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Syria and Libya, a slow meltdown

The diplomatic agreement over Iran is welcome. But it also conceals policy failure and media neglect in two arenas of deepening war and insecurity: Syria and Libya.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
28 November 2013

The interim agreement over Iran's nuclear programme and sanctions regime, signed in Geneva on 24 November 2013, is the prelude to further months of hard negotiating. But it still represents real, hard-won diplomatic progress: both between Iran and the "PF+1" group (the United States, Russia, and China, and the "EU3" of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany) and in particular, between Washington and Moscow: a further sign that the latter can work together on this issue, to a greater degree than many expected. The agreement also follows the progress on Syria's chemical weapons, which again stemmed partly from US-Russian collaboration.

There is, though, a downside to this diplomatic focus: namely, that attention has strayed away from the Syrian war and its human consequences. A similar point could be made of the rapidly evolving conflict in Libya, which is almost entirely ignored by the international media.

Two elements of the war in Syria should be of great concern to any observer: the appalling suffering in the country, and the ever closer connection between the violence in Syria and in Iraq. On the former, a devastating report from Oxford Research Group  on child casualties offers copious and disturbing evidence of the effects of the war (see Stolen Futures: The Hidden Toll of Child Casualties in Syria, Oxford Research Group, 24 November 2013). In addition, data from the UNDP and UNRWA shows that private consumption in Syria has declined by 62% since 2011: an extraordinary figure that would take years to remedy even if the war ceased overnight.

On the Syrian/Iraqi connection, this has been present in the form of the relationship between many of the radical Islamist paramilitaries in northern Syria and their associates fighting the Nouri al-Maliki government in Baghdad and killing Shi’a in Iraq. Now, though, a double connection has emerged concerning the links between Maliki and Bashar al-Assad's regime in Damascus. The Assad regime was already getting substantial assistance from Iran via Iraq, but this has now been extended to involve extreme paramilitary Shi’a groups originating mainly in Iraq but directly involved alongside Assad’s forces

Among the most effective is the Abu Fadl al-Abbas militia. It appears to have been formed only in 2012 but has already been very effective in supporting regime forces in operations around the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Its members have proved to be particularly determined - on a par with some of the radical Sunni paramilitaries that now control other significant parts of northern Syria, and which probably present the greatest threat to the regime in Damascus.

The Libyan collapse

In the light of both these aspects, it is surprising that so little attention outside the region is now being paid to Syria's conflict. Yet the neglect here is far exceeded by the near-complete absence of western coverage of the situation in Libya. There have been occasional reports since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in October 2011, especially when high-profile events occur: the killing of the United States ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi in September 2012, the US special-forces raid to capture an al-Qaida suspect, Anas al-Libi, in October 2013; the kidnapping of prime minister Ali Zeidan from a hotel in Tripoli, also in October 2013. The routine chaos in Libya is ignored, however.

The security environment in Libya is getting worse, not better, even as the Gaddafi regime recedes into history. The repeated strikes by oil workers and other interruptions of supply mean that the oil industry is close to collapse. Since the industry is the source of most government income, the authorities have great difficulties in paying wages (see Ulf Laessing & Ayman al-Warfalli, “Libya struggles to pay salaries, more clashes erupt”, Reuters, 27 November 2013).

In many ways the use of the term “the authorities” is misleading since much of the country is run by local militias with multiple and flexible allegiances. Libya's army has limited capabilities and cannot maintain control even in the two main cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, let alone the key port of Misrata where local groups keep a tight grip, or the smaller towns and cities and vast rural and desert areas. On 23 November, there were major clashes in Benghazi between army units and the Islamist militia Ansar al-Sharia. This group greatly concerns Nato's military strategists even if the latter's responses are scarcely reported (see “Libya army in Benghazi clashes with Ansar al-Sharia”, BBC News, 25 November 2013).

The western gift

An exception to this media vacuum is an informative briefing from the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) which reports that Ansar al-Sharia now has bases at centres right across the Mediterranean coast of Libya; “at Derna, 160 km east of Benghazi, and Sirte, Gadhafi’s birthplace, 320 km along the coast to the west. A different Ansar Brigade has established itself near Sabratha, 100 km west of the capital.” The IISS also finds that the Ansar leaders have popular support, achieved "by setting up educational and welfare programmes, both neglected by the government” (see "Libya: paralysed by militias", IISS Strategic Comments, 22 November 2013)

Ansar al-Sharia denies having any links with al-Qaida, but since that “movement” is now primarily an idea the claim amounts to little. Certainly the Nato response puts much of its effort into trying to contain the group, in a programme that is expanding at speed - and at a time when Nato states are very cautious about direct military involvement in Syria.

Indeed, Nato involvement in Libya is moving very close to a major military commitment. The IISS briefing says this includes US drone-operations out of a base in Niger aimed at tracking Islamist paramilitary movements between Libya, Algeria, Mali and Niger, as well as regular US surveillance-flights over eastern Libya. A Nato advisory mission is already in the country, as are US military trainers; a major programme to train a 15,000-person-strong "general purpose force" starts in early 2014, which will include Libyan military personnel being trained in the UK, Italy and Turkey. 

Moreover, the US's Africa Command will be training and equipping Libyan units at bases in Bulgaria, and France is providing military assistance. But in the most telling assessment, the IISS reports that “the European Union has committed €30m [$41m] to a 110-strong Border Assistance Mission now training coastguard and border guard units, its task hampered by security conditions that are limiting its operations to the capital”. Thus, new border units being trained by the EU cannot even operate on the country’s borders…

All this adds up to a substantial and increasing western military involvement in an oil-rich north African state, more than two years after an extensive Nato operation had encouraged the view that Libya was on the path to peace and security. In the event this impression has proved to be a chimera, and in addition further western intervention is becoming the order of the day in yet another Arab country. For al-Qaida and other radical Islamist propagandists it is an absolute gift, with implications that so far are being almost wholly ignored.

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