19th September 2019
On April 4th 2019, the Libyan National Army (LNA), under the command of Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, launched a new offensive on Tripoli. The move came just ten days before a major peace conference was due to take place, under the auspices of the UN, to flesh out an agreement between Haftar and his rival Serraj al-Fayez made a month earlier – and it appears to have been at the behest of – or at least given the green light by – Saudi Arabia.
On March 28th, one week before Haftar launched his offensive, Haftar was in Riyadh meeting with the two most powerful men in the kingdom – King Salman and Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman. Senior advisors to the Saudi government told the Wall Street Journal that, at this meeting, Haftar was promised tens of millions of dollars to help pay for the operation. And once it was underway, Saudi-linked twitter accounts launched an “avalanche of tweets” in support of Haftar, according to journalist Mary Fitzgerald.
But why would the Western world’s number one Arab ally be sponsoring an offensive against a government – the so-called Government of National Accord (GNA) – which was not only backed by, but in fact largely a creation of, the West itself? Are we seeing an unprecedented divergence between Saudi Arabia and its Anglo-American allies? Is this the beginning of the end of the Saudis’ long-established role of doing the West’s bidding in the region? Has Saudi Arabia gone rogue? Or is something else going on?
Saudi Arabia has a long track record of doing the West’s dirty work, financing violence which the US and UK governments want carried out, but would prefer not to be directly associated with. The current pummelling of Yemen and the building up of Syrian anti-government death squads since 2011 are but the most recent examples; in the 1980s the Nicaraguan contras, UNITA rebels in Angola, the Lebanese Phalangists and the Afghan Mujahideen were all recipients of Saudi largesse; and in the 1970s, the House of Saud bankrolled King Hussein’s attack on the PLO in Jordan. In every case, Saudi Arabia was financing and equipping the enemies of governments and movements deemed undesirable by the CIA. Are we to believe that this mutually-serving relationship has now come to an end?
There is, of course, another explanation: that the Libyan National Army’s attack on GNA-held Tripoli does, in fact, serve western goals just as surely as it serves those of the Saudis. For, whilst the GNA is indeed a creation of the West, it – like so many others before it – has increasingly come to see more of a future, economically at least, with China.
In May last year, the GNA signed a major oil contract with PetroChina, paving the way for GNA’s decision to sign up to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – also known as ‘One Belt One Road’ – in July. Involving over $1trillion of Chinese infrastructure investment across 152 countries, the BRI is the most ambitious attempt to promote South-South relations and reduce trade dependence on the Western world since the end of the colonial era. Trump’s policy towards the BRI was neatly summed up by his former National Security Advisor Steve Bannon in just eight words “Let’s go screw up One Belt One Road”. Following the GNA’s momentous decision to be part of it, notes Samuel Ramani in The Diplomat, “the GNA’s diplomatic outreach toward China has intensified and broadened. In September 2018, al-Sarraj openly called for an expansion of Chinese investment in Libya, and at the February 2019 Munich Security Conference, GNA representatives lauded Libya as a potential gateway for Chinese economic influence in central Africa.”
To those such as Trump, such statements are a red rag to a bull. Trump has made economic war on China a cornerstone of his foreign policy; for the GNA to openly tout Libya as a “gateway” for Chinese economic influence in Africa, then, is a major snub to their US overlords. And China has been receptive, too: continues Ramani, “ In response to these statements, Chinese Ambassador to Libya Li Zhiguo praised the GNA for improving Tripoli’s security situation and stated that China had plans for a swift expansion of its economic presence in Libya”.
Is it so far-fetched to suspect that the US might have approved Haftar’s operation against the GNA in order to punish their insubordination over China – and to entrench their dependence on Western military support?
There is much evidence that the West has indeed been ‘cooling’ in its attitude towards the Libyan government it created. Shortly after Haftar launched his latest offensive, GNA Prime Minister Al Serraj toured Europe’s capitals seeking public condemnations of the LNA advance. He did not receive them; instead, he was rebuffed by both French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel. Al Monitor comments, “By failing to explicitly support Sarraj’s demands, the UN Security Council and European nations appear more willing to forgive Hifter’s military advance than the GNA’s ongoing inadequacies as a functional government. Therefore, the GNA, a direct product of the international community, is now being abandoned by it.”
