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A complicated relationship: Libya, Syria and the international press

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The decision whether to intervene militarily in Syria should not be dictated by non-information, nor should the success or failure of Libya's revolution (and NATO's role in it) be prematurely judged on the same basis.

Rhiannon Smith
16 September 2013

It's been two and a half years since NATO's military intervention in Libya and although the international media followed the events of the 17th February revolution very closely while the battles were raging, interest dropped off somewhat after the death of Col Muammar Gaddafi and subsequent declaration of 'Free Libya' back in October 2011. The summer of 2012 saw Libya hit the headlines once more though, first with feel-good stories about Libya's free and fair elections and a return to pre-conflict levels of oil production, then with the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stephens and three others during an attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi on 11 September 2012.

Since then however, international coverage of events in Libya has been surprisingly sparse. There seems to be a trend of using Libya as a lens through which to view, understand and even judge other high profile conflicts and struggles in the region, yet little attention is paid to Libya's issues in their own right.

When Tuareg fighters, supported by Islamist groups, occupied the north of Mali in early 2012 in their struggle to establish an independent homeland (Azawad), Libya's lawlessness, abundance of weapons and porous borders were viewed as key factors facilitating the Mali conflict. Libya's vast, sparsely populated southern region straddles the deep Sahara and is home to nomadic tribes, such as the Tuareg and Tebu, whose traditional heartland cuts across international borders and encompasses large swathes of North Africa. The challenges of managing borders and policing activity in such an environment are vast and deserve attention, yet these issues were only considered through the prism of the Mali conflict. Once Mali fell out of the headlines, the search beam of the international community moved elsewhere, leaving Libya's southern region in the dark once more.

Likewise with the attacks on the US Consulate in Benghazi, the situation in Libya was of secondary concern. While it is understandable that American media has put the onus on capturing those responsible for the attacks, as well as appropriating blame within the US administration, surprisingly little airtime was given to Libya's domestic reaction to the attacks or to the development and progress of the country post-conflict. Failure to contextualise the Benghazi attack in mainstream media reduced Libya's problems to a one-dimensional issue, allowing the country either to be dismissed out of hand or its situation used to illustrate black and white points, despite the reality being varying shades of grey.

The latest, and perhaps most significant example of the international media's dalliance with Libya is related to potential military intervention in Syria. Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons has led to global condemnation and calls for 'something to be done' to prevent such horrific attacks from taking place again. This has reopened the debate over whether the international community has a responsibility to protect, how it can achieve this and what the possible consequences of such action might be. As a contemporary recipient of a NATO-led military intervention, the international media once more has Libya in its sights and over the last few weeks a flurry of articles, interviews and programmes have appeared about Libya and how it is faring two years after the conflict. However the predominant tone of these pieces seems to be bewilderment and despair. Bewilderment that Libya is no longer at the same stage at which the international community left it a few months ago, and despair that Libya appears to have fallen into the clutches of disorder and chaos.

The looming Syria intervention has come at what admittedly is probably Libya's lowest point since its official liberation nearly two years ago. As I wrote last month, there is growing anger towards the state over its inability to protect oil facilities and provide basic services, increasing division along tribal, ethnic and regional lines and myriad armed groups are still calling the shots as far as security is concerned. However there are three important points to note here.

Firstly, Libya's current situation has not materialised overnight but rather is a culmination of political, economic and security developments over the past few months. Current international coverage of Libya generally ignores the complex processes which have led to this point and focuses instead on the end results, misleadingly portraying Libya's current challenges as somehow inevitable and immutable.

Secondly, there is a tendency to list everything which is wrong with Libya without highlighting the positive developments. For example, new coffee shops and restaurants are opening every week in Tripoli, art and cultural events are taking place regularly and recently Debenhams opened its first Libya branch. Although it may seem a depressing way to look at the situation, things in Libya are nowhere near as bad as they could be. No post-conflict country could expect to transition from war to peace, stability and democracy in just two years and Libya is no different. Libya's transition is a longterm process and cannot be judged as either a failure or a success after just two years.

Thirdly, and I cannot stress this enough, the situation in Libya today should have absolutely no bearing on whether the international community decides to intervene militarily in Syria or not. It is a truism that all wars are different and not only are the timings, events and actors in these two conflicts completely different, but so is the potential effect of external military intervention. Stating that there was a NATO intervention in Libya two and a half years ago then listing what is wrong with the country now does not mean there is an identifiable chain of cause and effect between the two scenarios, nor does it mean that if the same tactics were applied in Syria that a similar chain of events should be expected.

As pointed out, mass international coverage of Libya has not been sustained therefore each time the media refocuses on the country, it must try to condense what in reality are complex, non-linear developments down to a few easily digestible points. Although there are a number of dedicated national and international journalists producing excellent in depth analysis on Libya, the constraints of time and impact mean that mainstream news on Libya usually comes in the form of easily digestible, comprehensible compotes which belie the complex reality on the ground. The decision to intervene militarily in Syria should not be influenced by such non-information, nor should the success or failure of Libya's revolution (and NATO's role in it) be declared arbitrarily at this point simply because the international community is interested in Libya again.

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