Monday, 23 February 2015

Libya: A Somalia-on-the-Mediterranean and Lethal Proxy War Playground

"We came, we saw, he died"-Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, on hearing news of Colonel Gaddafi's murder.

"Do we want a situation where a failed pariah state festers on Europe's southern border, potentially threatening our security, pushing people across the Mediterranean and creating a more dangerous and uncertain world for Britain and for all our allies, as well as for the people of Libya?'-David Cameron, British Prime Minister 2011

“Do I regret that Britain played our role in getting rid of Gaddafi and coming to the aid of that nation when Gaddafi was going to murder his own citizens in Benghazi? No, I don’t".-David Cameron, British Prime Minister 2015.

The news of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian by ISIS in Libya comes just four months after ISIS in November 2014 declared Derna had become part of the new caliphate centred on Raqqa in Syria but spreading across the Middle East, Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa as though an unstoppable wildfire.

Britain's special envoy in Libya, Jonathan Powell, has called for an immediate diplomatic resolution among the warring factions in Libya. This is to prevent ISIS capitalising on the failure to create a functioning state in Libya in the three years after the NATO military intervention assisted the rebels in overthrowing Colonel Gaddafi.

Powell referred to a "Somalia-on-the-Mediterranean" in the making, a place from which refugees from Africa, who had been kept from fleeing to Italy by Gaddafi, were trying to escape by boats and riven with conflicts. The idea his expertise could bring together the opposed sides in Libya as in Northern Ireland is questionable.

Libya is as remote from Northern Ireland as it is possible for any land to be. The opposing sides in the Second Civil War are not divided by religious sectarianism. The 'Operation Dawn' militias are backed by Qatar and Turkey in what became a lethal proxy war against the Egyptian and Saudi supported militias of 'Operation Dignity' in 2014.

Libya also contains huge reserves of oil and gas. This raises the stakes in a new geopolitical conflict between contending regional powers vying for access to and control over these resources. Qatar and Turkey are aligned against Egypt which would have every interest in drawing on Libyan gas as do France and Italy as Mediterranean powers.

The Latin states of Western Europe have wanted to diversify their gas supplies away from depending upon Russia while keeping on good terms with Qatar which supplies Italy with most of its 8% of imported LNG. Neither Qatar nor Turkey have any interest in Libya returning to peak production if their interests are not served.

Libya: Failed Transition-Qatar Leads the West into a War of Liberation.

Finding a peaceful diplomatic solution for Libya's Second Civil War is set to be difficult. The NATO intervention has, in John Gray's words, created an 'anarchic hell hole'; again Western leaders were unwilling to accept, as with Iraq, that in destroying a secular dictatorship they unleashed forces fighting for an popular Islamist theocracy.

The first post-Gaddafi elections saw the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist parties led by Sami al-Saadi and Abdel Hakim Belhaj do badly compared to Mahmoud Jibril, a westernised technocrat who had defected from the Gaddafi regime. But the prospects for a peaceful transition to democracy were doomed by the circumstances of its birth.

The Libyan uprising was never peaceful but armed and violent from the start; there was no evidence the Libyan leader targeted civilians or resorted to indiscriminate force. That was a claim put out by the rebels and used by NATO as a pretext for assisting insurgent groups funded, armed and trained by Qatar to overthrow Gaddafi.

The claim that Gaddafi was a genocidal tyrant ready to slaughter up to 20,000 people in Benghazi was not true. Initial press claims of "more than 2,000 deaths" in Benghazi during the first days of the uprising were increased by a factor of ten; Human Rights Watch put the figure at 233 for all Libyan cities in that period.

The aim of NATO was not to protect civilians. The objective was to pursue 'regime change' in association with Islamist militia groups. Qatar had guaranteed the western states they were not associated with Al Qaida and had been vetted by clerics and middle men between Tripoli and Doha such as Sheikh Ali al-Salabi.

Qatar's use of covert proxy forces against Gaddafi favoured those in the east of Libya in Benghazi, the capital of Cyrenaica which became the focal point for the uprising against Tripoli. It was part of a strategy by Emir al-Thani to help the West be rid of Gaddafi, to align with democratic Islamic forces elsewhere and contain Iran's regional influence.

