A recent op-ed contribution in Forbes by two American Libya experts (Ethan Chorin and Dirk Vandewalle) in Forbes has caused some stir on social media. We thought it worthwhile to explore what was said.
The authors suggest that Libya should be atop the agenda at the upcoming NATO Summit in London, since “what happens next in Libya is immediately relevant to core NATO interests including combating terrorism, addressing Europe’s migrant crisis, curbing Russian opportunism in the Middle East and assuring the long-term viability of the Alliance itself.”
The authors recall that in the 2011 overthrow of Ghaddafi, in which NATO intervened, “many hoped that Libya would be a bright spot among the Arab revolutions.” However, the US’ and NATO’s “hands-off approach” only “encouraged states like Turkey and Qatar” to influence the democratic process in favour of Islamists, which, when Libyans became aware of this, were “powerless to stop it”.
The authors point out that it was Haftar and the LNA who, “through a bloody war of attrition freed Benghazi from the ISIS-Al Qaeda grip in 2016”. Haftar created the LNA to fight ISIS in 2016. Although, they claim, this was “popular within large parts of Libya, the international community has spurned Haftar as yet another authoritarian strongman and backed a UN-built political agreement, which arbitrarily took authority from an elected government and put it the hands of an unelected and still unratified body, hoping it would rubber-stamp Western air attacks on the emergent Libyan franchise of the Islamic State, and solve the migrant issue.”. The authors go on to claim that, “It did neither: US strikes were largely ineffective, and the refugee crisis eased only when Italy paid human traffickers… to keep migrants in Libya under appalling conditions.”
Haftar’s efforts have since shifted from Benghazi to Tripoli. It is here, the authors point out, that the international community, even within NATO, has become divided and inconsistent. Thus, France is seen as backing Haftar, along with most Arab states, especially Egypt and the Gulf. The EU, especially Italy, Turkey and Qatar back the GNA, while the UN continues to call for a ceasefire. And of course, although the US officially backs the GNA, there have been more than a few signs it is considering a policy shift. Within this mess, Russia is exploiting the vacuum to advance its own goals, sending mercenaries to back Haftar while maintaining contacts with Tripoli.
The authors claim that it was Haftar who did “NATO’s dirty work” in dealing with the various militias, although “few are willing to state the obvious”. Thus, if Haftar ends up taking control, many will assume he had the West’s backing, and NATO and the West will have limited leverage. Haftar, they suggest, has done his job to bring order to a chaotic Libya, but most Libyans do not want another strongman in charge. Haftar himself has been less clear over what he plans to do next, even if he insists on handing off power to a civilian government. The West should hold Haftar to this promise.
The authors call for NATO to take advantage of the current opportunity to intervene in Libya, in order to bring stability, address the migrant crisis, deal with terrorism and block Russia’s expansionist efforts. This is crucial given Libya’s geostrategic importance to NATO. They can do this by: