The Libyan turmoil is, mostly, the outcome of the reckless toppling of the Qaddafi regime in 2011 by a U.S.-led NATO offensive. The offensive was launched despite the fact that Libya’s ruthless dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, had become a fervent warrior against Islamic terrorism in Libya, North and Central Africa, and in spite of Qaddafi’s dismantling of the Libyan nuclear, chemical, biological and long-range ballistic missile infrastructures.
The stated goal of the U.S.-led NATO onslaught was to stop the Libyan civil war, minimize the loss of civilian lives and promote democracy and peace. However, the authority vacuum created by the demise of the Qaddafi regime has intensified the intrinsic fragmentation and disintegration of Libya, tribally, geographically, ideologically and religiously.
Qaddafi’s demise yielded systematic eruptions of civil wars in Libya, intensified by a heightened presence of Islamic terror organizations, which operate globally, from Central Asia, through the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Latin America, with sleeper cells in the United States.
In defiance of the architects of the assault on Qaddafi, Libya has joined Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen as a leading epicenter of international Islamic terrorism. The Libyan pandemonium has stimulated Islamic terrorism in Europe, as well as in neighboring Egypt, the Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Tunisia, in addition to Morocco, Mauritania, Western Sahara, Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria.
Contrary to the expectations of the U.S. and NATO, there has been substantial military and financial intervention by foreign countries, which conduct proxy wars in post-Qaddafi Libya. Thus, Turkey, Qatar, Italy and the United Nations support Prime Minister al-Sarraj’s Tripoli-centered Government of National Accord (which controls some parts of Western Libya), while Russia, France, Greece, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan back General Haftar’s Benghazi- and Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (which controls most of Libya, especially the eastern and southern areas, and most of the oil and natural gas fields and refineries).
Foreign involvement in Libya
The mounting foreign involvement reflects Libya’s geostrategic potential, both economic and military. Libya has an area of 680,000 square miles (2.6 times the area of Texas!), is located between the Mediterranean and Central Africa and possesses 1,000 miles of coastline along the Mediterranean, between Egypt and Tunisia and across from Turkey, Crete, Greece, Malta, Italy and Sicily. Libya’s oil and natural gas reserves rank 8th and 21st in the world respectively, which has attracted major energy companies, such as Italy’s ENI (since 1959) and France’s Total (since 1954).
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan considers Libya an effective springboard to assert his national security independence; to defy the United States, NATO, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the international community; to bolster his military and energy footprint in the Mediterranean basin; to gain natural gas, oil and construction opportunities; and to advance his grand vision: the reestablishment of the Ottoman Empire.
Russia seeks to expand its air and ground military presence in the Mediterranean region and Africa; it sends a determined message to the United States, NATO and U.S. allies in the Middle East and Africa; it aims to neutralize Erdoğan’s megalomaniacal ambitions; it pursues oil deals; and it wishes to enhance its position during future international negotiations on the fate of Libya.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia consider Libya—and Turkey’s and Qatar’s involvement in Libya—a threatening tailwind for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the largest Islamic terrorist organization, and a clear and present lethal threat to every pro-U.S. Arab regime. Their wish to neutralize Erdoğan, whom they consider a top lethal threat to the Arab World, along with Iran’s Ayatollahs and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt and Libya have always shared adversarial relations: economically poor, demographically large (100 million people) and militarily strong Egypt versus economically endowed, demographically meagre (7 million people) and militarily weak Libya. Therefore, an Egyptian military intervention in eastern Libya—leveraging tribal ties—has always been a viable option, to secure Egypt’s western border, resume suspended oil projects in Libya and enhance Egypt’s geostrategic stature.
Also, Egypt is concerned about the adverse effect of the Libyan chaos on its war against Muslim Brotherhood terrorism, which has been a domestic fixture since the 1928 establishment of the Brotherhood. Moreover, Cairo is increasingly concerned about Turkey’s deepening engagement in Libya—on top of its military presence in Qatar, Somalia and Sudan—due to Erdoğan’s close ties with the Brotherhood, while demonstrating hostility toward the Sisi regime, which toppled an Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood regime.
The true Middle East vs. Western conventional wisdom
The Libya mayhem, which erupted during the initial stage of the “Arab Spring,” has exposed a major Western misperception of the Middle East. The West has sacrificed the reality of “the Arab Tsunami” on the altar of an imagined “Arab Spring”—touting “from lawlessness to democracy and peace”—while the Arab countries have rejected civic liberties and intra-Arab peaceful-coexistence.
The Libyan turmoil, which has raged since February 2011, encapsulates many of the explosive, 1,400-year-old features of the Middle East, which have impacted the entire world.
• Rarity of national identity/loyalty (e.g., Tripolitania western Libya vs. Cyrenaica in the east vs. Fezzan in the southwest).
• Fragmented societies underline local-over-national allegiance (e.g., a nine-tribe-coalition in the Benghazi region, fighting other tribes, while fighting among themselves).
• Violent intolerance religiously, geographically, ideologically, culturally and economically.
• Absence of intra-Arab and intra-Muslim peaceful coexistence, domestically and regionally, including pan-Arabism vs. pan-Islamism.
• Minority, repressive, tenuous regimes, policies and accords (e.g., Libya’s King Idris deposed in 1969, Qaddafi executed in 2011, succeeded by two warring non-democratic regimes).
• “One bullet” regimes seizing power via the military.
• Centrality of subversion and terrorism, domestically and regionally.
• Shifty allegiances, alliances and policies.
• Intense complexity, instability and unpredictability.
• Domination of fundamental Islamic precepts (e.g., the subservient “infidel”).
Has the Western debacle in Libya awakened the Western national security establishment to Middle East reality?
Will the costly Libyan lesson free the West from submission to the utopian “Arab Spring” state of mind, when confronting the litany of tectonic eruptions, which will be triggered by the Arab Tsunami, with regional and global ripple effects?
Will the Libyan chaos advance Western comprehension of the need for extra geographic-topographic security, required by the sole and small “infidel” democracy in the Middle East?
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.
This article was first published by The Ettinger Report.
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