The Western powers wanted to prevent Iran from gaining the upper hand in both Iraq and Syria after 2011 but also from gaining influence in Bahrain. There protesters threatened the state as well but they were the wrong sort of rebels,Shi'ite Muslims regarded by the Gulf States as fifth columnists who could end up destabilising the region.

The NATO military intervention would remove Gaddafi, unite the Gulf States under the aegis of the West, demonstrate and advertise the use of western air fighter jets to their clients and make it easier for Saudi Arabia to roll the tanks in to crush protests in Bahrain while its government arrested, tortured and killed protesters in Manama.

There was little if any unity among the Gulf Powers as to what would come next in Libya. As Egypt was also undergoing a revolt against Mubarrak in 2011, the GCC states were most concerned about holding on to their privileges and power against the threat of the 'Arab Spring'. The West wanted to help them while securing resource interests.

By promoting democracy in Libya, the West would be able to make up for the catastrophe of the invasion of Iraq back in 2003. It would fend off the sort of claims made on Qatar's Al Jazeera influential news channel that it had double standards in prating about democracy while having a history of backing dictatorships such as in Egypt.

While Gaddafi had opened up to the West after 2003, in scrapping his WMDs in return for sanctions being dropped, he had started to annoy the West by flirting with other global powers interested in gaining oil concessions such as China, a power that had started to compete with the West for favour in the Middle East and Africa.

Even if China's inroads in the region were hardly the reason why NATO intervened in Libya, when taken together with the fact it looked as though Gaddafi had lost control of Libya anyway, he had become an expendable pawn in a much wider Great Game being played by the West in partnership with gas rich Qatar.

Having been prepared to back jihadists as forces useful  in overthrowing regimes that blocked Western resource interests in the post-Cold War world after 1991, the threat of terrorist blowback, as exemplified on 9/11 and 7/7, would be minimised if Qatar helped to 'deradicalise' and redeploy jihadists once more as assets.

Qatar since has played a shadowy game in Libya and the region. It claims it has tamed the radicals yet on the other hand it is alleged to be implicated in using jihadists to prevent any assertion of control by the Tripoli government. Qatar both supplied weapons to the NTC but also to the Libya Islamic Fighting Group led by Belhaj.

Rebranded the Libyan Islamic Movement after Gaddafi's savage death-at the hands of revenge crazed Islamist militias unable to contain their blood lusts- it and associated jihadists were infuriated that the official government was made up of former exiles living in the West and secularist stooges backed by other outside powers.

All rival claimants to be the legitimate party representing the will of the people have had to pose as protectors of Islam, advocating such things as sharia law to distinguish themselves from Gaddafi. Within Libya there are 30 rival militia groups fighting to grab control of Libya's oil and gas and two main rival governments ranged against each other.

Islamist militias from Mistrata, which played a leading role in overthrowing Gaddadi were instrumental in also ousting the officially recognised government in Tripoli in August 2014; the government fled to the eastern city of Bayda while the parliament retreated to the easternmost city of Tobruk near the Egyptian border.

The Western powers, having enthusiastically backed Qatari financed insurgents against Gaddafi, had already swung against them as a consequence of the murder of the US ambassador, Chris Stevens, in September, 2012. They started to favour militias opposed to the Islamists under the CIA-backed ex-Gaddafi General Haftar.

The Western powers condemned the 'outside interference' in Libya which came in August when the UAE and Egypt bombed weapons depots belonging to the Qatar-backed militias of Misrata. However, it was clear this was a pretence as these Arab League members had backed the NATO military mission in 2011.

The air attacks were followed in early January 2015 with more attacks on Derna ( killing two Greeks after a tanker was hit ). There had been no comment previously from the Western powers and no strident humanitarian calls for a No Fly Zone as there had been when Gaddafi rhetorically threatened to use his air force on the people of Benghazi.

What had changed is that the Western powers were prepared to drop their forthright support for democracy in the hope that Haftar's use of Gaddafi era Soviet MIGs, in collusion with Egypt, would pacify the Islamist hotheads on behalf of the "internationally recognised" government in Tobruk, despite civilian casualties in all air operations.