Likewise, the International Crisis Group notes that to the extent that “escalation” – carefully worded to avoid singling out the aggressor – has been condemned by the US, UK, France, Italy and others, “none of these statements included the threat of sanctions and none made explicit mention of the need to support the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli.” They add that “To many Libyans this suggests that foreign governments are tacitly backing Haftar in his ambition to seize the capital and power”
The GNA even apparently feels let down by the UK, the power which arguably did the most to push for both the NATO destruction of the Jamihiriya in 2011, and for the installing of the GNA in Tripoli in 2016. Notes the BBC: “Militia leader and GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha accused the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, of abandoning Tripoli in its hour of need by withdrawing British military and embassy staff from the city when it came under attack. Relations between the countries had been “damaged” by this, he said, and it would be difficult to rebuild them in a short space of time.” The Foreign Office response to this was decidedly not to reassure the GNA that they had the full support of the UK, but merely to note that Britain is “in contact” with the GNA. The Guardian added that, according to then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, “The UK is not ruling out the warlord Khalifa Haftar from a role in a future Libyan government despite his attack on the capital.” Ahmed Maiteeq, Libya’s deputy prime minister, concluded that “Britain just left Libya behind.”
France, meanwhile, has long had a relationship with the LNA and Haftar – who received emergency medical treatment in Paris in 2018 – with the depth of their involvement made public when three French soldiers were killed fighting alongside LNA units in Libya in 2016. Shortly after the advance on Tripoli began in April this year, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, explained that France backed Haftar because he had “fought terrorism in Benghazi and the south of Libya, and that’s in our interest.” The LNA victories in Southern Libya which preceded the attack on Tripoli had been “facilitated by French military operations” according to the intelligence analysts at Jamestown Foundation, whilst a high-ranking government official from the GNA’s Presidency Council has claimed that the French operate a drone control room at the Sidra oil terminal in northern Libya which they are using to attack GNA positions. In May the GNA decided to take revenge on French interests in Libya in May by suspending the operations of 40 French companies, including oil giant Total, who had been operating in the country.
Then there is the US. Haftar was, of course, a Virginia-based CIA asset for decades before returning to Libya with NATO in 2011, and has, according to the New York Times, now allowed the CIA to establish a base in LNA-controlled Benghazi. Following the attack on Tripoli, the US threatened to veto a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire, with the UN’s Libya envoy Ghassan Salame commenting “The American line was to say: no, give war a chance.” According to the Guardian, one US “diplomat said the US was more adamant in its opposition than Russia, which had asked for amendments to make the resolution more “balanced” and less explicitly anti-Haftar, but did not go so far as brandishing a security council veto.” US President Trump had apparently had a phone call with Haftar on 15th April, and had been impressed.
Yet none of this necessarily means that the US and its European hangers-on actually seek an LNA/ Haftar victory. As I have argued elsewhere, the aim of Western policy towards the global South today appears to be the creation not of Cold War-style puppet regimes, but rather of ‘failed states’. Unable to compete with China financially, the old imperial powers understand that any stable regional power today – however capitalist, pro-western, or right wing – is far more likely to be drawn towards economic ties with China than the West, and that this threatens the entire edifice of South-to-North wealth-extraction that has been carefully crafted over hundreds of years. By this analysis, a stable Libya under either the GNA or the LNA is equally unwelcome to the West; far preferable is a Libya at war with itself: precisely the scenario, that is, that has been imposed on Libya by NATO ever since 2011.
