Third week of February marked 6th anniversary of ‘popular’ up-rising in Libya that ultimately led to the overthrow of Gaddafi regime. Thanks to NATO’s intervention and the chaos it left behind, today’s Libya lies in ruins, over-run by a multitude of militias and the self-styled Islamic State. While NATO intervention itself was a drastic failure, as we had previously reported, its aftermath has turned out to be even more devastating, forcing the country to descend into utter chaos. What was previously a reasonably stable Libya is today a picture of extreme debilitation where power cuts are routine, water shortage is acute, inflation rate is sky high and a liquidity crisis is looming large. Not to forget that the country does not have a central government and is being run by a militia whose authority and legitimacy is openly challenged by rival factions.
Could there be a better context for the world’s most ruthless and powerful terror organization, ISIS, to grow and establish control over large swaths of the oil rich country? ISIS emerged in Iraq when the country was in shatters after the US forces had withdrawn in 2008-09. Today, ISIS has emerged in Libya when its condition is no different from that of Iraq. This is not a coincidence; for, this is how Western interventionism works and creates chaos in countries that don’t subscribe to its imperialist agendas.
Peace in the country, a prerequisite for which is the establishment of a unitary and centralized government, is still far from the stage of materialization. Rival factions, although they have agreed to engage in dialogue to establish a unitary government, continue to hold mutually differing conceptions with regard to the system that should be implemented. What adds to the problem is that these rival parties do not have control over the whole of Libya. Large swaths of territory remain under Daesh’s control, which in turn is using the country to establish itself in parts of Africa and Europe as well.
According to some reports, IS has an affiliate in sub-Saharan Africa, with the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram pledging allegiance to the ‘caliphate’ in March 2015. In Libya, IS goes by the name Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam (MSSI) — or the Shura Council of Muslim Youth. Established in western Libya back April 2014, it took the oath to al-Baghdadi in June, and one year later boasted of 800 fighters.
Interestingly enough, a sizeable chunk of these fighters was previously fighting in the Middle East in the Syrian and Iraqi cities of Deir and Mosul respectively and then returned home, a year ago, to pay service to the jihadi project in their own country. They have indeed be joined by a large number of fighters from other countries such as Yemen and Tunisia, who are also veterans of the wars in Iraq and Syria.
Development of IS in Libya shows a remarkable similarity to the development of the group in Iraq. Much like Iraq, where ex-officers in Saddam’s army sided with the jihadis after their president’s fall in 2003, Gaddafi’s former supporters, who had gone underground after their leader’s death in October 2011, are now fighting for IS and are providing crucial support links to the group’s “jihad” in Libya where it has already reported to have established some Vilayet, Arabic term that signifies an administrative region. Libya, as such, is now an administrative division of the Islamic State Caliphate, which has its ‘capitals’ in Iraq and Syria.
Enters Trump in Libya
With such a devastating scenario prevailing in Libya, there remains little for the Libyans to celebrate the up-rising, especially when a new era of external interventions and wars is appearing on the horizon.
Although supportive of the Libyan intervention back in 2011, Donald Trump now says he considers it one of the worst foreign policy failures of Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In Libya, General Haftar has welcomed Trump’s election, hoping to do business with the new US president. For his part, Trump has promised to strike at ISIS across the world and might find a natural ally in the 75-year-old Libyan strongman, who controls the entire east of Libya, where a quarter of the population lives, and enjoys the backing of Egypt and UAE.
While we are yet to see even the early signs of co-operation between Haftar and Trump, some reports have certainly indicated that Egyptian president has been pressing Washington to switch its support to General Haftar. And, according to these reports, members of the Trump team have started discussing the Haftar option. An American official in Brussels commented: “The Trump people may well think Libya would be a less sensitive theatre to cooperate with the Russians on counter-terrorism than Syria: the common conception is that Libya is a mess – we have Daesh [Isis] running around there and if this guy Haftar is being effective, then maybe he is the man.”
The reference to Russia is meaningful in that NATO is running short on budget and its member countries from Europe are certainly not fulfilling their financial commitments as pointed by Mattis in his latest speech to the alliance. In addition, EU has failed in its past attempts to bring the General round to al-Sarraj’s General National Council, and the offer that promised him retaining military command while accepting the civilian administration.
Therefore, the big question is how and whether the Trump administration would co-operate with Russia in Libya, which, as the above quoted official says, is a ‘less sensitive theatre’ than Syria. NATO created a mess and then left the countries in ruin, leaving whatever credibility it had in ruins. The same mistake must not be repeated to avoid further chaos.
The Libyan Army retook Sirte from ISIS last December, and hopes to repeat the task elsewhere, with aid from Libya’s external friends i.e., the US and Russia. Until that happens, the country will remain a failed state on every single level of governance, providing groups like ISIS to regain strength and find in the Libyan youth a huge stock to recruit from.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.