Whereas between 2011 and 2013 Qatar had held the upper hand, the Egyptian coup and the failure of the Sunni jihadists in Syria to remove Assad had assured not only that the plans to democratise the Middle East had failed but that there was a need for 'strong men' such as General Sisi to help roll back the threat of ISIS in the region.

While Qatar had been willing to back Sunni Islamist militias in Syria and Libya, the threat of ISIS required the façade of a united front among the members of the Arab League as the Western powers started to bomb ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Qatar had publicly distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists by late 2014.

Egypt's Renewed War on Terror: Libya as a Western Front Against ISIS.

Egypt's decision to launch air raids on ISIS positions in Libya, in retaliation for the beheadings, is about repositioning Cairo as the indispensable keystone power between the Middle East and the Maghreb against rival Qatar and its ally Turkey. By so doing, it is posing as the alternative to the chaos offered by the rise of ISIS in Syria and in Sinai.

Since the 2013 coup Egypt has fought an insurgency that flared up in its wake. The Muslim Brotherhood had been backed by Doha and Ankara as a means to check rival Israeli energy ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean the better to advance its own hegemony over east-west energy pipeline and transit routes.

Egypt made plain in 2013 the choice was the army or anarchy. By banning the Muslim Brotherhood and escalating the conflict with the radical fringes of the movement into a full scale counter insurgency war it was able to persuade Washington to unfreeze the military aid that had been withheld in the immediate aftermath of the coup.

Egypt's air raid on ISIS reflects the opening up in Libya of a second western front in their attempt to revive what was called the War on Terror during the era of the Bush administration in the US. Egypt's 'deep state' was inevitably hostile to Qatar and Turkey's promotion of Islamist opponents in their land and regards them as 'enemies within'.

In pursuing this policy abroad in Libya, General Sisi aims to deny jihadi-Islamists driven out of Egypt any haven from which they could then storm back into Egypt. The comparison is with what ISIS did in Iraq after having been driven out by Baghdad into Syria where they then exploited the chaos created by the civil war to set up their 'state'.

With US led bombing raids on ISIS in Syria and Iraq effectively strengthening Assad, Sisi was apt to make clear he was prepared to take upon himself the burden of the 'War on Terror' in north Africa, something already praised by UN special envoy Tony Blair who termed Sisi a guarantor of 'stability' for crushing Islamists in Egypt.

The irony, of course, is that it was Blair who tried to bring Gaddafi back as a player acceptable to the 'international community' by having him participate as a player in the US-British led War on Terror after 2001. In early 2015 the full extent of Blair's collusion with Gaddafi and Britain in abducting and torturing his Islamist opponent was revealed.

It was hardly surprising that Libyan Islamists such as Belhaj or al-Saadi would have no long term loyalty to the West. Britain had been complicit in the programme of 'extraordinary rendition' that had seen them rounded up from Asia and transported back to Libya. Nor that Qatar was supplying him with C-17 freight loads of arms.

Belhaj is Haftar's main rival and regarded as an enemy by the Libyan Air Force which, loyal to Heftar, accused Sudan as being in league with Qatar in shipping weapons through to Mitiga International Airport across its south-eastern border. Qatar backs the Sudanese Islamist government in Khartoum.

General Haftar is backed by Egypt. He clearly fancies himself as a secular strong man who could re-impose order and stability on Libya. While oil prices are low in 2015 as a consequence of the US shale boom and US-Saudi collusion in ratcheting prices down, certain EU powers appear to have every interest in stable oil and gas flows.

The prospect of ISIS capturing major Libyan oil fields would be disastrous. In January 2015 ISIS temporarily captured the al-Mabruk field. It threatened Omar al-Hassi, leader of the GNC, launched the Corinthia Hotel attack that killed an American and a Frenchman and also decapitated journalists in Derna.

A US defense official spelt out the danger of ISIS spreading out from beyond the Caliphate-“Particularly concerning has been the spread of ISIS beyond Syria and Iraq. With affiliates in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, the group is beginning to assemble a growing international footprint that includes ungoverned and under governed areas.”

