Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2550

How the West wrecked Libya

This article is over 6 years, 7 months old
Libya in North Africa is being torn apart by a grinding civil war stoked by competing imperial powers. The horror there is a painful lesson in why military intervention should be opposed, writes Alistair Farrow
Issue 2550
The West’s intervention in Libya left hundreds of thousands of unexploded mines and unexploded weapononry bombs that had to cleared afterwards.  (Pic: United Nations/Flickr)

As Western rulers talk up the possibility of more intervention in Syria again, one of their last victims, Libya, is mired in chaos. Libya is being torn apart by a vicious war fought by generals and governments backed by rival imperial powers.

The US and Britain backed the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. David Cameron said at the time, “Our view is clear—there is no decent future for Libya with Colonel Gaddafi remaining in power.”

That “decent future”, which ordinary Libyans were excluded from planning, has left tens of thousands dead and 450,000 people internally displaced.

The Libyan coast has become the centre of the booming people-smuggling industry. A recent International Organization for Migration (IOM) report shows that people forced to stay in Libya are being tortured and auctioned off as slaves.

Women are sold into sexual slavery and their families bribed for ransom money.

The chaos that has engulfed the country since 2011 is concentrated in the refugee crisis which has unfolded on its shores (see box).

The IOM says that, as of March, so far this year 23,125 people have attempted to cross the central Mediterranean to Italy. Of these, 595 are known to have died—that’s an increase on the same period last year.

If that’s a “decent future”, we can only imagine what Cameron’s idea of a bleak future might look like.

But in truth Britain’s intervention had nothing to do with the lives of ordinary Libyans.


It was about stemming the revolutionary tide that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. Libyans rose up against dictator Gaddafi as part of that revolt. He responded by trying to crush the revolt with a brutal military crackdown. Different Western powers, including Britain and France, then backed intervention against him to defend their own interests.

In Britain Tory politicians such as Cameron, Liam Fox and William Hague revived the idea of “humanitarian intervention”. This was the same lie that Tony Blair used to justify invading Iraq in 2003.

Revolt and war in Syria five years on
Revolt and war in Syria five years on
  Read More

They claimed it was about protecting Libyans being slaughtered by Gaddafi’s forces. In reality it was about gaining access to Libya’s oil fields and attempting to install a regime friendly to the West.

A parliamentary report last year said Cameron’s intervention in Libya was “an opportunistic policy of regime change”.

It said he was responsible for “political and economic collapse, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of [Isis] in North Africa”.

The revolutionary process of the Arab Spring swept dictators from power, taking different courses in different states.

In Syria, a popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad has been drowned in blood. In Libya, the US and Britain cynically hijacked the revolt to topple the dictator Gaddafi.

The British state, the US and the EU are responsible for the chaos. And by cutting off migration routes they force people to stay in a state being ripped apart by warring factions.

At a meeting of the G7 last week it issued a statement which read, “There is no military solution to Libya’s problems.”

That’s an understatement. The West’s militaries are at the heart of Libya’s problems.

Big powers move their pieces around the grand chess board

The foreign ministers of the seven richest countries in the world—the G7 group—met in Italy last week. The first item on the agenda was Syria, the second was Libya.

Bumbling British foreign secretary Boris Johnson went to the summit hoping to win sanctions on Russia. He wanted to pressure president Putin into dropping support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

He came out empty-handed, partly because the Russian?backed military man Khalifa Haftar is increasingly a kingmaker in the Libyan conflict.

Haftar’s army is fighting forces allied with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), as well as Isis and similar groups.

The US and the EU back the GNA as the sole government in Libya. But Russia wants Haftar, who is also supported by Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to be included in any national government.

Haftar made two visits to Moscow last year. He visited the Russian Navy’s flagship aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov when it toured the north African coast in January.

Despite his apparent hostility to the US, Haftar also has strong ties to the US state. He went to the US after being denounced by Gaddafi for being captured in the Libyan war against Chad in 1987.

Haftar reportedly met with a US military official on a visit to the United Arab Emirates on Monday of last week. And US, British and French air forces bombed targets on behalf of Haftar’s army last year, including forces aligned with the GNA in the west.

Rather than alienate Russia over Libya, the assembled foreign ministers chose a more diplomatic route with it over Syria.

Could the Arab Spring rise again?
Could the Arab Spring rise again?
  Read More

Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state in 2011, wanted greater US involvement in Libya after Gadaffi was overthrown. She was overruled by Barack Obama.

But the chaos in Libya today is held up as a vindication of the position Clinton represented at the time. Trump is being lauded by US liberals for bombing the Shayrat airbase in Syria, potentially signalling the beginning of a new direction for US foreign policy. That could be disastrous for Libya.

Politicians in Britain and the US have started to speculate about regime change and calling for the removal of Assad. US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said, “Regime change is something that we think is going to happen.”

And White House press officer Sean Spicer speculated that Trump wouldn’t shrink from similar action over different regime crimes.

“If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, you will see a response from this president,” he said.

The Trump regime is already escalating elsewhere.

In Syria and Iraq US-led coalition airstrikes killed at least 1,782 civilians last month according to the Airwars website.

The wrangling at the top of the US has nothing to do with the interests of people who live in the Middle East.

EU is taking refugee lives, not saving them

The European Union (EU) is funding and backing a military operation aimed at stopping refugees from leaving Libya.

The Italian and Libyan prime ministers signed a deal in February. It saw Italy grant funds and resources to Libya in exchange for blocking migration routes from its shores.

The deal had the backing of other European states. Since late last year the EU has trained

90 Libyan coast guards as part of Operation Sophia to stop Libyan refugees reaching Europe.

Britain has got its hands grubby too. The Royal Navy is training Libyan coast guards.

Defending the decision, British defence minister Michael Fallon said, “Fighting the smuggling of people and arms will save lives”.But the deal between Italy and Libya has nothing to do with genuine concern.

The Libyan coast guard boarded a boat carrying people across the Mediterranean last month. A spokesperson for the German charity Sea-Watch said the coastguards “attacked the refugees, hitting them with clubs”. Over 20 people died.

Tightening border controls and funding and training the Libyan coast guard doesn’t save lives, it ends them.


Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance