Libya Remains A Bloody Mess


Zack Beauchamp passes along this map from Thomas van Linge, which illustrates the chaotic state of the country as of mid-December:

Libya is divided into two main chunks, but there are many smaller tribal, Islamist, and militia players that complicate the war even further. And it’s been bloody: a December UN report said hundreds of civilians have died since Libya Dawn swept the west in August. The UN claims that it has gotten the warring factions to agree to a peace conference “in principle.” Hopefully, that principle will translate to reality — and fast.

Sunday witnessed the first airstrikes on Misrata—Libya’s third-largest city—in the civil war that has raged since Moammar Qaddafi was deposed three years ago:

Jets under the control of General Khalifa Heftar, a militia commander who was a central figure in Libya’s revolution, fired missiles on Sunday morning at the city’s international airport, just half an hour before a Turkish Airlines flight was due to leave for Istanbul. There were no reports of casualties. The Libyan Air Force jets went on to attack the country’s largest steel plant and an air force academy near the airport, which are under the control of Islamist forces. …

Sunday’s air strikes were in apparent revenge for Christmas Day attacks on Libya’s largest oil terminal at Sidra and on the city of Sirte, in which Islamist militiamen firing rocket-propelled grenades from speedboats killed 22 government soldiers. There were further skirmishes in Sidra on Sunday, in which two Libya Dawn foot soldiers were killed, according to a security official in the port.

Fighting between pro-government and Islamist rebel forces is also ongoing in other parts of the country:

At the same time, recent fighting in the neighbouring Nafusa mountains has left 170 people dead. In addition to the casualties, the fighting has also caused a humanitarian crisis with at least 120,000 people forced to flee their homes, resulting in consequent shortages in both food and medical supplies. Meanwhile, in the eastern city of Benghazi, an uptick in violence has seen 450 people killed since October as residents continue to face shortages in medical care. Moreover, upwards of 15,000 families – some 90,000 people – have been displaced.

Yglesias Award Nominee

“The reasons for rethinking the intervention go beyond Libya itself. I had placed a great deal of emphasis on the demonstration effects of an intervention. My hope had been that the intervention would act to restrain other autocrats from unleashing deadly force against protesters and encourage wavering activists to push forward in their demands for change. Unfortunately, this only partially panned out and had unintended negative effects. U.S. cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council states in Libya compelled it to turn a blind eye to the simultaneous crushing of Bahrain’s uprising.

The worst effects were on Syria. The Libya intervention may have imposed a certain level of caution on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, leading him to search for just the right level of repression to stay beneath the threshold for international action. But that didn’t last for long and his violence quickly escalated,” – Marc Lynch, in a bracing reflection on his misjudgments in the fast-moving era of the Arab Spring.

I await the other advocates of the Libya debacle to approach this kind of intellectual honesty. Larison, meanwhile, notes that

the demonstration effect and deterring-dictators arguments never made much sense, as I said many times back in 2011.

What I found the most troubling was the argument that such a major move, with unforeseeable consequences, was justified urgently to avoid a potential massacre. In other words, a humanitarian emergency was used to brush away all the usual weighing of the pros and cons of such a grave decision as to go to war. Which, to my mind, only underlines the necessity of restoring the Congress’s full control of war powers.

The Battle For Benghazi Heats Up


Yesterday, two Egyptian officials claimed that Cairo was taking on an active role in the Libyan civil war, and that Egyptian warplanes had carried out airstrikes against Islamist militias in Benghazi:

The two officials, who have firsthand knowledge of the operation, said the use of the aircraft was part of an Egyptian-led campaign against the militiamen that will eventually involve Libyan ground troops recently trained by Egyptian forces. The operation, they said, was requested by the internationally recognized Libyan administration based in the eastern city of Tobruk. That elected administration was thrown out of the capital, Tripoli, by rival militias allied with Islamic political factions. “This is a battle for Egypt not Libya,” one of the senior officials said. “Egypt was the first country in the region to warn against terrorism and it is also the first to fight it.”