The ISIS beheadings, which took place on a Mediterranean beach, were also intended to convey that the enemy of the West was 'on the doorstep of Europe' and 'just south of Rome', the spiritual centre of Christendom. Fears grew that ISIS operatives could also slip into migrant groups fleeing the chaos in Libya and pitching up on Italian shores.

General Haftar and Western Reinterventions.

With the West's Gulf allies divided over their military contribution to be made in Syria and Iraq, fearing domestic unpopularity in being seen too keen to be attacking jihadists they had funded and backed as part of a cosmic war against the Shi'ites backed by Iran, it was left to President Obama to broaden his War Powers bill

This act allows the US President to ratchet up the struggle against ISIS further afield than Syria and Iraq into north Africa or beyond into Yemen or Sub-Saharan Africa where the fight could be taken to ISIS or Al Qaida affiliates. The ISIS beheadings, just five days after Obama requested these powers from Congress, were its response.

Italy certainly was immediately willing to use the ISIS threat as to call for another NATO intervention, one that was much toned down within hours when it became clear that might in fact be precisely what ISIS would want in pitting the 'Western Crusader' states against those advancing the Islamist caliphate.

France and Italy are reported already to be assisting al-Thinni’s government in Tobruk, providing Haftar with intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR). France used the Egyptian decision to launch air strikes as an opportunity to clinch a lucrative 5.2 billion-euro deal to supply 25 Rafale fighter jets to Cairo.

The deal, as President Hollande put it, "will allow Egypt to increase its security and play a full role in providing regional stability". To prove that France was reported to have pushed for the further sale of 36 Rafale jets to Qatar which is, of course, Egypt's main rival in the region and said to be arming Operation Dawn against General Haftar.

While Qatar has emphasised in it not backing the Islamist insurgents in Libya, it was accused in 2013 of having backed jihadists in Mali. After the African state was destabilised by the movement south out of Libya of Tuareg militias, heavily armed with Gaddafi's weapon stocks, France intervened militarily to protect it from chaos.

France's intervention to roll back northern Mali separatists and jihadists was as much about reasserting French power in its ex-colonial lands in West Africa as about securing access to uranium deposits and prevent its oil reserves falling into the wrong hands. It doing so, it was hampered by Qatar's rivalry with Algeria and Egypt.

France denied accusations of Qatari involvement in backing jihadism as it remains an important supplier of LNG to the French energy market and huge investor in France's ailing economy. While Qatar has tried to mend relations with Algeria, and as Algiers aligns closer with Cairo in the war to defeat terrorism in the desert, dangers remain.

Across Sub-Saharan Africa, jihadists have gained ground and access to weapons from southern Libya through to Mali and into northern Nigeria. In early January 2015 Hollande declared France was 'ready' to bomb jihadi weapon supply networks in the Sahel. This was stated to be about 'containing' terrorists.

Resource interests are at stake for France in a broad swathe of increasingly lawless territory in West-Central Africa menaced by AQIM and ISIS affiliated Boko Haram.While France has specific uranium mining concerns in Niger to protect, the entire region is one drawing France and the US in to use drones and advisers to stem jihadist advances.

The destabilisation of Sub-Saharan Africa and the chaos in Libya would also appear to be exacerbating the huge movements of migrants northwards towards the Mediterranean. That in turn, made the problem of ethnic hatreds against black in Libya get worse as African mercenaries led blacks to be seen as Gaddafi collaborators.

With chaos threatening to spill further across the Mediterranean as migrants fled to Sicily and Lampedusa, restoring state authority in Libya, in effect, has meant the West colluding with Haftar's National Salvation Front. In June 2014 the US increased troop numbers in Sicily to deal with Al Qaida and evacuate US personnel from Libya.

Haftar attempted the first of two coups, alleged to have CIA backing. In 2015 he embarked on a military campaign to wipe out ISIS' stronghold in Derna. As Haftar put it to a US journalist “We will use all the means at our disposal to exterminate them...There will be no dialogue...we will fight until it’s defeated, and we have purified the country.”

