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The new war in Libya part 1: Government in Name Alone: How NATO’s new ‘Libyan government’ entrenched militia misrule

Originally published in Counterpunch magazine, June 2019

Image result for Abderrahman Swehli

Abderrahman Swehli, UK-backed Misrata militiaman whose support for the ‘Government of National Accord’ ensured it functioned as a front for the paramilitaries

By late 2015, the West’s Libya policy was in total disarray.

To the untrained eye, of course, it looked as though it had been in disarray from the start. The 2011 intervention had, after all, turned the country into a death squad free-for-all, destroying state authority, and drawing militias from across the region – including Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, and ISIS – to its vast territory to set up camps, loot state armouries, and train the fighters who went on to attack Tunisia, Nigeria, Algeria, Manchester and elsewhere. The 30,000-strong city of Tawergha – the only black African town on the Mediterranean – was completely ethnic cleansed by NATO’s proxies; it is now a ghost town, it’s former inhabitants scattered across refugee camps where they are still hunted down and killed to this day. Thousands of African migrants remain detained in illegal facilities by the country’s hundreds of militias, where they face regular torture and rape, and public slave auctions have been reintroduced. The country remains at war, without a functioning government, facing rampant inflation and regular power cuts. The criminal justice system has collapsed throughout much of the country, which remains under the control of ever more powerful and unaccountable armed groups. Per capita income has collapsed by more than a third, from $12,250 in 2010 to $7,820.28 in 2014, whilst the country has dropped 40 places in the UN’s human development index, from 53 in 2010 to 94 in 2015. Life expectancy has dropped by three years over the same time period.

If the goal was, as NATO proclaimed, to improve human rights, then, by any standards, the intervention was an utter disaster.

But no serious person ever believed it was really about that. NATO – with Britain leading the charge – was concerned about Gaddafi’s growing influence on the African continent, his role as a bulwark against US and UK military encroachment, and the money he was pouring into financial institutions explicitly designed to reduce African dependence on the IMF and World Bank. As with the previous intervention in Iraq, however, the goal was not only to remove this particular thorn-in-the-side but in fact to prevent the country from ever again re-emerging as a strong, unified independent power. The goal was not to change the government, then – but to prevent effective government altogether. To this end the leading NATO powers have consistently acted to ensure the country’s hundreds of rival militias are empowered and remain at war with one other. From this point of view, the West’s Libya policy has been a roaring success. But by 2015 it had come under serious threat.

Under the tutelage of the NATO-imposed government, the years following the 2011 bombardment saw the power of the militias entrenched. Rather than disbanding them, or attempting to bring them under a unified chain of command, the new regime began arming them and paying their salaries. Faced with few other prospects, young people flocked to join, and the number of militiamen grew from a maximum of 25,000 who fought in 2011 to 140,000 two years later. Naturally, those in charge of these armed gangs – accountable to no one but themselves – grew in power as their numbers and resources swelled, and turf warfare was common. The rule of the gun had become institutionalised.

By 2014, Libyans were sick of it. Seeing as the government was effectively toothless, hostage to the militias it had empowered, elections were largely seen as a waste of time at best, a process with no other function than to legitimise a dysfunctional status quo. Turnout in the 2014 elections was estimated at less than 20%, down from 60% two years earlier. Yet the result was nevertheless a blow to the militias, with their political sponsors – Libya’s equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood – the biggest losers. The militias’ parliamentary patrons had suffered a decisive defeat; and one they did not accept. In July 2014, they launched an attack on Tripoli to drive the new government out of the capital. By August they had succeeded, and the newly elected House of Representatives was forced to relocate to Tobruk in the east. But the House of Representatives had two major assets on their side. Firstly, the Libyan National Army (LNA), the country’s largest and most effective single fighting force – had pledged its allegiance to them. Over the year that followed, the LNA made steady gains, and by the end of 2015, after almost two years of fighting, were on the verge of retaking Benghazi from a coalition of militias led by the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Sharia. Secondly, as the elected parliament, they were internationally recognised as the legitimate government of Libya.

