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We’ve been here before with foreign troops in Libya

May 6, 2021 at 12:17 pm

Libyans hold banners as they take part demonstration in the eastern coastal city of Benghazi calling for military forces to re-capture the southern city of Sirte from the Islamic State (IS) group without foreign intervention on 6 May 2016. [ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP via Getty Images]

The then United Nations acting envoy to Libya, Stephanie Williams, said on 2 December last year that there are 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya. She described the matter as a “serious crisis” before concluding that it is “a shocking violation of Libyan sovereignty” and a blatant “violation of the arms embargo.”

Williams was referring to UN Security Council Resolution 1973 prohibiting, even today, the transfer of arms and fighters to Libya. The decade-old resolution was meant to encourage Libyans to reach a political settlement between themselves away from foreign meddling in their affairs. That resolution has since been supported by half a dozen others calling for the same thing, apparently to no avail.

The Security Council failed to impose its will on all sides, apart from the period between March and October 2011; that’s when weakening the former Gaddafi regime to facilitate its downfall was the obvious objective. Once the regime fell and Gaddafi was murdered, the council became less serious about the arms embargo. Its sanctions committee, made up of experts monitoring the embargo, files its annual report pointing out violators and the frequency of violations. Yet every year the council reviews the report but does not take any decisive action, such as imposing sanctions against the perpetrators. Whatever teeth Resolution 1973 might have had have long since fallen out.

This has been the situation for years now. Regardless of who is to blame for the Security Council’s failure to uphold and enforce its decisions, the UN itself suffers from failed internal mechanisms, and it is the weaker member states which always pay the price. As long as the five permanent members do not agree on any action and are able to wield a veto, the council is paralysed and doomed to fail. This has been evident over the past seven decades of the UN’s existence, not least in the case of Palestine, which has been a fixed agenda item for years but without any progress being made.

It is more or less the same situation in Libya today. Disagreement between the five permanent members is enough to kill any Security Council resolution before it is even voted on. I recall that Muammar Gaddafi, who was himself the target of Resolution 1973, once called the UN’s top decision-making body the “council of terror” not a Security Council working for world peace. Libya today is under the will of the same council but the same will fails to apply to those countries and individuals guilty of wrecking it every day.

READ: What is behind the thaw in relations between Libya and the EU? 

Furthermore, the Libyan example exposes how far countries are prepared to go in violating all UN resolutions as well as the international organisation’s charter. For example, the violence that erupted in Libya between April 2019 and June 2020 brought new dimensions to the idea of an embargo making its own violation not only easier but also more defendable and deniable. Embargo reinforcement became an issue of interpretation rather than implementation, something that violators love to do even when asked to stop by Libya itself. Turkey and Russia, both of them major embargo violators, are a clear case in point.

Every time the issue of pulling out its troops and Syrian mercenaries arises, Ankara points out that its troops and mercenaries are in Libya because the Libyans asked them to be there. In his most recent comment on the issue, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke in Tripoli alongside his Libyan counterpart and rejected any equating of Turkey’s military presence with what he called “illegal groups”. Clearly he was referring to Russian and other mercenaries in Libya. Even when his Libyan colleague, Najla El-Mangoush, said that she wants “Turkey’s cooperation” to end the presence of all foreign troops and mercenaries in the country, the Turkish minister reminded her that his country sent its troops to “defend Tripoli” when it was under attack. He simply dodged the question by emphasising that his troops are in Tripoli at Libya’s request. The Russians, meanwhile, never acknowledge having any troops in Libya by claiming that Wagner — which recruits and employs mercenaries — is a private company with no links to the Kremlin.

Even the joint military commission that worked out the October ceasefire still cannot agree on how to get the foreign troops out. In its most recent meeting in Sirte on 16 March, it called on the UN Security Council to help remove them.

Many nations are trying to interfere in Libya's affairs- Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Many nations are interfering in Libya’s affairs – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

However, it is valid to ask that if Libya is serious about expelling foreign troops, why has it not, to date, taken any concrete steps to do so? The Security Council itself called for their removal as did all of its permanent members. Such a step, if taken by Libya, is very likely to be supported by the UN and others such as the European Union.

Libya had a similar experience with foreign troops in 1970 when it was in almost the same weak situation as it is today. Just one year after taking power, Gaddafi was faced with at least seven foreign military bases in his country which thousands of American and British troops called home. He managed to get them out of the country despite their presence there being by agreement with the government of King Idris. Gaddafi did not wait for the UN Security Council or the respective governments to agree to his demand. He simply threatened that if they did not leave, he would mobilise the masses to blockade the bases while severing relations with both the United States and Britain. The current Libyan government has failed to learn this lesson from its predecessor.

This raises another question: which troops does the government want to leave? The phrase “foreign troops and mercenaries” is uttered repeatedly by Libya’s foreign minister, but does not include troops agreed to by the former government, such as those from Turkey and Italy stationed in Misrata, east of Tripoli. It only refers to mercenaries, including the Russians, who are supporting Khalifa Haftar’s troops in eastern and southern Libya.

The government is supposed to lead the country into December elections without any foreign fighters or troops on Libyan soil. To do that, it has to be serious and clear about its desire to remove them.

READ: Can Libya’s new authority succeed in cutting Haftar’s foreign links? 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.