The Last Thing Libya Needs Is an Intensification of a U.S. Proxy War

We must stop our government from treating Libya like its own private battleground.

Gregory Shupak

Smoke fumes rise above buildings in the Libyan capital Tripoli, during reported shelling by Khalifa Haftar's forces, on May 9, 2020. MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images

Antagonism between the United States and Russia is deepening over Libya’s natural resources. Libya has long had two competing seats of government: the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), which is led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and recognized by the UN Security Council, and the eastern-based House of Representatives, an ally of the Libyan National Army (LNA). The LNA is led by commander Khalifa Haftar, a U.S. citizen and one-time C.I.A asset who owns properties in Virginia. Russian contractors have taken control of two of Libya’s largest oil facilities, giving the contractors sway over crucial export flows to Europe, as well as over assets partly owned by major Western oil companies. Haftar, who Russia supports, is blocking much of Libya’s oil production. In July, the U.S. Treasury Department levied new sanctions against Russia, citing in part Russian involvement in Libya, while the State Department says the United States is incensed by Russia’s support for Haftar’s obstruction of the oil industry.

The last thing that Libya needs is intensification of the proxy war in the country. Americans should agitate to prevent their government from using Libya as a battleground against Russia. After all, the United States and its allies are answerable for the litany of horrors through which Libyans have lived for most of the last decade because these unfolded under the conditions left by NATO’s overthrow of Gaddafi’s government.

When NATO first attacked Libya in 2011, the alliance did so citing a highly dubious humanitarian” rationale. During that operation, NATO carried out several serious crimes. These include its aircraft firing two missiles at jeeps belonging to pro-Gaddafi forces and, roughly five minutes later when a crowd of civilians rushed to the vehicles, firing a third missile that killed approximately 47 civilians. Furthermore, the anti-Gaddafi fighters, on whose side NATO intervened, ethnically cleansed 48,000 people from Tawergha, a town mostly made up of Black Libyans. NATO can’t claim ignorance about the fact that the Libyan factions it was supporting had the bigoted inclinations that led to such measures, as well as to many killings targeting Black people — and later to slavery and to the appalling treatment of African migrants. After all, when NATO decided to intervene, it was public knowledge that many of the anti-Gaddafi fighters were engaging in racist violence. 

Nine years of violence

For the nearly 10 years since NATO bombed Libya and facilitated the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, the country has been beset by all manner of violence and brutality.

An ISIS franchise emerged in Libya in 2014. It beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians and, after Egypt responded with deadly air raids, the organization carried out a series of bombings that killed 40. Subsequently, Libya-based ISIS released a video apparently showing the group murdering 30 Ethiopian Christians, one of a long list of crimes the group carried out, including a pair of bombings that reportedly killed more than 56 Libyans. In addition, the group has crucified people for violating religious codes of dress and conduct.

A coalition including the United States, France, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and three Libyan factions killed between 242 and 395 civilians in over 2,000 airstrikes and drone strikes between 2012 and 2018. The coalition acknowledges none of these casualties and most of the attacks have been conducted in secret. This campaign was ostensibly aimed at unseating ISIS and other militants. The coalition, it seems, is of the view that it’s better that it kill Libyans than leave them to be killed by someone else.

In 2017, video captured migrants being auctioned off in open-air slave markets. Under policies endorsed by the European Union, refugees and migrants attempting to reach Europe from African countries have been forcibly sent to Libya and held in detention centers. In these facilities, children and newborns are kept without adequate nourishment, healthcare ranges from insufficient to non-existent, and conditions are overcrowded and unsanitary. The detainees, Amnesty International reports, are subject to rape and torture. A migrant detention center in Libya was bombed last July, killing at least 44 people and leaving more than 130 severely injured. A UN report found that the airstrikes were carried out by a foreign state, which the report suggests may have been under the command of the LNA” or operated under the command of that foreign State in support of the LNA.” The GNA, meanwhile, has subjected Libyans to widespread torture. Amnesty International says that the GNA carried out an artillery attack on a densely populated civilian neighbourhood, killing at least five civilians and injuring more than a dozen,” and that there is evidence that the GNA and the LNA have committed war crimes. In June, mass graves were discovered in in Tarhouna, which is roughly 100 kilometres southeast of Tripoli, and the UN is calling for an investigation.

A proxy war

The bloodletting in Libya is — and has been since NATO decided to intervene in 2011 — most accurately understood as an international proxy war driven by a thirst for resources. Libya has Africa’s largest oil reserves, mineral deposits, and more than a thousand miles of coastline on the Mediterranean, all of which, as the Los Angeles Times put it, are at the heart of the international conflict” in the country.