Egypt officially denied the claim. Mohamed Eljarh puts the news in context, noting that fresh fighting broke out in Benghazi just yesterday:

The clashes started a few hours after a televised statement by ex-general Khalifa Haftar in which he vowed to capture the city from a coalition of Islamist groups called The Benghazi Shura Revolutionaries Council, which is dominated by the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia. Both sides are deploying artillery and other heavy weapons in the fighting. …

The city of Benghazi, Libya’s second largest, has endured a two-year assassination campaign targeting army and police personnel as well as judges, journalists, and civilian activists. Many Libyans blame the attacks on extremist Islamist groups. The Libyan authorities have been unable to establish control in the city and its people have become correspondingly disillusioned with government institutions. Last May, General Haftar decided to seize the initiative by deploying units of the National Army in a military offensive against the militias in the city. His efforts have met with widespread support across the country.

Alaa al-Ameri predicts that Egypt’s intervention will backfire:

Egypt’s intervention in Benghazi allows Libya’s Islamists, who had hijacked Libyans’ hard-won chance at democracy at every turn, to point to the House of Representatives’ allegiance with Sisi as proof that the Islamists are the true defenders of the Libyan revolution. Their patrons in the region, most notably Qatar, can now support them more readily than when Libya’s troubles appeared to be purely internal, thereby adding more fuel to the fire and threatening a much wider regional spillover. Although Qatar has made a public show of easing back on its regional sponsorship of Islamists, it seems unlikely that it will completely abandon its allies in Libya, whom it has supported with weapons and money since the beginning of the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in early 2011.

Frederic Wehrey notes that Libya currently has no single, legitimate governing authority:

There are now two governments in Libya. One is in the eastern city of Tobruk, backed by the rump of the elected parliament, the House of Representatives (HOR). The other, based in the capital, Tripoli, has taken de facto control over ministries, relying on a handful of former members of the HOR’s predecessor, the General National Congress (GNC), to provide a veneer of legitimacy. Each is associated with a coalition of militia forces: those supporting the rump parliament have dubbed themselves Operation Dignity; those opposing it go by Operation Dawn. And each is flush with cash, heavy weaponry, and support from outside powers — Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have backed Dignity, while Qatar, Sudan, and Turkey are purported to be backing Dawn. Contrary to some commentary, both sides have used force against civilians and elected institutions, and both show little sign of compromise.

Mary Fitzgerald explores the complexities of the divided country and how the fighting has affected ordinary Libyans:

The militias’ fighting this summer left Tripoli scarred: The international airport is a burned-out shell, and scores of homes lie ruined in the worst-hit neighborhoods. But elsewhere in the capital, life goes on — families flock to the beach or busy cafes, and traffic snarls in the usual gridlock. There is little overt militia presence, apart from outside certain ministries and the area around the destroyed airport.

The Dawn camp knows it needs to get the people on its side. Its effort is hindered, however, by lingering memories of the killing of more than 40 demonstrators by Misratan militiamen last year. “All these militias are as bad as the other, no matter who they claim to represent,” says one shop owner who shuttered his business for weeks in July and August. “Most Libyans want to see the end of all of them.”

(Photo: A vehicle drives in a deserted road as smoke billows during clashes between soldiers and Islamists who control Benghazi, the country’s second biggest city, on October 15, 2014. By STR/AFP/Getty Images)

A Grim Update From Libya

Sign of clashes near 27th Bridge of Tripoli

The situation is increasingly chaotic:

Leaders of the Islamist militias that have been wreaking havoc across Libya have unleashed an army of loyal, unemployed, and mostly uneducated followers to carry out a campaign of intimidation.

They are threatening, kidnapping, and targeting the relatives of politicians and civil society activists. “Militia leaders are now using an army of young people who will carry out their orders without any questions,” said prominent activist Ahmed Ghedan, who had to flee Libya to Tunisia after he spoke out against the militias. These foot soldiers have been bribed into joining the militia-gang culture. For activists, dealing with this army of brainwashed criminals is much harder than dealing with the militia bosses, who are leading from behind. The new recruits are clueless about the intent and consequences of their actions, and their loyalty simply lies with those who pay their checks. Political groups with links to the militias are taking advantage of this chaos to take out their opponents one by one.

