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The Libyan Failure: Obama and Clinton’s Forgotten War

Luis Durani

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On February 17th, 2011 the Arab Spring swept Libya. Within a couple of weeks, Tripoli had fallen and the National Transitional Council was established as a parallel government to the ruling Gaddafi regime. Shortly thereafter, France and other European nations began to recognize the new government.

As Libya began to descend into chaos, Gaddafi attempted to respond militarily to repel the uprising. By October 2011, Gaddafi had been killed, the rebels had succeeded taking most of the country and the civil war came to an end.  

Libya overthrew its dictator and democracy was in the air or was it? As soon as the media shifted its focus elsewhere, everyone disregarded Libya but the war had just begun. Foreign intervention and support for the uprising helped turn a stable nation into a hornet’s nest of chaos, discord, and terror. Today, despite the neglect by the media, Libya is engaged in an existential battle for its identity. With tribes fighting one another for power and ISIS using the disarray to expand its caliphate of terror, the future of Libya appears to be bleak at best.

Gadaffi’s Libya

In order to understand the present-day situation in Libya and evaluate NATO’s success, one must understand the pre-intervention history of the country. Early in the 20th century, Libya was an Italian colony. Typical of most European colonies, Libya was an artificial construct from three distinct areas; Cyrenaica, Fezzan, and Tripolitania. It is along these three areas that the country is now divided, more or less. After Italy’s World War II defeat, the British and French administered Libya until 1951 when Libya declared independence under King Idris . Idris established a constitutional monarchy. With the discovery of major oil reserves, Libya became a wealthy state but unfortunately most of the wealth had been concentrated in the hands of the king and other elites. Around this time, many former colonial nations were swept by secular revolutions, Libya was no exception. Muammar Gaddafi and a group of fellow officers launched the Al-Fateh revolution in 1969.

Similar to other Arab revolutionaries, Gaddafi claimed to create a democratic system, only to disguise his dictatorial government. Using the massive wealth from petroleum sales and a relatively small population, Libya was able to become a wealthy nation in Africa. Gaddafi used the money to purchase arms to supply allies and terrorist groups around the world. But unlike King Idris or other Arab dictators, Gaddafi also modernized Libya. He developed Libya’s education system, infrastructure, healthcare, etc. He achieved the highest human development index in Africa and surpassed nations in the Midd le East including Saudi Arabia in terms of development. The GDP rose leaps and bounds reaching the top five (5) in Africa, financial support for university education became universal, employment programs helped train people for skilled jobs, and freshwater was made readily available in a country overwhelmingly buried in a desert.

Despite being a dictator and making many enemies abroad including the US, Gaddafi had worked intently to develop his nation. The living standard was relatively great in Libya compared to other nations of the region. While lacking civil liberties, most Libyans did well in the oasis of stability the ostentatious Libyan dictator had created.    

Gaddafi fell out of favor with the international community after his involvement in the bombing of Pan Am 103 and of a Berlin nightclub frequented by US service members. From the 1990s through early 2000s, the UN had sanctioned Libya. After witnessing the downfall of fellow dictator Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi gave up his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and began a rapprochement with the West. For a short while everything seemed to be going well. It was not until the Arab Spring and the Libyan uprising that everything turned upside down. Vowing to depose the uprising against his government, Gaddafi did not expect a NATO intervention. President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton claimed that it was imperative for the US and its allies to intervene on the grounds that a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions would occur.        

Veni, Vidi, Vici

The basis for the intervention was that the world, especially the US, cannot sit idly by as a dictator massacred its own people. Under such pretenses, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973 with abstentions from Russia, Germany, Brazil, China, and India. The resolution established no-fly zones and authorized any necessary actions to protect Libyan civilians. NATO led the campaign to enforce the resolution with the US, France, and the UK being the largest proponent for it. The civil war ended with approximately 30,000 dead. Despite the request by Libya’s interim government to extend NATO’s mission for another year, NATO ceased its mission and declared victory.

After the withdrawal of NATO and the media, Libya had become a failed state. Different tribes battle one another for territory while Islamists attempt to carve out their fiefdom and on top of all this; ISIS has managed to establish a foothold in the country. Libya is another strategic territory for ISIS to expand its tentacles into. It is geographically situated at the doorstep of Europe and contains a vast amount of petroleum reserves that ISIS hopes to use as an asset to finance its campaign of terror. Simultaneously, Libya can become the safe haven that ISIS needs to expand its burgeoning ties with Boko Haram in Nigeria, potentially Al-Shabaab in Somalia, Islamists in Mali, and other groups on the continent. On top of all this travesty and strategic blunder, neither President Obama nor Secretary Clinton has ever totally owned up to one of their larger foreign policy disasters. Instead Secretary Clinton is famous for her saying “We Came, we saw, he died.”