To add to NATO’s headaches, supporters of the pre-2011 government were growing in strength. Despite criminalisation – the notorious Law 37 had made open support for Gaddafi a crime punishable by life imprisonment – the ‘Green Resistance’, as it became known, was becoming ever more emboldened and popular. The stark difference between the relatively prosperous and stable lives people had led under Gaddafi, and the disaster which they were living now, became harder and harder to ignore. By August 2015, as a kangaroo court handed down death sentences to 8 former ministers, including Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, the green movement was openly leading large public demonstrations across the country, even in ISIS-occupied Sirte. At the same time, the east of the country was moving towards a reconciliation with the Green Movement, with the House of Representatives allowing Gaddafi’s widow to return from exile, and the LNA openly recruiting Gaddafi loyalists, including Gaddafi’s Tuareg commander General Ali Kanna, into its forces.

And finally – particularly worrying for the forces of disorder that had unleashed chaos on Libya – an end to the civil war between the two parliaments even seemed to be finally in sight. The two warring sides – Operation Dawn, which supported the General National Congress, the parliament of the defeated militias, and Operation Dignity, the Libyan National Army-led operation in support of the elected House of Representatives – had signed a ceasefire in January 2015, and by November of that year had made substantial progress towards a compromise resolution of their differences.

If NATO wanted to stop these moves towards unity, reconciliation, and defeat of the militias, they would have to act fast. That’s where the UN came in.

The UN had created UNSMIL (the UN ‘Support Mission in Libya’) in 2011, ostensibly to promote reconciliation between the various militias which had emerged, and UNSMIL had then set up the ‘Libya Dialogue’ in September 2014, following the fall of Tripoli to the Libya Dawn faction. Clearly dominated by Libya’s conquerors – its meetings often took place in London or Rome, under the watchful eye of British, Italian, US and IMF officials – it was rejected by Libyan nationalists, who instead favoured direct negotiations, without outside interference. Thus, in December 2015, there were two parallel sets of negotiations taking place – the UNSMIL Libya Dialogue (boycotted by the GNC parliament) and the the so-called ‘Libya-Libya Dialogue’ involving direct, unmediated discussions between the heads of the two parliaments. Whilst the UNSMIL version seemed to be getting nowhere – with both sides sceptical of its Western overlords – the direct negotiations were bearing serious fruit. Meeting in Malta and Muscat in December 2015, the heads of both warring parliaments endorsed an initiative to create a unity government appointed by a prime minister and two deputies chosen in turn by both parliaments. But a workable agreement between Libyan parties, based on a principled rejection of outside interference, was the exact opposite of what the UN’s controllers were seeking. For over a year, UNSMIL had unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the two parliaments to support their own deeply flawed plan, the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). Now, as the Libyans’ own process was gaining momentum, desperation was growing amongst Western officials that their plan was becoming marginalised.  As one EU diplomat candidly admitted, “the pressure to sign the accord came from Political Dialogue members who feared that the Libya-Libya initiative could gain popular traction”. Unsurprisingly, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), “the most engaged Security Council permanent members – the U.S., UK and France – were particularly vocal in pushing the UN to finalise the deal”. The very powers who had destroyed Libya four years earlier were desperate that they not be sidelined by an independent Libyan initiative.

Fear of the rival negotiations gaining momentum was not the only thing driving the west’s urgency to impose a ‘deal’, however. There was also real fear that the LNA might actually win the war. As one Western official told the ICG: “Not signing and endorsing the accord would have been a major defeat for those like us who had been advocating a negotiated power-sharing deal as the only solution to the Libya crisis. It would have meant a failure of the principle of negotiations, and that would have allowed those governments that throughout 2015 had advocated direct unilateral action in support of the HoR and its government to declare victory.” This is a clear admission that the LPA was aimed at giving a shot in the arm to the flailing militias, to bolster them and prevent their defeat in the face of a unified National Army representing the elected parliament.