These same groups are also targeting journalists and activists, who have found their lives and livelihoods threatened in myriad ways. For example, their movement is being restricted, and they have been unable to travel around or out of the country, since airports are still under the control of the militias. Not only does this threaten their reporting ability – a blow to press freedom – but the detours require them to travel by land through areas in which they could be stopped, identified, and either prevented from traveling or kidnapped.

(Photo: Empty cases, sign of the clashes, are seen near 27th Bridge in Tripoli, Libya on September 24, 2014. By Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Libya Just Keeps Getting Worse, Ctd

by Dish Staff

Juan Cole finds the US response to yesterday’s revelation that Egypt and the UAE had carried out airstrikes in Libya pretty ironic:

According to the BBC, “the US, France, Germany, Italy and the UK issued a joint statement denouncing “outside interference” in Libya.” Seriously, guys? Except for Germany, these are the NATO countries that intervened in Libya in the first place, in large part at the insistence of an Arab League led by Egypt and the UAE! It is true that the UAE and Egypt don’t have a UN Security Council Resolution, which authorized NATO involvement (I supported the then no fly zone on those grounds). But the newly elected Libyan House of Representatives has openly called for international intervention against Libya’s out-of-control militias and it is entirely possible that the Libyan government asked, behind the scenes for these air strikes. In any case, “outside interference” isn’t the issue!

Claims that the airstrikes caught us unawares are also beyond belief:

“With as many Aegis-class ships as the U.S. Navy has in the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean, there is no possible way the UAE could pull this off without the U.S. knowing it,” said Christopher Harmer, a former Navy officer and an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War.

Harmer said that he had no information about U.S. involvement, “but the U.S. government knows who bombed what,” he said. Egypt and the UAE are highly motivated to strike out at Islamist fighters, whose gains in Libya are only the latest reminder that a new wave of religiously aligned political groups and militias threaten secular regimes and monarchies across the region. … Despite denials from the Egyptians and American claims that the United States knew nothing of the airstrikes, there’s no doubt that the UAE’s Air Force, which is newer and more advanced than Egypt’s, could attack Tripoli.

But Keating wonders if this isn’t a sign that the US is no longer running the regional security show in the Middle East:

Despite all the various ways that regional powers have sought to influence each other’s internal politics, the U.S. and Europe (and on a few occasions Israel) have largely had a monopoly on airstrikes and direct military intervention. With crises elsewhere taking up diplomatic attention, U.S. involvement in the worsening situation in Libya has been limited. It shouldn’t be too surprising that others have stepped in to fill the void. The New York Times, which originally reported on the strikes, puts them in the context of a larger proxy battle in the Middle East between Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia—which have sought to roll back the gains made by Islamist groups—and Turkey and Qatar, which have largely supported them. This battle will mostly be fought within the region’s most unstable countries, including Syria, Iraq, and Libya

Michael Brendan Dougherty, meanwhile, blames the chaos in Libya on the failures of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine advanced by Hillary Clinton:

In the most obvious form of moral hazard, this pernicious “R2P” norm lowers the price of civil war in the developing world, encouraging rebels to make provocative attacks, then lobby for Western air support when the local bad guy punishes them for it. Uncle Sam or NATO deploys resources in a civil war these rebel groups could never win with their own blood and treasure. They often fail to win even when they do get help. The expectation of Western air power has exacerbated and intensified conflicts in Serbia, the Sudan, Libya, and Syria. As an international norm, R2P adds nothing but a noble-sounding gloss on getting more people killed than usual.

Libya Just Keeps Getting Worse

by Dish Staff

Meanwhile, in Libya, the The NYT reports that Egypt and the UAE have secretly launched airstrikes on Islamist militias battling for control of Tripoli:

Since the military ouster of the Islamist president in Egypt one year ago, the new Egyptian government, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have formed a bloc exerting influence in countries around the region to rollback what they see as a competing threat from Islamists. Arrayed against them are the Islamist movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by friendly governments in Turkey and Qatar, that sprang forward amid the Arab spring revolts. Libya is the latest, and hottest, battleground.

