The Day After.” Blame lies chiefly with the U.S. on the one hand for Obama’s lead from behind mistake — which he later described as the “worst mistake of my presidency” — and with the European Union on the other. It was Germany that abstained on the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing an intervention, thereafter pledging to U.S. officials to do penance by prevailing on fellow EU countries to mount a post-conflict stabilization operation (which it agreed to bankroll).

However, the EU failed to achieve the requisite unanimity necessary to launch such an operation. Before long, with the U.S. already sidestepping leadership, the EU was clamoring to take up its customary second fiddle position.

War would have been prevented with a civilian stabilization operation, comprising a staunch Western presence of mediators, security sector reform specialists, rule of law advisors, judicial system consultants, etc. In lieu of this, in less than four years the gradually aggrandized local militias managed to wrest a sufficient degree of political authority from the political leaders.

Ever since, geopolitical experts have taught that planning “for the day after” is always necessary with any outside intervention.

“The Conflict Prevention Imperative”
In fact, the international community missed not one, but two, propitious conflict prevention opportunities in Libya. The first came as the Tripoli-based militias began to assert themselves openly on the streets of the capital, prior to resorting to full-scale armed violence in 2013. The resulting low-grade civil war kept matters largely unstable until the U.N. managed to fortify the GNA in 2017. The resulting stability was an against-the-odds achievement for the venerable United Nations and Salamé, the esteemed former SRSG.

At the time, Haftar’s LNA held sway merely in eastern Libya. Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, with Salamé’s help, appealed to both NATO and the EU, with success. Each agreed to stand up civilian stability operations, but herein lies the rub: Despite a pair of formal mission approvals, neither ended up fully implementing them. What was required was a complete mission implementation of the “global triumvirate,” the EU and NATO alongside the U.N.

Vacuums Always Get Filled
Had both NATO and the EU fully followed through, with the full-fledged support of the U.S. (in Helsinki, Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled to President Trump Russia’s hope that the U.S. would take a pass on Libya), the present full-alarm military crisis in the southern sections of Tripoli would not have happened.

For in the absence of the unified phalanx of the international community, Haftar calculated that the U.N. alone could not prevent his military ambitions.

Nor would the ensuing malign external interventions of Russia and the Gulf Sunni powers have occurred either. The other side of this coined lesson is the world’s near constant need for strong U.S. leadership. For without it not only have Russia and China moved adroitly to fill U.S.-left vacuums, most notoriously in Syria, but even middle powers like Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have done so. Moreover, on a local level, had the northern and western Libyan tribes and militias made their support for the GNA clearer, this too would have dissuaded the LNA.

Somewhat less than the case of Syria, Libya stands out as a pawn particularly for Russia on the one hand, and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. With the possible exception of Turkey — whose intervention is too recent to fully assess — these are the primary players of the Libyan Great Game. Turkey has introduced fresh mercenaries (from Syria actually) on the side of the GNA, whereas these other three have done so on the side of the LNA. All have their own bases either inside Libyan territory or just across the border in Egypt, also a Great Game player.

Libya is another major instance of problematic overseas intervention of the notorious crown princes of UAE and Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman, respectively (MBZ and MBS). Absent strong U.S. leadership, perceiving a modest green light from Washington, both MBZ and MBS ironically have hardly achieved their own objectives, having hit major headwinds in both their Syria and Gulf Cooperation Council actions, and in particular their Yemen intervention.

Additional Libya lessons include the flawed Kirkpatrick Doctrine’s acceptance of stable dictators, the need for a European fighting force, the necessity but insufficiency of the U.N., the imperative of America’s commitment to the Middle East and the need for local leadership and sustained capacity-building as requisites for future benign interventions.

As of now in Libya, it is incumbent on all the intervening countries to support the U.N.-led ceasefire/peace negotiations — in particular the U.S. and France, which is on the wrong side of history with its support of Haftar instead of the legitimate government of Libya and its people.

Jeffrey A. Stacey is a national security consultant and former State Department official who is working on a book titled “Rise of the East, End of the West?”




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