This makes the Saudi intervention just days before the April UN peace talks were due to begin much more comprehensible. Although it is easy to say in hindsight, of course, these talks did appear to have a much greater chance of success than previous attempts. The summer 2018 attack on GNA-controlled Tripoli by an alliance involving some of the powerful Misratan militias which had been sidelined by the GNA shocked Prime Minister Al-Serraj into incorporating some of them into his government. These militias in turn had a more open attitude towards dealing with Haftar’s LNA, and, on the eve of the planned UN peace conference in April, had succeeded in pushing the GNA towards a more conciliatory attitude. One former US official told Al-Monitor that Haftar was offered a “very generous” deal to join forces with the GNA, in which he would be head of the country’s united armed forces, subject to civilian oversight, but with the prime minister being “hands off in terms of military operations”. Indeed, such an agreement had already been reached in principle between Serraj and Haftar during talks in the UAE in February. Had the West and its regional proxies at that point made their continued military and financial support for Haftar contingent on his cooperation with this process, he would have had little choice but to comply; instead, as we know, they did precisely the opposite, offering him millions of dollars to reject the talks and advance on Tripoli.
Haftar, then, appears to have been pushed to launch a self-defeating war just when the western militias were ready to contemplate power-sharing. The result is both the weakening of the China-friendly GNA and the deepening of Libya’s civil war – exactly in accordance with western strategic aims. Bringing these two elements together is the fact that China had in fact been a key player pushing for peace. Notes Ramani, “In order to subtly advance the GNA’s position without jeopardizing its neutrality, China has actively supported a ceasefire in Libya, as the GNA has historically possessed an upper hand in peace negotiations, due to its status as Libya’s UN-recognized government.” He adds that “China’s adherence to strict multilateralism in Libya reflects its skeptical view of the ability of external stakeholders to constructively influence the situation in Libya” and that “China’s May 21 expression of support for an expansion of the African Union’s (AU) role in ending hostilities in Libya also aligns with these principles, as the AU has consistently called for a ceasefire in Libya without external interference.” All this has now been thrown into the fire.
It is not simply guesswork to speculate that the Saudis and the West are aiming to keep Libya weak and warring, however: there are ample historical precedents. In the 1980s, for example, the US and the Saudis ‘supported’ Iraq’s war with Iran with weapons and financial backing. Was this because they genuinely sought a strong, stable Iraq? Just to ask the question immediately exposes the idea as ridiculous. Before the war was even over, it was revealed that the CIA was secretly shipping weapons to Iran as well, whilst the war-wracked Iraqi economy came under concerted attack from US proxy Kuwait through the outright theft of its oil. The US then ultimately used the resulting Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which they had earlier greenlighted, as an excuse to rain hell on Iraq’s (retreating) army, as well as its civilian infrastructure. They then spent 12 years systematically rendering the Iraqi state defenceless before finally destroying it altogether.
Likewise, the Vance-Owen Bosnian peace plan was, in 1992, on the verge of acceptance by all sides, before the US pressed their proxies (namely the leader of the Bosnian Muslim faction, Izetbegovic) to reject the deal and keep fighting. Finally, after three more years of war, a virtually identical deal was signed up to by the mutually exhausted parties.
In Libya today, just as in 1980s Iraq, the West’s proxies are again backing both sides, whilst, as in 1990s Bosnia, they are pushing their dependents into rejecting peace and stepping up their attacks. Meanwhile, the stream of weapons to both the LNA from NATO-allied Saudi Arabia and UAE, and to the GNA from NATO-allied Turkey and Qatar continues apace; there are UN sanctions against shipments, but, notes Bloomsberg, they “are among the world’s least enforced”. In fact, peace would be relatively easy to bring about, should the Western powers actually seek it; as Jason Pack points out in Al-Monitor, “If the main international players would look past their sunk costs and find a common interest in a stable Libya, they might see a fairly simple way out of the seemingly endless wars of post-Gadhafi succession: denying all sides access to external sources of funding and arms, while also forcing the Libyan central bank and the internationally recognized government to eliminate subsidies and cut salaries to militiamen on all sides.”
Instead, through its proxies, the West continues to sponsor a mutually destructive war between the two rival governments its (repeated) intervention has spawned.
Originally published in Counterpunch magazine