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New war threats as foreign forces fight over Libya

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A battle for control is brewing across Libya. Nick Clark looks at the background to the powers’ interventions
Issue 2711
Ordinary people will be the ones to bear the brunt of a war
Ordinary people will be the ones to bear the brunt of a war (Pic: Ricardo Garcia Vilanova/ICRC)

Libya sits between two of the African countries worst hit by coronavirus, Egypt and Algeria.

It is in the sixth year of its second civil war in a decade. 

It is the place from which tens of thousands of refugees a year attempt a dangerous sea crossing to Europe. And it is the site of a modern-day slave trade that has grown off the back of their desperation.

But none of this is what’s driving competing international governments to argue over the future of Libya’s government.

Instead they’re threatening to plunge Libya into even deeper chaos as they fight over who gets to control its land, sea and fossil fuels.


In the past month two major military powers have come close to clashing over Libyan land.

Turkey—the country with the second largest military in the US-dominated Nato alliance—joined the Libyan civil war in January this year. 

Its advances in June prompted Egypt—another heavily armed US ally—to threaten to join in on the other side.

Each was backed up by more Nato allies—Italy for Turkey, and France and Greece for Egypt.

It’s a dangerous and often confusing situation. But at the root of it is simple capitalist competition that has torn apart the lives of millions of ordinary people.

When the Arab revolutions of 2010 and 2011 began to overthrow and threaten dictators—many of them US allies—Western states rushed to take control.

Countries that had courted L ibyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi for his oil—chief among them Britain—suddenly claimed to back democracy. 

They helped to turn the Libyan revolt into a civil war, backing their chosen militias with arms, funding and SAS soldiers.

After Gaddafi was overthrown and killed, Western states manufactured an interim government without the involvement of ordinary Libyans. 

It had no real support, but they hoped it would be loyal to Western governments and give them access to Libya’s oil.

Nevertheless, when the Libyan government broke down and civil war began again in 2014, those same states were quick to ditch it. 

The Government of National Accord (GNA), as it is now known, is officially backed by the United Nations security council. 

This includes Britain, the US, Russia and France. 

That hasn’t stopped any of them supporting, tacitly and openly, the GNA’s opponent Khalifa Haftar.

Haftar, a former Gaddafi general-turned CIA asset, controls most of Libya including oil fields where British and French fossil fuel firms BP and Total operate. 

He is also backed by other Western allies in the Middle East including Egypt, Israel and the UAE in a struggle for regional dominance against Turkey.

Egypt, Israel and Turkey are embroiled in a standoff over who gets access to gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, off the coast of Cyprus.

The battle isn’t just economic. 

Whoever controls the gas gets to dominate a strategically important area of the Middle East.


Israel, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus agreed to divide up the gas fields and cooperate in building a pipeline to transfer it to Europe. 

The deal deliberately excluded their shared rival Turkey.

So Turkey and Libya’s GNA agreed the rights to an area of the Mediterranean that block the plans for a pipeline. 

Turkey sent soldiers—including fighters it backed in the Syrian civil war—to fight against Haftar on behalf of the GNA.

With Turkey’s help, the GNA began to break out of its tiny enclave and push back Haftar. 

And that’s when Egypt threatened to join in the fight.

In this high stakes game, the biggest losers are always ordinary people.

Competing capitalist states have already torn up Libya once and thrown it into chaos. 

Now they’re doing it again.

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