IN SEPTEMBER 2011, David Cameron - then Prime Minister - stood at a podium in Benghazi, Libya, alongside French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and told the assembled crowd that “your friends in Britain and in France will stand with you as you build your democracy and build your country for the future”.
Cameron was key in prompting the NATO-led military campaign that drove the autocratic and erratic government of Muammar Gaddafi out of power on the basis of the assertion that the regime was planning to massacre the civilian population of Benghazi. This was a claim the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee evaluated in 2016 to be “not supported by the available evidence … founded on erroneous assumptions and an incomplete understanding of the evidence”.
The follow-up claim that the British and French would help in rebuilding post-invasion Libya would turn out to be just as problematic. Over the past seven years, Libya has not had a functioning government. There have been various people and institutions that have claimed to be the legitimate leader, parliament or army of Libya, but in effect the country has been dominated by militias since Cameron’s visit.
Many of those militias have also been heavily involved in moving refugees across the Mediterranean, and a major part of European involvement in Libya since 2011 has been about their attempts to control this movement. Italy’s payment to a militia to stop efforts by a humanitarian organisation to rescue refugees on a sinking dinghy in 2017 - leading to 20 deaths - is only the most highly publicised case that illustrates where European priorities have lain since NATO’s campaign.
Libya though is cursed not only by its proximity to Europe but also by its oil and gas fields. It is the growing competition over these resources which explains the latest - and potentially most destructive - round of fighting. Italy, largely acting through Eni, the multinational oil and gas company based in Rome, has taken on a major role in preserving access to Libya’s gas fields through striking deals with and between local militia aligned with the Tripoli-based administration of Fayez al-Sarraj. That administration is recognised as legitimate by the United Nations, which refers to it as the ‘Government of National Accord’. It has tried to broker compromises with rival factions, but is entirely dependent on local warlords in its attempts to assert control within the country.
What these halting attempts at forming a national unity government threaten are other groups which have seized control of oil and gas rich areas - and, even more importantly, their international backers. France has since 2011 reasserted its relations with tribal groups around the southern region of Fezzan, which it ruled before the unification of Libya in 1951 and which has some of Libya’s largest oil wells as well as natural deposits of uranium. French military forces have been operating in Libya since 2011. This was publicly revealed only when in July 2016 a French military helicopter crashed near Benghazi, seemingly operating to support the forces of Khalifa al-Haftar, the self-styled field marshal of the ‘Libyan National Army’, who had broken from the Tripoli-based government.
And now it is Haftar who leads a new military offensive to capture Tripoli, having seized the major southern oil fields earlier this year under the guise of fighting terrorism. The attack has caused the flight of thousands of people and has killed at least 200 people within its first two days. A draft EU statement backed by Italy condemning Haftar’s move was blocked by the French, who again revealed their allegiances by successfully lobbying for the statement to be watered down so that it instead only blandly called “on all parties to immediately cease all military operations”.
Haftar launched the attack after having just returned from Saudi Arabia, where he had a public meeting with the King who reportedly offered him extensive financial support. While the assorted kings and emirs of the Gulf collectively supported the NATO offensive in 2011, they rapidly fell out with each other afterwards, just as European countries had done, with Qatar backing the Tripoli government while Saudi Arabia and Egypt considered Haftar a proxy who they could use against their regional rival. A sympathetic tone towards Haftar comes from those who present him as a ‘secular strongman’ - someone who has the ability to impose order in a chaotic environment, reduce the potential for the conflict in Libya to spread to neighbouring states, and who will defeat radical Islamist groups like the self-styled Islamic State movement.
This is based on a misunderstanding of who Haftar is. He was part of Gaddafi’s inner circle through the early years of that regime, and commanded Libyan forces in its war with Chad in the 1980s. Military units under his command were widely alleged to have used napalm against Chadian forces. In 1986, he lost a crucial battle at Wadi Doum in Chad and was captured by the opposing side. This served as the turning point in the war, and he was dismissed and disowned by Gaddafi on grounds of his military incompetence. He then spent the next few years purporting to lead a Libyan opposition movement, first based in Zaire, then Kenya, and later being accepted into the United States.
As for the group he commands, far from it being based around secular groups, Haftar has actively recruited hardline Islamists who follow the teachings of Saudi cleric, Rabi al-Madkhali, who vigorously defends authoritarianism in the Middle East. He has also recruited mercenaries from Sudan and Chad, creating the potential for regional instability when those fighters later try to return home.
The renewal of the intense conflict in Libya has left many politicians and commentators complaining that Libyans were given the opportunity to take charge of their own country with the 2011 intervention but have allowed petty squabbles to divide them. This could hardly be more misleading. It is the continued external intervention to play one side off against the other, in the hope of seizing Libya’s resources, or using them as proxies in regional rivalries, that drives the conflict. If Libya has friends in Britain and France, as Cameron claimed, these are friends that Libyans could do without.
is a Lecturer and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, specializing in political theory and international law.