The government wants to fight another war in Libya, and without going to parliament, writes Chris Nineham
‘A lot of Libyans think of it as a puppet government.’ So said Oliver Miles, former British ambassador to Libya on the BBC on Monday, about the new regime trying to establish itself in Libya.
The Libyans would be right. Fayez al Sarraj, so called ‘Prime Minister designate’ was shipped in on a Saudi warship from exile in Tunisia last month. Neither of the existing authorities in Libya, including the Tobruk House of Representatives which can claim some democratic mandate, backs Sarraj. He is still holed up with his team in a heavily guarded naval base on the edge of Tripoli because it is unsafe for him to travel in the country.
This week, the G5 powers met in Berlin partly to express support for Sarraj and to plan how best to impose his government on the Libyan people. The week before, British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond visited Libya to meet Sarraj and give what he describes as his ‘full support’.
The unseemly scramble to enforce the Sarraj government is driven by two main concerns. First, anxiety about advances made by Isis into key oil producing areas. US officials have expressed worry that Isis is using its occupation of the key port of Sirte to take over the oil and gas rich towns of Ras Lanuf and Sidra which would allow it strategic control of the whole Sirte Basin production area. Libya is the second most important gas producer in the world and the closest major oil producer to Europe.
The second main driver is the refugee crisis. The EU deal with Turkey is an attempt to close down refugee access to Europe via the eastern route. This, and the warmer weather, has increased the flow from the south over the Mediterranean crossing, with tragic results. Working in close co-ordination, the EU, Nato and the UN have been unrolling a military plan, Operation Sophia, to stem the flow and force the refugees back to Africa.
A UK government source said Operation Sophia ‘has achieved a lot in terms of bringing the numbers down. But one of the challenges is that it is only operating on the high seas.’ The problem is, in other words, that any push back of refugees would need a viable partner on the mainland.
This is where Sarraj comes in. Not only will he co-operate with the clampdown against refugees, crucially, Western leaders are confident he will invite Western military in to help. Nato is pushing for a 6,000-strong military force from Europe to go in. Plans have already been drawn up to send around 1,000 UK troops, ostensibly to train up a new Libyan army. But any foreign force of that size in a country riven by war is almost bound to get involved in combat.
The scepticism on the ground in Libya is learnt from bitter experience. Last time the Western powers organised an intervention in Libya in 2011, the no-fly zone and the resulting bombing raids were presented as an operation to head off a regime attack on Benghazi, the centre of opposition.
Benghazi was secured in a few days. What followed was five months of some of the most intensive bombing in history during which time 30-40,000 people died. The operation ended with the killing of President Ghaddafi in what independent observers reported was a Western orchestrated operation. Barely able to contain her excitement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented ‘We came, we saw, he died'.
As well as killing on an industrial scale, the bombardment devastated the country’s infrastructure and led directly to the country’s political fragmentation. It was these conditions that IS were able to exploit to establish control of important sections of the coastal strip.
The plans for Libya are the direct opposite of a humanitarian intervention. They want us to go to war against the refugees. We must not let them.
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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