Several officials said that United States diplomats were fuming about the airstrikes, believing they could further inflame the Libyan conflict at a time when the United Nations and Western powers are seeking a peaceful resolution. “We don’t see this as constructive at all,” said one senior American official. … The strikes have also proved counterproductive so-far: the Islamist militias fighting for control of Tripoli successfully seized its airport the night after they were hit with the second round of strikes.

As the above image shows, the capital’s airport has been almost completely destroyed in fighting between the Misratan and Zintani militias. Ishaan Tharoor flags the recently released footage of a “public execution” by an Islamist militia, which further illustrates how the already tenuous security situation is deteriorating:

In the footage, which is available on YouTube, masked gunmen waving black flags bring a blindfolded Egyptian man identified as Mohammad Ahmad Mohammad onto the field in a pick-up truck. He is eventually shot in the head by a person dressed in civilian clothes, believed to be the brother of a man Mohammad is said to have killed. The murder is one of the starkest instances yet of Islamist groups enacting sharia law in the country. (Since Gaddafi’s fall, Salafists have also set about attacking the shrines of Sufi saints.) “This unlawful killing realizes the greatest fears of ordinary Libyans, who in parts of the country find themselves caught between ruthless armed groups and a failed state,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, the organization’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director, in Amnesty’s press release.

Siddhartha Mahanta warned last week that the country was rapidly falling apart:

[F]ighting has only grown more intense over the summer, raising questions about whether Libya is on the fast track to civil war — or already in one. On Monday, planes of initially unknown origin conducted airstrikes on Islamist targets in Tripoli. Then, in the early hours of Tuesday, unidentified militants shelled an affluent section of Tripoli with Grad rockets, killing three. And, yes, that’s the same kind of artillery Russia has been accused of firing across the Ukrainian border. Who fired the Grad rockets remains a mystery, but eventually Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a onetime Qaddafi loyalist turned revolutionary and now a hardened anti-Islamist fighter, took credit for the airstrikes. Haftar said it’s part of his broader campaign for control of the city and airport, though there’s still some question as to whether Libyan planes could have been in any shape to conduct the strikes.

Not for the first time, Larison attributes this chaos to our “successful” intervention there in 2011:

While it is possible that Libya would still be suffering from internal conflicts in the absence of outside intervention in 2011, it is far more likely that aiding in the destruction of the old regime condemned Libya and its neighbors to the destabilizing and destructive effects of armed conflict for an even longer period of time. It was not an accident that Libya’s immediate neighbors were among the least supportive of the U.S.-led war, since they were always going to be the ones to experience the war’s harmful effects. Unfortunately for the civilian population in Libya, they will be living with the dangerous consequences of that “humanitarian” intervention for years and perhaps even decades to come. Considering that the war was justified entirely in the name of protecting civilians from violence, it has to be judged one of the most conspicuous failures and blunders of U.S. policy in the last decade. The desire to “help” Libyans with military action has directly contributed to the wrecking of their country. The lesson from all this that the U.S. and its allies shouldn’t be forcibly overthrowing foreign governments is an obvious one, and one that I am confident that all relevant policymakers in Washington will be sure to ignore.

Who (Or What) To Blame For Libya?

Libyan Rebels Sieze Control Of Tripoli From Gaddafi Forces

Christopher Stephen paints a picture of a country where deeply entrenched corruption and factionalism have rendered good governance impossible and fueled the pseudo-civil war tearing the country apart today:

With the economy moribund, the only growth industry has been militias. In all some 168,000 members have registered at the government’s Warriors Affairs Commission, which was set up to take control of the various militia brigades—but that’s at least four times the number of militia members who actually fought in the civil war. Now they’re all getting state pay packets. “I don’t care about Islamism, but they pay me 1200 dinars [about $800] a month to guard the base twice a week,” said Hassan, a Benghazi teenager employed by the city’s Islamist Libya Shield brigade.

Today all those victorious militias are at war with each other. The militias from Misrata, a city 120 miles east of the capital, and Zintan, a mountain town 90 miles south west, did the hardest fighting of the revolution, surging into Tripoli together to liberate it in August 2011. Their units never left, and since then the Misratans and Zintanis have increasingly fallen out as claimants to the spoils. … In the confrontational atmosphere in congress, the political parties began funding militias that were sympathetic to them, rather than dissolving them as parliament was supposed to do. Misrata and Zintan, the two most powerful militia groupings, broke along the political divide — Misrata for the Islamists, Zintan for the nationalists.