The disaster in Libya, while neglected by most mainstream media   outlets and characterized as a minuscule nuisance, can become the fuse that reduces the entire North African region into chaos, disarray, and war.   To make matters worse, recently declassified emails by Secretary Clinton demonstrates that she was the one who spearheaded the campaign for Gaddafi’s ouster. Furthermore, Secretary Clinton was the main catalyst in fomenting the chaos and extremism that currently exists in Libya due to the vacuum created by the ousting of Gaddafi. Recent emails outline that there was not any real threat to the Libyan civilian population from Gaddafi, instead the Secretary had hyped up the threat of mass murder and rape to get the UN resolution passed through the Security Council.

One of the main rationales behind the war appears to be revealed in an email exchange between Sidney Blumenthal, her top adviser, and Hilary Clinton. Blumenthal stresses the vitality of achieving a “final win” by removing Gaddafi to help President Obama boost his low approval rating at the time. Moreover, Blumenthal discussed the necessity of removing Libya in terms of counterbalancing Iran and establishing security in North Africa but ignoring the potentially disastrous outcomes.  

Outcome

With almost 5 years since the ouster of Gaddafi, Libya is a failed state with infighting, killing, and terror-related activities at an all-time high. While many in the media typically and understandably point to the failed Bush policies of Iraq as a leading cause of instability in the Middle East, the omission of the failed Obama/Clinton policies in Libya ignores the rise of extremism and chaos in North Africa. The consequence of Obama’s failed war in Libya has not fully materialized, but with time the world will endure more problems as a result of this war. Thus far, the consequences have been:  

  • A Nation Destroyed – Without a shadow of a doubt, Gaddafi was a dictator and a one-time supporter of terror organizations globally. But all was forgiven by the US and EU as they began to mend their ties and move to closer relations. Whatever one may think of Gaddafi, it cannot be denied he developed the tattered desert villages of Libya into a nation and provided services for the people. Nevertheless, today Libya is without any infrastructure thanks to infighting and foreign intervention.
  • Immigration to Europe – While Americans do not feel the consequences of their actions in Libya directly, Europe’s participation in the war has affected them. The recent migration wave into Europe has people from Libya who are attempting to escape the dire and horrific scene in their nation thanks to the European intervention.
  • ISIS – Aside from Donald Trump’s recent acknowledgment of ISIS’s growing capabilities in Libya, the media has largely been moot on the topic. Perhaps one of, if not worst, imminent consequences from this entire tragedy is the expansion of ISIS’s territorial holdings into Libya. They have managed to find local support and solidify their influence. Libya will be used as a springboard for ISIS to garner more influence into Nigeria, Somalia, Chad, Mali, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and eventually Europe itself.    
  • Disaffected Generations – Something that is almost never discussed in most analyses of these wars is the effect of death, and mayhem on the younger generations. Any conflict always brings with it trauma, disillusion, hopelessness and an array of psychological issues. After these countries spiral into destruction, there are not any sorts of institutions to help these children and youth to cope with the death and destruction around them. As a result, they fall prey to extremist recruiters. As these children mature, what will begin to emerge are Taliban-style nations.

The removal of Gaddafi, for whatever reason, was an illogical misstep that resulted in a much more unstable world. Even though the failures in Iraq were a lesson for all, President Obama and Secretary Clinton appear to have neglected it in their preparation for war in Libya. Even worse, President Obama came to power on the basis of ending “useless” wars. As the world continues to be fixated on ISIS and Syria, the forgotten conflicts such as Libya will not always remain in the background, sometimes sooner than later it will rear its head in an unpleasant way. While the world neglects Libya, the cou ntry has become an inhumane dystopia thanks to the “humanitarian” intervention.  

Luis Durani is currently employed in the oil and gas industry. He previously worked in the nuclear energy industry. He has a M.A. in international affairs with a focus on Chinese foreign policy and the South China Sea, MBA, M.S. in nuclear engineering, B.S. in mechanical engineering and B.A. in political science. He is also author of "Afghanistan: It’s No Nebraska – How to do Deal with a Tribal State" and "China and the South China Sea: The Emergence of the Huaqing Doctrine." Follow him for other articles on Instagram: @Luis_Durani

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Middle East

The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.

Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.

But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.

The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.

The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.

It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.

The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.

It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.

Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK

Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.

Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.

The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.

If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.

The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.

The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.

The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”

The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.

Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”

Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.

The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey  to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.

A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.

The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.

In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.

Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.

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