The problem for supporters of the western-drafted LPA remained, however, its lack of support amongst Libyan stakeholders. For a start, neither parliament endorsed the agreement; indeed, said the ICG, “A substantial HoR majority opposed the military and security provisions” whilst the GNC were boycotting the talks altogether. Furthermore, the real powers on the ground – the armed groups actually in control of Libyan territory – were not consulted, and were mostly opposed to it. The ICG concluded that “In retrospect, proponents inflated support for the accord within the rival legislatures to justify going forward.  The claim of majority backing was factually dubious – many members supported an agreement in principle but differed widely on details – and politically misleading, since key opponents were outside the HoR and the GNC and had military power to intimidate supporters”.

Lacking support for its deal, but anxious to impose it to prevent the possibility of either a LNA victory or a Libyan-led negotiated settlement, the UN simply cobbled together a handpicked group of willing members from each parliament to sign up to their flawed blueprint (It was fitting that the man brought in to do this was named Martin Kobler). Thus, the Skhirat Agreement, as it became known, was signed by an arbitrary group of unrepresentative Libyans in Morocco on December 17th 2015. It was instantly anointed the holy bible of Libyan politics by the Western powers.  And yet, “There is no real political agreement”, a senior UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) official admitted. “This is an agreement to support those who seem trustworthy for the sake of saving the country”. Saving it, that is, from unity and independence. This was naked colonialism of the pure and shameless nineteenth century variety.

Nevertheless, the western-imposed LPA did initially manage to gain some degree of support, or at least acceptance, both within Libya, and amongst non-western powers abroad. Khalifa Haftar, leader of the LNA, whilst not officially endorsing the deal, did cooperate with it at first, meeting Kobler the day before its signing and proposing a close associate, Ali Qatrani, for the Presidency Council it created. Aguila Saleh, head of the House of Representatives, gave tentative support to the deal on 31st December 2015, two weeks after its signing. On the GNC side, the Misratan leader Abderrahman Swehli gave last minute support to the deal, bringing with him a large number of the Misratan militias, a move which, according the ICG, “changed the force balance in the deal’s favour”. And at the UN, Russian and Chinese support ensured the deal achieved Security Council endorsement on 23rd December.

The LPA’s support from Saleh and Haftar (briefly) and Russia (more long term) warrants closer scrutiny. After all, in hindsight at least, the LPA has functioned effectively to bolster and legitimise the very militias which Haftar’s Russian-backed LNA is fighting. In practice, the sole function of the GNA (Government of National Accord) which was created by the ‘agreement’ has been – much like that of its Syrian cousin, the erstwhile Free Syrian Army – the provision of international recognition, funding and weaponry to any militia that pledges nominal allegiance to it, without actually having to submit to any unified chain of command. The GNA truly is a Government in Name Alone.

Yet this was not necessarily obvious at the time. Not unlike Security Council 1973 which paved the way for NATO intervention in 2011, the LPA’s drafters made sure to include many tempting concessions to its potential opponents, safe in the knowledge they could simply be ignored once the deal was signed. In the case of UNSC 1973, provisions were made for negotiations to take place before any military action began, and for any intervention which did occur to be strictly limited to a no-fly zone and preventing the Libyan army retaking Benghazi. Much to the humiliation of the African Union, which had predicated its endorsement precisely on these measures, all of them were ignored by NATO even before the ink had dried.

In the case of the LPA, on paper, it looked like it was biased, if anything, towards the House of Representatives, not the militia-backed GNC. This was not entirely surprising, given that the HoR had participated in the ‘Libya Dialogue’ talks which preceded it, which the GNC had boycotted. Under the terms of the LPA, the HoR would remain the official Libyan parliament, and creation of any new government would be conditional on HoR ratification: effectively the HoR was granted power of veto over any arrangements which would emerge. For the HoR, and its supporters in the LNA and outside Libya, then, on the face of it, there was nothing to lose.

As with UNSC 1973, however, these provisions were to be entirely ignored. Under the terms of the agreement, a Presidency Council would be formed, made up of nominees from both parliaments. This Council would then appoint a government, which would be dependent on approval by the HoR. Yet, the UN Security Council itself violated the agreement within a week of its signing, by ‘recognising’ a government which had not only not yet been formed, but which, according to the terms of the LPA, could not be formed without HoR approval. This approval has never been granted; yet the GNA’s Cabinet was nonetheless created on January 2nd (where, lacking support in Libya, it operated from Tunisia) by the Council President, Fayez al-Sarraj, triggering a boycott of the Council by two of its (eastern) members. Given that under the terms of the LPA security decisions could only be taken by the Council with the unanimous support of its five deputies, the PC thus no longer had the authority to make these decisions. This too was simply ignored.