Peter Dörrie names Khalifa Haftar, the former general with previous links to the CIA who now leads a coalition of Zintani fighters and other nationalist militias, as the primary instigator of the ongoing conflict:

Publicly, Haftar claims to fight against Islamist militias for a secular Libya, but his political ambitions are obvious.

It’s especially telling that his moves against the fledgling government of Libya occurred just as the new regime was trying to enforce a law banning functionaries from the Gaddafi era from public office. Haftar would be subject to this law, as would be many leaders of the armed groups he is allied with.

The fighting Haftar instigated meanwhile has spiraled out of control. Militias are battling for the international airport in Tripoli. An important fuel depot has caught fire after being hit by a rocket. Embassies in the city have evacuated. In Benghazi, Islamist and secular forces openly are fighting. Haftar largely is responsible. His ambitions already have inflicted great damage on the transitional process in Libya. What remains unclear is how close his connection remains to U.S. intelligence services. In interviews he says that he is in “indirect contact” with the U.S. government.

From Hisham Matar’s perspective, Qaddafi’s legacy still resonates loudly:

To understand today’s events, one must remember what life was like under Qaddafi. The state was designed around an individual and his family; it resembled more a Mafia than a political structure. And so ending the dictatorship meant ending the state. Without a fully functioning national army and police force, and other state institutions, building an accountable and democratic government is going to be immensely hard. Contributing to this is the legacy of Qaddafi’s oppression of dissent. Modern Libya is sixty-five years old, dating from 1951. For almost two-thirds of that time, it was ruled by one voice. In light of this history, creating a political atmosphere that permits and encourages difference and plurality will be difficult.

Meanwhile, Larison catches Max Boot spinning our intervention in Libya as another example of Obama’s “weak” foreign policy. In Boot’s revisionist retelling, the instability in Libya today is Obama’s fault for refusing to deploy a peacekeeping force on the ground or pour more resources into training Libyan security forces – in other words, because he didn’t do exactly what interventionists said we wouldn’t have to do:

Indeed, it was an essential part of the argument that American interventionists made at the start of the war: there would be no U.S. ground forces deployed to Libya to fight, nor would there be any deployed to a post-Gaddafi Libya. Interventionists don’t get to have the domestic political advantages of avoiding a prolonged occupation while disavowing the consequences of the regime change they supported. Libya is in chaos in large part because outside forces aided anti-regime rebels in destroying the existing government, and the governments that intervened are at least partly responsible for what they have wrought. It doesn’t follow from this that the solution for Libya was or is to increase the involvement of outside governments in misguided efforts to stabilize the country. Having seen what a “serious program” to train local forces produced in Iraq, it is far from obvious that a more concerted effort by the U.S. to train Libyan government forces would have changed much of anything for the better.

Recent Dish on Libya’s crisis here.

(Photo: A mosaic of Gaddafi is seen on the wall of a building, riddled with bullet holes, on August 29, 2011 in Tripoli, Libya. By Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images))

The Fruits Of Liberal Intervention, Ctd

Frederic Wehrey cautions against buying into the conventional wisdom about what’s going down in Libya:

Outside observers are often tempted toward a one-dimensional reading of Libya’s turmoil. It is easy to trace Libya’s breakdown as a political struggle between Islamists and liberals: The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party and more rejectionist, jihadi factions like Ansar al-Sharia versus the “liberals” under the National Forces Alliance (NFA). Another level of conflict seems to be regional: A contest between the towns of Zintan and Misrata for economic power and political leverage in Tripoli, or amongst federalists and their opponents in the long-marginalized east. Yet an additional layer is between remnants of the old order – ex-security men, long-serving and retired officers, former Gaddafi-era technocrats – and a newer, younger cadre of self-proclaimed “revolutionaries,” often Islamists, who were either exiled and/or imprisoned during the dictator’s rule.

