A bloody battle for control of the Libyan capital of Tripoli is currently being fought out between the forces of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, and those commanded by rival warlord ‘Field Marshal’ Khalifa Belqasim Haftar.
The battle has already claimed in excess of 278 lives and at least 35,000 people have been uprooted from their homes since Haftar’s offensive began in April.
To understand what this battle is about, and why it is grabbing the headlines now, it is necessary to take a break from the corporate media’s default analysis (‘it’s all a dreadful mess which the long-suffering international community is lumbered with trying to sort out’) and remind ourselves how Libya really came to this pass.
For over 40 years Libya pursued an independent and progressive path of development, spending its oil revenues on bettering the lives of its people and lending fraternal support to anti-imperialist struggles all over the world.
Under the leadership of Muammar Gaddafi, the Green Revolution raised the living standards of the masses, earning the country the envy of its neighbours in Africa and the middle east and the undying hatred of imperialism and its lackeys.
The vengeance unleashed on the country by Nato bombers over a period of months in 2011 brought over four decades of progress to an abrupt end, drowning the revolution in blood, murdering its leader and reversing years of development. When Nato was done, Libya was left to the tender mercies of rival tribal warlords squabbling for control of Libya’s oil revenues.
Since then, the west has had only two concerns: how to contain the resultant hellish chaos within Libyan borders (a forlorn hope as desperate migrants seek to escape thence to Europe), and how to arrange matters so that there is at least enough political stability to enable the west’s unimpeded looting of Libya’s oil revenues.
Opinions differ on how best this latter end might be achieved. Some favour attempting to shore up a stooge regime in Tripoli capable of stabilising the whole country; others have prescribed a stiff dose of balkanisation to render the country weak, divided and biddable.
The military conflict playing out in Libya has been pushed into the headlines now because developments on the battlefield are serving to focus attention on just how muddled, confused and divided the imperialist camp is over how best to skin the Libyan cat.
Pompeo versus Trump
When Haftar began his advance on Tripoli, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo was unequivocal, asserting that “the administration at the highest levels” had declared that “we oppose the military offensive” and urged “the immediate halt to these military operations”.
This seemed to chime with the accepted narrative: that the revolt against the UN-backed GNA ran counter to the clearly expressed will of the ‘international community’. So far, so uncontroversial. But then US president Donald Trump picked up the phone to Haftar and flatly contradicted Pompeo.
Reporting on the call, a White House statement noted: “The president recognised Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” (Trump endorses an aspiring Libyan strongman, reversing policy by David D Kirkpatrick, New York Times, 19 April 2019)
It would seem that the 20 years Haftar spent in Langley, Virginia as a CIA asset before returning to Libya to assist in the counter-revolution weighed more in the scales than the tut-tutting hypocrisy of the international community.
This cannot have gone down well with the new United Nations chief Antonio Guterres, especially given the fact that his recent visit to Tripoli coincided with Haftar’s assault on the airport.
Squabbling over Libya’s oil
Trump unblushingly asserts as his primary goal “securing [ie, stealing] Libya’s oil reserves”. Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa. France, which has also come out in support of Haftar, is more circumspect, but has the self-same goal – a fact which Italy (supporting the GNA) is eager to point out.
When France blocked a European Union statement calling on Haftar to stop his offensive, Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, declared: “In Libya, France has no interest in stabilising the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy.”
In earlier remarks, Salvini said: “My fear is that someone, for economic motives and selfish national interest, is putting the security of north Africa and, as a result, of Europe as a whole [at risk].” (France and Italy fighting over Libyan oil: Is this why they killed Gaddafi? by Tatenda Gwaambuka, Africa Exponent, 9 February 2019)
Western oil companies led by British energy trader Vitol, based in Geneva, supplied the jihadis as part of the French and British effort to bring down Gaddafi in 2011. Now, one presumes, France’s oil monopoly Total is rooting for Haftar whilst Italy’s Eni, with a controlling stake in BP’s Libyan assets, must be praying for the health and welfare of Fayez al-Sarraj.
Below the surface of the Libyan civil war another economic war is erupting within the EU.
Meanwhile, whilst Trump puts two fingers up to the UN and the EU is torn apart by interimperialist rivalries, both the GNA and Haftar rely on the ready supply of half-starved mercenaries from the myriad militias that inherit the tragic ruins of what once was a prosperous and progressive society.
There are around 6,000 migrants being held in Libyan detention camps, about half of whom are in war zones. The camps are run by local militias and serve as recruiting grounds for the war. Detainees are either directly press-ganged into GNA forces or join voluntarily on the promise of one meal a day.
It is uncertain what the US and France expect Haftar to deliver. If the hope is that he can hold Tripoli and unify the country as a whole, providing a stable environment for imperialist profit-taking, this will be a tall order, given the descent into tribal factionalism.
Or the idea may be to recreate the ancient Cyrenaica as a secessionist statelet, giving the west unhindered command of the eastern oil fields. The latter option was dreamed about by FT blogger Nick Butler back in 2014.
“Libya’s eastern province is now semi-autonomous. The government in Tripoli has lost control. It would be an exaggeration to say that there is a fully functioning administration in Benghazi but power has shifted.
“This is important for the oil industry and the oil market. Much of Libya’s oil wealth lies in the southeast of the country and the pipeline routes along with some of the main ports on the Mediterranean coast are no longer under Tripoli’s control.
“The self-proclaimed autonomous government of Cyrenaica – the name of what was once first a Greek and then a Roman province – holds effective power …
“Recognising and dealing with the government of Cyrenaica could help to produce an effective administration. The region can probably produce and export, depending on the state of the fields and infrastructure, 1.5m of barrels of oil, most of which has been off the market since the conflict began …
“Access to the resource base of south and the ports of the north would make Cyrenaica more viable economically than many states across Africa.” (Is it time for the west to recognise Cyrenaica? by Nick Butler, 26 January 2014)
But no matter which way imperialism twists and turns in its desperation to carve up and plunder a way out of the chaos it has itself created in Libya, it will only end up tearing itself apart, revealing the degenerate chaos of its own system and preparing the ground for future resistance struggles.