Another sticking point emerged in March 2016, when the GNA moved to Tripoli, opposed by both the GNC and the HoR. According to the LPA, to be integrated into state security forces, militias were required to give up their weapons. Lacking any enforcement power of its own, however, the GNA simply ignored this provision too, and effectively paid a cartel of, mostly Misratan, militias to provide it with protection. Meanwhile British, Italian and German warships were stationed off the city’s coastto cow incalcitrant forces into acquiescence, reportedly sending text messages to the various militias warning them not to attempt to resist the GNA’s imposition. Nevertheless, the GNA still only managed to gain control of three of the country’s ministries, with most of the ‘government’ operating from the city’s naval base. Unsurprisingly, it was once again “Most notably the U.S. and UK,” notes the ICG, who “were lobbying for moving the Presidency Council to Tripoli and recognising the unity government as the legitimate government as soon as possible, even without formal HoR endorsement”.

A report in the UK newspaper The Independent later that month revealed why these governments were in such a rush. On 25th March 2016, it reported on a leaked briefing from King Abdullah in Jordan confirming that British and American special forces were on the ground in Libya, working with the Misratan militias. Granting such militias pseudo-legitimacy through their association with the GNA was crucial to provide a semblance of legality to these operations – which were, after all, military operations in support of armed gangs at war with the country’s elected parliament.

The following month the takeover of the GNA by the western militias was formalised by the appointment of Abderrahman Swehli, representing a bloc of Misratan militia, as President of the High State Council. The High State Council was created by the LPA as an ‘advisory body’ to the GNA, to be composed of former members of the GNC, the parliament which had lost the 2014 elections. Swehli, says the ICG, was viewed by “many Libyans… as the architect of the July 2014 “Libya Dawn” operation and the “Libya Sunrise” siege of eastern oil terminals later that year.” He was the man, in other words, who had initiated the armed overthrow of the elected government following the 2014 elections.

Thus, what looked on paper like an arrangement favouring the HoR – who would retain a veto over appointments – against the GNC – whose role was supposed to be ‘advisory’ – came in practice to be a means of transferring legitimacy from the elected HoR to the (electorally defeated) Tripoli and Misratan militias backing the GNA, with the provisions relating to the HoR’s role simply ignored.

It did not take long for the US and UK to utilise this transfer of legitimacy to start channelling arms to their favoured factions. Within days of Serraj announcing in May that the GNA was ready to start work (triggering the resignation of another four ministers, given the blatant illegality of operating without approval from the elected parliament), the UN Security Council declared it would start arming the GNA (that is, the militias now working under its banner, but not its command). It is worth noting here that the UNSC had consistently refused to lift the arms embargo on Libya when the HoR was the internationally-recognised government, battling Al Qaeda and ISIS-aligned forces in Benghazi (forces which often had tacit support from the GNA).

Indeed, the very next month, Britain successfully lobbied the UNSC to adopt a resolution mandating existing EU anti-migrant naval operations in the Mediterranean (‘Operation Sophia’) to also enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya. Now that the embargo on the GNA militias had been removed, this meant specifically cutting off arms to the LNA.

Thus the LPA, and the GNA it created, have served to legitimise the militias that have laid waste to Libya, whilst delegitimising the Libyan National Army and the elected parliament. Part of the reason for this was the desire to see that the LNA did not take Sirte.

For years, the LNA had been at the forefront of the fight against Al Qaeda and ISIS in Libya, and had completed its liberation of Benghazi from their affiliates in February 2016. The militias aligned to the GNA, meanwhile, had generally been at best ambivalent about such groups. If Britain and the US were to keep Libya out of the hands of the LNA, therefore, it needed to ensure its own favoured militias retook ISIS territory, and not the LNA. Top of the agenda was Sirte. The city had fallen to ISIS in May 2015, and, following its successful Benghazi operation, the LNA then began the march to retake Sirte. This was when British special forces were inserted to make sure this did not happen. Ultimately, Sirte did fall to the British-led Misratan militias and not to the LNA, in an operation more or less completed by the end of the year.