Horace Campbell, a professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University, points out that between 2007 and 2008, Gaddafi’s government compelled Western oil companies such as the American firm Occidental to sign new deals with [Libya’s] National Oil Company, on significantly less favorable terms than they had previously enjoyed.” In the final stages of NATO’s war, the U.S. ambassador in Tripoli, Gene A. Cretz, was, according to the New York Times already trying to help American companies exploit business opportunities,” having taken part in a State Department conference call with about 150 American firms hoping to do business in Libya. Cretz was quoted in the same article as saying that If we can get American companies here on a fairly big scale, which we will try to do everything we can to do that, then this will redound to improve the situation in the United States with respect to our own jobs.” As NATO was in the process of bringing a new provisional Libyan government to power, that provisional government said it is eager to welcome Western businesses.” Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, chairman of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), the main political body of the anti-Gaddafi fighters, said the new Libyan government would even give its Western backers some priority’ in access to Libyan business.” A month later, British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said that British companies should pack their suitcases” for Libya as it is a relatively wealthy country with oil reserves, and I expect there will be opportunities for British and other companies to get involved in the reconstruction.”

The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which is responsible for U.S. military operations in Africa, has outposts across the continent and is also part of the story of the Libyan tragedy. Among AFRICOM’s aims, American Vice Admiral Robert Moeller said three years before Gaddafi’s ouster, is to ensure the free flow of resources from Africa to the global market.” Eight months prior to the bombing of Libya, Moeller wrote that one of AFRICOM’s purposes is to promote American interests.” Cables from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli demonstrate American frustration with African governments reluctant to have AFRICOM installations on their soil.

Once Gaddafi’s government had been removed, AFRICOM announced — before a Libyan election took place — that a new military relationship had been established between AFRICOM and a government appointed by the NTC. There are presently two AFRICOM bases in Libya, even as American troops left the country in 2019 in what the United States views as a temporary measure until there’s a ceasefire in the war.

U.S. allies fighting on all sides

The more AFRICOM bases there are, the greater the capacity the U.S. government and business interests have to try to assert its will over Africa’s vast resource wealth amid U.S.-Chinese competition for access to these: Not only is the continent rich with oil, it is also a source of valuable minerals, such as columbium, chromium, and cobalt, which are strategically important to the U.S. military because it needs these for weapons manufacturing.

Thus, the U.S. empire benefits from having as much purchase as it can with as many governments in Africa as possible. That could explain why the U.S. is working with allied governments that are involved in both sides of the conflict.

The GNA’s most enthusiastic sponsor is Turkey, which sent military forces and mercenaries from the Free Syrian Army to bolster the GNA, leading to the latter making major gains. Turkey is a U.S. partner in NATO with, in the words of a U.S. government spokesperson, a largely U.S. equipped and supplied military.” Turkey has resource excavation projects in the Mediterranean, and last year it signed an agreement with the GNA that would block Greek and Cypriot energy drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean. Qatar is another purchaser of U.S. weapons that arms and finances the GNA. Following the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar, the latter has grown closer to Turkey, as both back the Muslim Brotherhood — who the Saudis see as an enemy. Libya represents an opportunity for Qatar to frustrate Saudi designs.

In February of this year, Saudi Arabia — long a central node in the U.S. empireincreased its funding of forces associated with the LNA in an effort to counter Riyadh’s adversaries in Ankara. Egypt, which received $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid last year, has supported Haftar because the Egyptian government is a bitter opponent of the Brotherhood, and because Egypt has made plans to jointly control recently discovered gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean with Israel, Greece and Cyprus to the exclusion of Turkey. Israel, another crucial U.S. proxy, provides the LNA with arms, intelligence and training in view of the possibility that Turkey — with whom Israel has a sometimes rocky relationship — could use a pro-Ankara GNA to disrupt Israeli-Cypriot plans to build gas pipelines to Greece and Italy. Absurdly, some of the drones that Turkey has sent to the GNA were made by Israel and sold to Turkey’s ally, Azerbaijan.

Though Russia presently supports the LNA, it has, at times, worked with all sides in the war. Russia has sent mercenaries to bolster the LNA and is pushing to build a military base on Libya’s Mediterranean coast: American and British diplomats are encouraging the GNA to prevent that. Western-Russian antipathy notwithstanding, U.S.-made Javelin missiles were uncovered in an area under LNA control. The United States said it had sold these to France, and France — an ally of the LNA — said it lost track of them. Haftar’s fighters have used U.S.-made Caiman mine-resistant vehicles provided by the UAE, a country seeking to expand its economic interests in Africa. An Emirati base in eastern Libya was home to Chinese-made drones, to combat planes operated by a company associated with Erik Prince, founder of the American mercenary firm Blackwater, and to French special forces. The U.S also blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning Haftar following the July 2019 attack on the migrant center.

Whichever side wins the war, therefore, the Unites States will likely have influence over them, either directly or through one of its regional deputies.

Stephanie Williams, Deputy Special Representative for Political Affairs in Libya, UN Mission in Libya, attributed the terror Libya is going through to the outside powers who are fueling it, stating: From what we are witnessing in terms of the massive influx of weaponry, equipment and mercenaries to the two sides, the only conclusion that we can draw is that this war will intensify, broaden and deepen — with devastating consequences for the Libyan people.”

These dynamics will get even worse if U.S.-Russian enmity in Libya is allowed to spiral.

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Greg Shupak writes fiction, non-fiction and book reviews. His most recent book is The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel, and The Media. He teaches Media Studies at the University of Guelph.
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