Elements of all these dimensions are at play, but none of them alone has sufficient explanatory power. At its core, Libya’s violence is an intensely local affair, stemming from deeply entrenched patronage networks battling for economic resources and political power in a state afflicted by a gaping institutional vacuum and the absence of a central arbiter with a preponderance of force. There is not one faction strong enough to coerce or compel the others.

Meanwhile, Friedersdorf lays into the hawks who supported our role in overthrowing Qaddafi:

When Ivo H. Daalder and James G. Stavridis declare that the cost of intervening in Libya was “$1.1 billion for the U.S. and several billion dollars overall,” I can’t help but think that GiveWell estimates that one of the most efficient mosquito-net charities saves a life for every $3,400 that it spends. That’s 882,352 lives saved for the cost of the Libya campaign. Given present conditions in Libya, how confident are we that the NATO-aided ouster of Qaddafi saved even half that many lives? Development aid is far from perfect, but my instinct is that it saves lives more reliably than wars of choice and virtually never results in violent blowback.

Most of all, I am struck by the willingness of prominent interventionists to have publicly declared their instincts in Libya vindicated when the country’s future remained very much in doubt, as if they couldn’t conceive of an intervention that would result in more lives lost than the alternative even as the possibility of that outcome was extremely plausible. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Washington, D.C. foreign-policy establishment seemed to perform no better at foreseeing how events would unfold than non-expert commentators who simply applied Murphy’s Law. At the very most charitable, the common interventionist claim that Libya vindicated them in their dispute with non-interventionists was wildly premature. Perhaps the lesson to take from the NATO campaign is that even the most thoughtful interventionists have no idea how geopolitical events will unfold.

The Fruits Of Liberal Interventionism

The US embassy in Libya was evacuated over the weekend:

The U.S. Embassy in Libya evacuated its personnel on Saturday because of heavy militia violence raging in the capital, Tripoli, the State Department said. About 150 personnel, including 80 U.S. Marines were evacuated from the embassy in the early hours of Saturday morning and were driven across the border into Tunisia, U.S. officials confirm to CNN.

Jamie Dettmer sees reason to believe the the embassy won’t be back to its usual operations anytime soon:

Classified documents, databases and sensitive equipment were either destroyed or taken along to Tunisia, which suggests that despite U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’ insistence that the closing of the embassy is only temporary, Libya could be without U.S. diplomatic representation for weeks and even months.

Freddie uses the upheaval in Libya to condemn liberals who supported the Libyan intervention:

When it comes to foreign policy, American political journalists and analysts fall into two camps: those who support every conceivable military operation imaginable, and those who take a kind of tick-tock approach to warmaking, being sure to balance their rejection of one conflict with the aggressive embrace of another, in order to prove how Very Serious they are in the village that is elite political media. A potential third alternative– a profoundly necessary alternative, given the last decade and a half of American failure– is a set of pundits and journalists who recognize that military intervention is almost always a disaster for both America and the people on whose behalf our military supposedly intervenes, and who therefore oppose military adventurism and aggressive foreign policy as a matter of principle. This third alternative essentially does not exist within connected, elite media. …

Libya is in chaos. Nothing was finished. Nothing was successful. The country is broken, utterly broken. The political apparatus is in shambles. Basic governance has failed. Militias vie for control. Ordinary citizens lack any control of their country and suffer without basic services. All of this was predictable. Some of us warned as much at the time. Like me!

Hayes Brown brings us the latest developments:

A massive oil complex in Libya was set ablaze this weekend due to a stray missile, with the resulting fire quickly raging out of control. The inferno serves as a perfect metaphor for a country in which militants and militias vie with the government for dominance in a system that hasn’t managed to rebuild after years of a dictator’s rule.

For more than two weeks now, rival militias have struggled for control of Tripoli International Airport in Libya’s capital. It was in the midst of that fighting that a tanker containing more than six million liters of petroleum caught fire when a missile one of the groups launched hit it directly, according to Libya’s state-owned National Oil Corporation (NOC). Making matters all the worse, the tanker is located near an area that “contains 90 million liters of fuel and cooking gas, hence there is a risk of a huge explosion should the fire spread,” the Wall Street Journal reports an oil official as saying.

Recent Dish on the battle for Libya’s airport here.