Thus, the LPA – and the Government in Name Alone it created – achieved NATO’s goals of both scuppering the Libyan-led dialogue then underway, and arresting the progress of the Libyan National Army. It has done so by transferring legitimacy from the elected parliament to the various rival militias vying for control of western Libya – and in the process, it has bolstered and entrenched militia rule.

A recent report by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs gave a stark outline of the impact this has had on Tripoli. Titled “Tripoli’s Militia Cartel: How Ill-Conceived Stabilisation Blocks Political Progress, and Risks Renewed War”, it is worth quoting at length. The report wrote that, on its arrival in Tripoli, “The Presidency Council rapidly fell under the influence of the militias protecting it and made little effort to reach out to others”. Within a year, a cartel of four militias had established themselves as an effective oligopoly, running most of central Tripoli. “The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) backed the militias’ expansion with its tacit approval,” the report adds, “as well as with advice to GNA officials who liaised with the armed groups…Under the Presidency Council’s watch, the militia oligopoly in Tripoli has consolidated into a cartel. The militias are no longer merely armed groups that exert their influence primarily through coercive force. They have grown into networks spanning politics, business, and the administration….To pursue [their] fraudulent practices, commanders in Tripoli’s large armed groups began placing agents throughout the administration. Since late 2016, new appointments in ministries and other government bodies have been overwhelmingly made under pressure from the militias. Through their representatives in the administration, the networks associated with the militias are increasingly able to operate in a coordinated manner across different institutions. According to politicians, militia leaders, and bureaucrats in Tripoli, the Presidency Council and the GNA have become a mere façade, behind which the armed groups and their associated interests are calling the shots.” By establishing protection rackets, kidnappings, and extorting local banks to help them operate black market currency rackets, these militias are becoming ever more wealthy. Yet these very wealth opportunities – created by the takeover of the GNA – make the ‘capture’ of Tripoli (and the GNA) an ever more attractive prize for the country’s other militias. Thus, concludes the report, “the militia cartel threatens to thwart the UN’s ongoing attempts at brokering a more viable political settlement and risks provoking a major new conflict over the capital”.

Indeed, it is pertinent that the report, published last April, predicted not only last summer’s violence in Tripoli – when the Seventh Brigade of Tarhouna (also a creation of the GNA), allied to discontented Misratan militias, attacked the capital in an attempt to wrest control from the cartel – but also the very locations from which it would occur:

“The stranglehold over the administration exerted by the militia cartel means that the profits from the pillaging of state funds now benefits a smaller groups of actors than at any point since 2011.Unsurprisingly, this is fuelling serious tensions. A handful of Misratan militias are also present in Tripoli and support the status quo there, but the bulk of that city’s armed groups, and many of its politicians, increasingly resent their marginalisation by the Tripoli cartel. In Zintan, which hosts the second largest forces in western Libya, after Misrata, such resentment is combined with the long-held desire to return to the capital and efface the humiliation suffered in 2014, when Zintani forces were forcibly dislodged from the capital by a Misratan-led coalition. The recent appointments of Zintani figures in senior positions in Tripoli are not sufficient to assuage these ambitions. Yet another force with designs on the capital is based in Tarhuna. Throughout the first months of 2018, actors from these three cities have attempted to build an alliance to enter Tripoli by force. The complexity of the alliances around the capital and engagement by UNSMIL have, to date, prevented such an offensive from happening. But the longer the current situation in Tripoli persists, the more likely it is that such forces will start a new conflict over the capital.”

The GNA is absolutely not a Government of National Accord. It does not govern, it is not national, and it does not promote accord. Rather, it is a Government in Name Alone, a colonial imposition designed purely to legitimise western support for destabilising militias at the expense of the country’s elected parliament and most effective unified force. It is time for Libya’s factions to return to their own negotiations – and to reject, once and for all, the interference of the foreign powers which have destroyed, and continue to destroy, their country.

 

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