Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Bernardino Léon. Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Bernardino Léon. Photo: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

After imposing a ‘unity’ government in Libya, Western powers have signalled they are waiting for the call for more intervention, which could mean more war 

Last week the scheming that passes for a Western Libya policy descended into complete farce when the UN’s ‘unity’ candidate for prime minister, Fayez al Sarraj, was sailed from exile in Tunisia to Libya’s capital Tripoli to stake his claim to rule. But it was a shambles that may well lead to more war.

The trip didn’t go well from the start. Sarraj had to take the boat because the authorities in Tripoli had closed the airport to try and stop him getting in. On arrival he couldn’t get beyond the port area because of hostile road blocks in the city. Hours after his arrival, armed gunmen stormed one of the main TV stations and rounded up all the journalists and staff. Many reports suggested the attack was carried out by Sarraj supporters. Whatever the truth of this claim, Sarraj is now holed up in a naval base near the port, protected by unidentified militia groups.

Chaos made in the West

This shambles should have been predicted. Libya has been in chaos ever since the British and French-led military intervention to oust Gaddafi in 2011. Up to now there have been two competing centres of power in the country, each with their own militias. The Islamist-dominated general national congress in Tripoli and a house of representatives based at the other end of the country in Tobruk which the UN recognised last year as a democratically elected authority. Both leaderships are fighting local battles of their own.

Unable to force an agreement between the two sides, at the end of last year the UN changed tack, sidelined its Tobruk allies and cobbled together a ‘government of national accord’ handpicking Fayez al Sarraj as its leader. The signing ceremony took place in Skhirat, Morocco, because Libya itself would have been too dangerous.

Both the existing governments rejected Sarraj and the process that anointed him. The attempt to impose him last week has actually created a rare moment of unity between the warring groups in opposition to the West’s plans.

All eyes on the oil

The Western powers went ahead despite this opposition. They are desperate to end Libya’s civil war for two reasons. First, they are keen to combat the country’s launch pad status for refugees fleeing to Europe. Second, they are desperate to challenge the rapid spread of Isis, which is now threatening to further disrupt oil flows. Islamic state militias have been exploiting the chaos in the country and increasing influence and organisation particularly in the east of the country. As long ago as December last year, French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Isis territory now stretched along 240 kilometres of Libya’s coast and deep into the Sirte basin oilfields.

Sarraj appears to have no particular credentials to rule the country apart from short spells in the housing ministry of Muammar Gaddafi. His value to the UN is that he is pro-business and pro-West. Most importantly he supports Western intervention, something that the leadership of both the existing parliaments oppose. When the new administration was launched its spokespeople were clear that it would be likely to ask for Western logistics support, training and airstrikes against Isis.

Waiting for the call

Right on cue, Western governments have not just welcomed the attempted imposition of Sarraj’s government but signalled they are waiting for the call to intervene. Phillip Hammond said the UK would ‘stand ready to respond positively to requests for support and assistance’ from Sarraj. France pledged ‘total support’ and US Secretary of state John Kerry has sent greetings. To make things crystal clear, Martin Kobler, UN envoy to Libya, confirmed ‘the international community stands firmly behind them and is ready to provide the required support and assistance’.

The Western powers are taking a big gamble. They hope to be able to buy co-operation by linking acceptance of their government with an end to the drastic sanctions the West has imposed. International recognition will give Sarraj control of Libya’s oil revenues and access to $109 billion in overseas assets.

But the risk is that the arrival of the ‘unity’ government may well be accompanied by long-discussed Western military escalation. The British government has repeatedly hinted of plans to send 1,000 troops to Libya, and we were treated last weekend with new calls to ‘get tough’ in Libya from Tony Blair. Last week, the Daily Telegraph revealed that because these troops would be sent in an advisory and training capacity, hawks believe no debate would be necessary in parliament. The anti-war movement needs to be prepared.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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