Something very unusual happened last spring at the White House: the president of the United States admitted that America’s 2011 incursion into Libya, which led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, had been a mistake.
And yet the US decision to intervene in Libya had certainly not been a spontaneous or hasty move. It was carefully thought out and intended to achieve at least two goals.
First of all, the aggression against Libya was supposed to halt the successful economic expansion of Libyan Jamahiriya in Africa. That expansion threatened to undermine the dominance of the old colonial powers – Great Britain and France. For this reason, America’s NATO allies in Europe took the lead in the armed intervention.
Second, Western financiers were reacting with overt displeasure at the prospect of Libya introducing its gold dinar. Since there was a good chance that the countries of the African Union might also adopt that currency, the gold dinar could have undermined the dollar’s position and caused considerable damage to the international usury of capital.
After destroying the existing political apparatus in Libya, the US and its European allies gave little thought to what would come along to replace it. In a country with a tribal social structure, the overthrow of a stable authoritarian regime that had been the glue holding the Libyan people together naturally led to a clash between the various tribes and clans – to a «war of all against all» – and that environment immediately raised the stakes for the Islamist radicals.
There are about 1,700 armed groups active in Libya today that divvy up the power in this Arab country.
On June 11, it was announced that the Libyan port of Sirte and its oil terminal had been liberated from Islamic State (IS) militants. It is significant, however, that the liberators were militants from the Misrata clan, who are no less radical than IS. It was rebels from Misrata, along with members of the Benghazi clans, who spearheaded the new Libyan «revolution» in 2011. At that time, clans from Cyrenaica and Misrata were seen as proxies for Qatar. Doha, which was eager to dominate post-Gaddafi Libya, bet most of its chips on them. However, once chaos erupted, it was clear that when it came to oil, everyone wanted a piece of the pie but there was not enough to go around. Thus the clans splintered.
Abdelhakim Belhaj, the governor of Tripoli and a former leader of the local al-Qaeda affiliate, offers a vivid example. In 2011, he served among the ranks of the rebels as the chief agent for Qatar’s policies in Libya. But when he did not receive his expected remuneration from Qatar, Belhaj at first refocused his efforts in the direction of South Africa’s leaders, and now maintains a very close relationship with the Algerian intelligence services. He exchanged the camouflage of a field commander for a three-piece suit and became a respectable businessman. Abdelhakim Belhaj now owns Libya’s biggest airline, as well as insurance agencies and import-export firms in Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, and Turkey. Belhaj currently has his sights set on gaining control of Libya’s National Oil Company, the Central Bank, and the Libyan Investment Authority. The latter is interesting because it holds the legal right to Gaddafi’s frozen assets in the West. Because of the current chaos in Libya, the US and EU are refusing to allow the Libyans access to those funds. It is not difficult to imagine what sort of battles might still erupt there over the possession of that money.
Disappointed with the opportunities for an alliance with the tribal sheiks, in the end the Qataris placed their Libyan bets on the Islamic State. But Libya is not Iraq. In Iraq, the popularity of IS among the Sunni community was boosted by the presence of a common enemy – the Shiites. But there is no such enemy in Libya, and inter-tribal conflicts are much stronger there, so Daesh divisions have been unable to hold much territory.
Today the situation in Libya is increasingly dictated by the escalation of foreign intervention. During the battle for Sirte, British special forces were working right alongside militants from the Misrata clan. There are also foreigners within the armed divisions under General Khalifa Haftar, the biggest rival to the fighters from Misrata. In early June French special forces took part in General Haftar’s triumphant assault on Benghazi. That general, who commands the army loyal to the House of Representatives headquartered in Tobruk, also enjoys the support of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – plus Saudi Arabia backed him until recently. As a reminder, there are two governments and two parliaments operating in Libya: the House of Representatives in Tobruk and the General National Congress in Tripoli, which is made up of Islamists. In December of last year their leaders reluctantly agreed, under pressure, to form the Government of National Accord.
The situation is now changing. The Saudis have begun to actively work with the field commanders from Tripoli and Misrata, winning them over with financial inducements and thus weakening Qatar’s position. One could cite the examples of Ibrahim al-Jathran, the leader of a Zuwaya tribal militia, and also Ismail al-Sallabi, the field commander of the Martyrs Brigade and brother of Ali al-Sallabi, the spiritual advisor to the local affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. These actions are being taken under the guise of support of the Government of National Accord of Fayez al-Sarraj, which is headquartered in Tripoli.
There are some very compelling hypotheses about why Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia on one hand, vs. the Western powers on the other, are pursuing different objectives in Libya. The Saudis are eager to establish a viable government in the country that would force Libya’s economy and politics under Riyadh’s control. But Britain and France would not be against a new colonial partition of that nation. Prior to independence, Libya was a conglomerate of provinces, with Cyrenaica under British control, Tripolitania – under the Italians, and Fezzan – under the French. Even now there is no guarantee that the same blueprint for partitioning Libya won’t reemerge.