If the harrowing images – filmed on a phone and broadcast around the world – of Muammar Gaddafi’s extrajudicial execution in the streets of Libya in 2011 encapsulate just how poorly planned the British and French-backed operation to overthrow him was, then the prospect of redeployment to the country is not likely to fill anyone with confidence.
First, a catch-up.
In July 2012, elections were held to what became known as the General National Congress, the new legislative body which, it was agreed, would temporarily govern the country, replacing the de facto National Transitional Council which had ruled in the immediate aftermath of Gaddafi’s deposition. The GNC’s remit was to transition Libya to a functioning democratic state underwritten by a new constitution within an 18-month window.
However, when the stipulated deadline passed without the ratification of a new, democratic constitution, and it became clear both that state institutions were not developing and militias had not disarmed, the GNC was forced to hold snap elections to a House of Representatives, which took power from them in August 2014. Yet despite the House of Representatives being internationally recognised as the democratically elected official government of Libya, embittered members of the GNC – feeling unjustly toppled – created the National Salvation Government, and supported by a broad alliance of militia groups and supporters known collectively as Libya Dawn Coalition.
Whilst the Islamist-dominated GNC took back control of the capital, Tripoli, the House of Representatives fled to the Eastern city of Tobruk, over 1000miles away.
Both parties are supported by disparate armed factions, who, due to the reckless distribution of weaponry by Western forces eager to oust Gaddafi in 2011, now have abundant access to munitions. Moreover, even theoretically allied militias are fighting for control of territory. Add to this the bankrupted and crumbling institutions and infrastructure, along with the complex historical tribal and ethnic differences that exist, and it is easy to see why Libya has become a hotbed of bloody violence and terror.
And so, in 2015, the West’s patience ran out. Abandoning their allies in Tobruk, the UN proposed a new unity Government of National Accord, with Fayez al Sarraj, a Libyan exile living in Tunisia, as the new Prime Minister. Yet in a rare show of consensus, both the GNC and the House of Representatives rejected the imposition of the new unity government.
As a result, there are essentially three separate governments currently operating in Libya.
For the West, the current conditions in Libya are problematic for two reasons.
Firstly, the distance between Tripoli and the Italian island of Lampedusa is less than 300 kilometres. Given its proximity to the African mainland, the island has become notorious for being the first port of call for desperate migrants eager to forge a new life in Europe. Troubled by terror attacks on European soil, and perhaps also the fear of immigration that has bolstered far-right movements across the continent, regaining a modicum of control in Libya would, for Western governments, partially allay these fears.
Secondly, the rampant progress of Daesh in Libya. Russia’s involvement in the Levant has badly dented the group’s advances there, allowing Assad’s forces to retake symbolic and strategic sites such as Palmyra and Al Qaryatayn, and it is thought that Daesh are preparing Libya as a base from which to regroup in the event that they are driven out of Syria and Iraq. If this were to happen, exploiting the vast oil reserves in Libya would be essential for the groups’ survival.
Under Gaddafi, Libya’s oil was nationalized and regulated as part of the National Oil Corporation. Yet in return for British and French assistance in his removal from power, both Prime Minister Cameron and President Sarkozy pushed for preferable access for British and French oil companies to Libyan oil.
The French Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, recently suggested that Daesh are: “… starting to penetrate the interior (of Libya) and to be tempted by access to oil wells and reserves”. This statement reflects the fears – particularly prominent within the British and French governments – that the interests of domestic oil companies such as BP and TOTAL are under threat.
Ostensibly, the reason for Al-Sarraj’s appointment is his conciliatory temperament and the fact that he is not strongly aligned with either party vying for power in Libya.
Yet it is perhaps closer to the truth that, in return for the lifting of sanctions and unfreezing of Libyan assets, Al-Sarraj will ask the West for assistance in the campaign against Daesh, allowing them to protect their own interests in the country.
Might this mean airstrikes? Britain has become re-embroiled in Iraq all those years after the botched 2003 invasion.
All the signs point to history repeating itself, but this time with Libya.