Britain joined the Nato military intervention in Libya “to uphold the will of the United Nations security council,” former prime minister David Cameron told the House of Commons on the eve of the war.
Six years on and the British government continues to cite the authority of the UN to justify its actions in Libya, with the Foreign Office noting last month that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had visited Tripoli “to discuss what more the UK can do to support the [UN-backed] government of National Accord (GNA) and the UN-led political process to help stabilise Libya.”
A bit of background. There are currently two rival power centres competing for legitimacy and control in Libya — the GNA, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, and a rival authority in the east of the country under the control of General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).
More broadly, Libya is wracked by violence and chaos — a hellish mess that Nato bears significant responsibility for. “Continuing armed clashes have displaced hundreds of thousands of people and interrupted access to basic services, including fuel and electrical power. Forces engaged in the conflict are guilty of arbitrary detention, torture, unlawful killings, indiscriminate attacks, disappearances and the forceful displacement of people,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports.
“Hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers, including children, who flock to Libya mostly en route to Europe, experience torture, sexual assault and forced labour at the hands of prison guards, members of the coast guard forces and smugglers.”
The “crucial question,” the Foreign Secretary argued in March this year, is “how to make sure that Haftar is in some way integrated into the government of Libya.”
So who is Haftar? “Libya’s most powerful and polarising figure,” is how Frederic Wehry, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, summed him up in The Atlantic magazine.
The septuagenarian Haftar served as a field marshal in Muammar Gadaffi’s army, leading Libyan forces in the Chad war, before being forced into exile in the US, “where he developed close links with the CIA,” according to the House of Commons Library blog.
In 2011 he returned to Libya and emerged as a rebel commander in the Nato-backed uprising in which Gadaffi was toppled and killed.
Asserting himself after the Nato war, in 2014 Haftar announced “Operation Dignity,” ostensibly a campaign to defeat terrorists in Benghazi, though some observers see the military surge as more complex.
Writing in the London Review of Books, foreign correspondent Tom Stevenson notes Haftar “has been taking on Islamic State, non-Isis jihadists and anyone else who stands up to him,” while Ahmed el-Gasir from the group Human Rights Solidarity told Al Jazeera last month that many perceived Operation Dignity as an attempted military coup.
Indeed, a March 2017 report from the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC), which was compiled after two council staff members travelled to Libya and met Haftar, notes he “sees his mission as a national project covering all of Libya.”
Not mentioned in the CMEC report is the fact human rights groups have highlighted numerous abuses committed by forces aligned with Haftar, “who seem to have torn up the rule book,” according to Hanan Salah, HRW’s senior Libya researcher.
Having visited Benghazi earlier this year, Wehry notes “reports of torture, disappearances, and the destruction of property emerge with numbing frequency,” with forces armed by Haftar responsible for many of the abuses.
“The tactics employed by Gadaffi in 2011 created certain divisions between towns or tribes, but they do not compare to what Haftar has done … the level of violence and disregard to the sanctity of human life and value of human dignity is unprecedented in Libyan society,” noted el-Gasir.
Politically, Wehry warns of Haftar’s “militarisation of governance,” in which “he has replaced elected municipal leaders with uniformed military officers” while “the Gadaffi-era intelligence apparatus is back on the payroll.”
However, despite the West’s public backing for the UN-backed GNA in Tripoli, last year Middle East Eye, citing air traffic recordings they obtained, reported that “a multinational military operation involving British, French and US forces is co-ordinating air strikes in support of” Haftar from a base near Benghazi.
This backing is confirmed by Wehry, who notes “the French, the British, and the [the United States] sent special operators who provided varying levels of intelligence and front-line support” to Haftar.
Middle East Eye’s scoop about the West’s relationship with Haftar followed another expose from the website that reported the British Special Air Service (SAS) was fighting Isis in Libya, alongside Jordanian special forces.
More recently, Middle East Eye reported that leaked 2014 emails between the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the US and the then US national security adviser Susan Rice seem to “indicate that the United States knew about illegal arms shipments to rebels in Libya” from the UAE.
This transfer — which likely went to Haftar’s forces — would, of course, have contravened the UN arms embargo, established with the backing of the US and Britain in February 2011.
The West’s support for Haftar is dangerous for three reasons. First, the US and Britain are assisting a “warlord” (the Guardian’s description) whose forces have been accused of numerous war crimes by human rights groups.
Second, the West’s backing for the field marshal is undermining attempts at national reconciliation. “Support by Western special forces, particularly French, to General Haftar has made it more difficult to reach a compromise with him because he thinks he has important external backing and therefore does not need to compromise with the unity government,” Mattia Toaldo, a Libya specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the Middle East Eye.
Finally, supporting Haftar runs counter to the West’s professed support for the UN-backed government in Tripoli, the UN peace process and the UN arms embargo.
Frustratingly, the West’s shady dealings in Libya have gone largely unreported by the supposedly critical and fiercely independent British fourth estate.
Shamefully, one has to read the Middle East Eye and the US magazine The Atlantic to find out about the support Britain has given Haftar.
The British media has a similarly woeful record when it comes to Britain’s involvement in the Syrian war, with the New York Times, rather than a British newspaper, reporting in 2013 that British intelligence services had been working covertly with Saudi Arabia and the US to funnel arms to rebels.
“If people really knew the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.” This was prime minister David Lloyd George’s reaction after listening to an account of the fighting on the Western Front during the first world war.
What would be the British public’s reaction to its government’s covert interventions in Libya today? Unless British journalists start doing their jobs we may never find out.
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