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 August 18, 2020

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.

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.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH