It’s a “scandal”, according to U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. Many more say it’s a mess. It’s also a critical battlefield for the future of the Arab world, according to engaged capitals.
The 2011 international military intervention in Libya was about being on the right side of history, just as the Arab Spring was supposed to bring a new and bright democratic future to the entire region. The Paris of Nicolas Sarkozy, followed by the London of David Cameron, was enthusiastically charging full speed ahead, while the Washington of Barack Obama was relunctantly “leading from behind”. And after half a year of bombing, the bizarre 42-year rule of Col. Moammar Gaddafi came to an inglorious end outside the town of Sirte.
It all looked very good. The victorious world powers walked away and happily dumped the future of the country on a U.N. mission without much of a mandate.
The result should have been predicted: Soon after, a combination of both old tribal and regional tensions inside the country, and new political and ideological tensions in the wider region, started to assert themselves. By 2014, the country was mired in a full-scale civil war.
One U.N. envoy came after another, but it wasn’t until the sixth one showed up — the well-respected Arab statesman Ghassan Salame — that there seemed to be any chance of sorting things out. In early April of last year, he was ready to convene a Libyan conference to restart an inclusive political process, and Guterres visited Tripoli to bless the process.
But there was not to be a deal.
That same month, Khalifa Hifter, a self-avowed autocrat and commander of the Libyan National Army, launched an offensive to capture the capital — seat of Libya’s U.N.-backed and internationally recognized Government of National Accord — and bring all of the country under his firm control, no doubt feeling encouraged by phone calls from the White House. The political process immediately collapsed, and the Hifter offensive became bogged down in the outskirts of Tripoli and failed in its ultimate objective.
Since then, everything has gone from bad to worse. More or less discreet foreign interventions to support one side or the other have escalated. Major diplomatic efforts, including a conference called by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin in January, have produced statements but have failed to get any significant measures implemented. And Salame, justly feeling betrayed by the powers on the Security Council, has thrown in the towel and resigned. It hasn’t even been possible to find a successor.
Now all the red lines of the different sides of the battle for Libya are converging around the port town of Sirte, with its huge airbase.
Turkey has intervened with drones, advanced weapons and Syrian militias to save and shore up the recognized government in Tripoli and drive the Hifter forces back. Hifter, for his part, is increasingly relying on advanced weapons supplied by the United Arab Emirates, mercenaries coming from Russia and his own supply of fighters from Syria. At appropriate occasions everyone talks about cease-fires and arms embargoes, but in the end it’s all for the birds.
All the actors have agendas. The UAE and Egypt fear the Muslim Brotherhood will take over Libya. Turkey has an agreement with Tripoli that is a key part of its play for powers and rights in the entire eastern Mediterranean. And Russia probably wouldn’t mind another strategic port and airbase.
The European Union, heavily affected by whatever happens in Libya, has been mostly absent and somewhat weakened by an endless dispute between Paris and Rome.
Now Egypt has threatened to send in its army to defend the red line by Sirte. Turkey doesn’t really believe the Egyptian army amounts to much and has been encouraged by its drones taking out expensive Russian air defense missile systems apparetnly sent in by the UAE, and is firm in its intention to have Tripoli regain control of Sirte.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world watches and issues the occasional statement of concern.
If the E.U. were really serious about ending the bloodshed, it would seriously consider putting a force of its Battlegroups in Sirte, separating the red lines of both sides and blocking the hopes of a military solution driving the present deterioration. Then its words would suddenly acquire some weight.
The likelihood of this happening is minuscule.
It looks as though we’ll just have to await the battle for Sirte, and more overt interventions by Egypt, Turkey, UAE, Russia and probably others as well. At the end, they will all carve up Libya with their respective bases, continue their contests there and elsewhere, and all of the Mediterranean will be an even more insecure place.
Looking back at the days of the allegedly justified intervention in 2011, this certainly wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.
Carl Bildt is a former prime minister of Sweden and a contributing columnist for The Post.