To the shores of Tripoli

Tripoli, Libya (openDemocracy– Great Britain and Italy are preparing to send ground troops to Libya. With little media attention and even less public debate, up to 6,000 British and Italian soldiers would be deployed to bolster the fragile unity government in its efforts to end the lawlessness in the country and combat the growing presence of Islamic State rebels.

The military effort hinges on the success of the new government in merging the violently hostile factions that have been running Tripolitania and Cyrenaica as if they were separate countries since 2012; but assuming the coalition holds, the west will have boots on the ground in yet another Muslim country in 2016. It is almost certain that Britain already has its Special Air Service (SAS) operativesin country, though the Ministry of Defence refuses to confirm or deny those rumours.

The catalyst for this action is the success the rebels have enjoyed in damaging or capturing Libya’s oil infrastructure. The most recent incident was a suicide bombing and rocket attack on the oil port of Sidra. The various groups, including those swearing fealty to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, depend on the black market sale of crude oil for much of their financing, with which they buy weapons and munitions in a thriving trade.

Prior to the deposition and murder of Qaddafi, Libya produced approximately 1.6 million barrels per day of oil, mostly for export to Europe. European oil majors like Total, BP and Eni were heavily invested in Libya’s state-run oil sector, providing much needed technical expertise. Since the uprising, over a million barrels-per-day in capacity has been lost.

The other motivation is the refugee crisis threatening European solidarity and the Schengen Agreement. The primary conduit remains the Turkish route from Syria, but no one should forget the large numbers of refugees entering Europe via the Mediterranean route. Until the conduit through Turkey stole the headlines, the southern route was already provoking extraordinary measures by the European Union; including the illegal measure of destroying smugglers vessels at sea without any court’s authorisation.

One of the main departure points for these smugglers and their cargos of refugees is Libya, and Italy fears that a too-effective policy of closing the EU’s Balkan borders will lead Syrian refugees to take the more circuitous and dangerous, but still open sea route. Not that Syrian refugees would go to Libya first – they would cross from Albania most probably – but control of Libya’s ports would free Italian patrol vessels to concentrate on other waters.

Image Source: Surian Soosay, Flickr, Creative Commons Opposition Commander in Misurata, Lib

Image Source: Surian Soosay, Flickr, Creative Commons
Opposition Commander in Misurata, Lib

These developments are ironic because it was western intervention that created a failed state in Libya in the first place. Certain members of the European Union, coincidentally those with the largest investments in Libya, became agitated at Qaddafi’s heavy-handed response to his local Arab Spring uprising. When the Libyan military began using helicopters and aircraft against protesters, Britain’s former Foreign Secretary David Owen proposed a “no fly zone” over eastern Libya to be authorised by the Security Council and enforced by NATO and Egypt. Russia and China refrained from vetoing the measure on the understanding that it would not be an excuse for regime change; and within days, NATO went from “no fly zone” to actively bombing everything that moved in Libya except the rebels.

Recently released State Department communications – thank you, Secretary Clinton – confirm that European leaders were less concerned with averting a humanitarian crisis than they were in expanding their economic and political influence in their old colony. A State Department email from long-time Clinton insider Sidney Blumenthal to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on 2 April 2011 lays out the reasons behind Nicolas Sarkozy’s support for an expanded campaign against Qaddafi:

1. to gain a greater share of Libyan oil production;

2. to increase French influence in North Africa;

3. to improve the government’s internal political situation in France;

4. to provide the French military with an opportunity to reassert its position in the world;

5. to head off a Libyan challenge to French economic interests in Francophone Africa through the creation of a common currency based on the Libyan Dinar, and backed by approximately 7 billion dollars of gold reserves.

A separate email dated 8 April 2011 confirms the involvement of Egyptian forces for similar reasons to those of the French: access to oil and gas, re-establishing influence in Cyrenaica, avoiding a refugee crisis on the Libyan-Egyptian frontier and avoidance of an Islamic militant resurgence in the region.

Egypt early on sent Special Operations forces to bolster “their” rebels in Benghazi, providing much needed training and combat experience. The same email indicates that Great Britain already had SAS operatives on the ground in Egypt gathering intelligence and providing assistance to the Benghazi rebels – long before David Cameron’s government had even debated the use of force in parliament.

In the aftermath of regime change – excuse me, of NATO’s successful humanitarian operation – the National Transitional Council was put in place to attempt to restore order, disarm the militias, re-establish basic services and organise elections. It was also supposed to hand out large contracts to its western patrons in return for their support. Unfortunately – for the council – then Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib apparently hadn’t read the memo: he failed to deliver the goods. The State Department files indicate that the French felt jilted that they had received less than their 35% cut of new business deals and immediately began undermining the very council they had helped set up less than a year previously. With the help of Great Britain, the intelligence services of the two nations began working with the Benghazi factions in an effort to create a semi-autonomous region that would be more…cooperative.

It would be going too far to say that western meddling caused the virtual division of the country into two almost independent states; it is very possible that no government would have been able to hold it together after 42 years of brutal repression by Qaddafi. There can be no doubt that Franco-British efforts accelerated the process of disintegration, however. Into the ensuing disorder swarmed the jihadists, seeking out the comfortable power vacuum and their share of the profits from the largest oil reserves in Africa. A ready-made excuse for intervention; and with 6,000 “advisors” keeping an eye on things and establishing deep links with the Libyan military, the new unified government is far more likely to draw the appropriate conclusions.

The only question seems to be how soon before the Marines are sent back “to the shores of Tripoli?” Either because the British and Italian force proves insufficient to deal with the jihadist threat or because they prove all too capable and Conoco Phillips comes crying to protect their investments, it seems likely that American troops will be involved sooner or later. The American people will not be consulted; Congress will undoubtedly roll over, as it always does when presented with the need to fight terror anywhere and everywhere. There is little hope for this sordid tale to end well for anyone, especially the Libyans, but hey: at least we averted that humanitarian disaster.

This report prepared by FERNANDO BETANCOR  for openDemocracy.