US government officials have strenuously denied Haftar is aligned with them. Haftar's supporters in Libya have accused Obama of plotting since 2009, when he called for a new beginning for the US and the Muslim world, to use the Muslim Brotherhood to take over the Middle East. Similar conspiracy theories are popular in Egypt too.

Haftar's rhetoric is pitched to those wanting stability, even at the cost of bloodshed and who fear that a chaos in Libya that is worse than dictatorship, even Gaddafi's. Even if the US has not openly sided with Haftar, not wanting to be seen as against democratic Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, he has his uses-especially to Italy.

As Haftar has avowed quite explicitly, he is the only power who can protect Europe.“I fight against terrorists like Ansar al-Sharia and ISIS, if they take the power here the threat will come to your cities. How many Italians are aware that in front of their houses, in Derna, the recently proclaimed Caliphate carries on decapitations?”

Protecting the EU's Southern Underbelly: Italy, Libya and the Mediterranean.

General Haftar's posture as a strongman in the mould of General Sisi has been accompanied by statements about his role too as a bulwark protecting Italy, in a way similar to Gaddafi, against the barbarians at the gates. As he puts it “ISIS will invade Europe....If I fall, a multitude of migrants will invade Italy”.

Italy has aligned ever closer to Sisi in Egypt as a Mediterranean partner. On 21st February 2014 Italian energy giant ENI's CEO Claudio Descalzi was quick to offer condolences over the ISIS beheadings in a meeting attended by Italian Ambassador in Cairo Maurizio Massari. They expressed fears about terrorism in the region.

ENI and the Italian government fear that if ISIS spreads it would affect Italy's oil and gas supplies Libya's National Oil company claimed attacks on oil workers would lead to oil production being shut down if the Libyan authorities fail to offer protection. Italy gets about 21 % of its oil and 10 % of its natural gas from Libya.

The threat to Italian energy security posed by Islamist militias and jihadists would have been sufficient for it to advocate military intervention; Interior Minister Angelino Alfano in an interview with La Republica urged NATO to intervene "for the future of the Western world. ISIS is at the door. There is no time to waste."

One reason Italian Premier Matteo Renzi went out of his way to dismiss overreaction was to avert playing into the hands of jihadists. In fact, the heir to the Libyan monarchy, deposed in 1951, Idris Al-Senussi, claimed that foreign military intervention, especially by the old colonial power Italy would be a "a potential disaster"

In the world the Western Powers of the EU inhabit only bad old Russia under Putin is imperialist: so sanctions are to be placed on him for his role in fomenting trouble and instability in eastern Ukraine. NATO's military intervention in Libya, however, was not about advancing or protecting its interests but about promoting human rights.

That Egypt has intervened in Libya at the behest of a government that is only recognised by the West ( i.e. the "international community") is tacitly accepted even though it puts the Western Powers in a quandary as they could hardly lambast Putin for violating Ukraine's sovereignty if Italy or other European powers did so openly in Libya.

Naturally, sanctions do not apply towards Egypt as regards French arms deals despite the fact, as NATO member Turkey insists, Sisi's government is illegitimate because of the coup. Egypt's ever greater backing for Israeli energy cooperation plans in the eastern Mediterranean have infuriated Ankara which is excluded.

General Sisi both in Egypt and in Libya promises to secure oil and gas reserves and transit routes in a way that for the Mediterranean powers in particular are vital interests. Italy would not want to depend more on Russia if the Greenstream gas pipeline was attacked or gas supplies halted, as they were in 2013, after protests by Libyan Berbers.

The only alternative for Italy apart from Russian and Azerbaijani gas via the cancelled Southstream pipeline and Libya would by a huge gas pipeline from Israel through Cyprus and on to Italy through Greece. Turkey's threat to use military force if Greek Cyprus goes ahead in drilling without it being included would make that dangerous.

The 2011 NATO interventions came on the centenary of the Italian invasion and air campaign against Libya in 1911 when the Ottoman Empire was in its death throes. In 2015, a hundred years after Italy entered the First World War, the Mediterranean region once more is beset with conflicts in Ottoman successor states created by the 1920s.

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