LIBYA – Diving into the Lost Decade

A dream for ‘New Libya’ remains to be realised even though some may extend a facile argument that for revolutions to succeed ten years is not a long time.
Keywords: Libya, Revolution, Autocratic, Arab Spring, Regional Powers, Gaddafi, R2P, Interventionist, UNSC, UNGA, France, US, Resolution, Military, Multilateral, Anarchy
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Ten long years have been wasted since the onset of the Arab Spring that started off in Tunisia and engulfed the whole region in some form or the other. While hardened and well entrenched unpopular autocratic leaders were easily uprooted by the sheer force of the disenfranchised public opinion the role of external and regional powers remained suspect and became the greater cause of worry and in many cases made life even worse than before. Arguably it became far more unstable, violent, and it festered daily disappointment for the people whose hopes were belied and short-changed in the nefarious games of geo-political competition among the foreign powers. A dream for ‘New Libya’ remains to be realised even though some may extend a facile argument that for revolutions to succeed ten years is not a long time. But the chain of events speaks otherwise and exposes the real intent of the interventionist powers. My heart goes out to my Libyan friends whose plight I witnessed in the post Gaddafi era for over two years, but their suffering sees no end.

When we objectively look back at the turn of events the stark contradiction between the professed objectives of R2P (Responsibility to Protect -whom, how and for what) and the implicit agenda of Regime Change on the part of interventionist powers would become clearer despite whatever arguments the latter would extend to justify the mayhem they had eventually perpetrated. After the mother of all fudged interventions in Iraq in 2003, less than a decade later, we witnessed Libya being invaded under one pretext or the other.

The fact that there was no plan post regime change speaks for itself. I had been following the Arab Spring and the developments, in Moscow, before reaching Tripoli after the killing of Gaddafi in his hometown Sirte. I was briefed by the Russians who were indulging in shuttle diplomacy but to no avail as ever. On my earlier assignment since 1999, I had seen Primakov trying his best to diffuse the Iraq war. But an emaciated superpower had its limitations then but in the case of UNSC 1970 and 1973 it fell for the western bluff and abstained. India was also on the UNSC at that time and abstained after trying hard for military intervention to be avoided. But non-permanent members have their own tale of woes. Even though the Indian stance had merit, this, abstention however, cost India dearly by way of loss of goodwill at the grass roots level which I faced on arrival in a war-torn Libya. Ironically, I reached Tripoli on Gaddafi’s birthday. To retrieve that popular goodwill became my primary duty and concern.

While I was aware of several undercurrents, trends and sly moves made by interventionist powers to perpetuate their influence in the fragmented “New Libya” it was mostly in discussions with my Libyan and foreign interlocutors and resident and visiting Ambassadors that I was able to understand the games better. Some of the leaders like France’s Nicolas Sarkozy had made it his personal mission to avenge and remove Gaddafi by hook and crook as he feared being exposed for the bounty of millions of Euros, he had availed from his former desert friend for his elections. This was all proved later and recently Sarkozy has been incriminated and is being punished for his misdeed.

Likewise, the role of the UK and Italy along with France had its genesis in their old-time colonial mindset and hangover. Gaddafi was a crook, endeared himself to disaster and met the fate he probably deserved but others were not innocent either. While Lady Clinton played truant and mischievous, which became public through the exposed email exchanges, USA generally was not a willing actor in taking the lead. At the UNGA in 2015 President Obama admitted that “Even as we helped people bring an end to the reign of a tyrant, our coalition could have and should have done more to fill a vacuum left behind” as also quoted by Ambassador HS Puri.

However, recently I chanced upon “Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and Politics of Chaos”, an exemplary account of events by one of the finest Indian diplomats, the aforesaid Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, who was India’s Permanent Representative to the UN and is currently a Minister of the Central government. His narration accurately pinpoints the devious machinations of the Holy P5 or to be more precise P3.  In fact, the title of the book says it all. He comments: “While the international media, after the outbreak of protests, demonized Gaddafi, the West simultaneously intervened militarily in Libya, ostensibly for the protection of civilians”.

The result was not only an enduring plight of the disgruntled and hapless Libyans but the mushrooming of heavily armed militias, terrorism and extremism including Al Qaeda, Islamists and the ISIS, about whom Gaddafi had often forewarned the world. Although they were complicit, if one were to go by ‘rendition proceedings’, the new anarchy also gave the external powers the laissez faire to strike at will which they have continued to do. The proxy militias and rival governments and the presence of their own mercenary fighters provided the requisite turf and excuse for the great western powers to repeatedly intervene.

Sovereignty and territorial integrity only remain in the UN resolutions or in the occasional statements by the countries which are bystanders and simply hedging their bets. Puri writes that “The objective reality is that the al-Qaeda and ISIS could not have come into existence without powerful state sponsors, among them the countries that sought and worked for Saddam’s and Gaddafi’s ouster”. More importantly it has been amply demonstrated, if one were to learn from past and historic blunders again aptly put by Ambassador Puri “The use of force, authorised or otherwise, combined with the arming of multiple rebel factions and the exposing of sectarian fault lines, forms a deadly cocktail for the Middle East”. Needless to say, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen bear the burning testimony of wilful mischievous interventions in the spirit of “King can do wrong and might is right”. But let us not fool ourselves, terrorism and extremism that were generated and nurtured after supposedly ‘well meaning’ interventions will no doubt spare none, howsoever powerful one could be since terrorists only need a single lapse. Libya is a textbook case.

In his book “Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos”, Amb Hardeep Singh Puri has provided vivid details about the positions taken by various actors at the UNSC as dictated by their headquarters which makes it a fascinating account of the events that unfolded from February 17, 2011 (when the Libyan revolution was announced) to Feb 26 of UNSC Resolution 1970 and March 17 of UNSC Resolution 1973. That one month changed the course of Libya’s historical trajectory and was to become far more painful after the initial euphoria of removing the dictator was over. It was mostly driven by the sanguine French craving for military action backed by some Gulf countries with the support of UK on the one hand and the vacillating USA in the middle with China and Russia mostly unconvinced about the implications and possible outcomes of the ‘No Fly Zone’ measures combined with the provision: “and use of all necessary means” to enforce them, on the basis of the R2P doctrine.

As for the US, Puri writes “The split within the US administration was obvious. While Gates was against the military intervention, Clinton was in favour. If Gates had his way, the US would have voted against the Resolution”. The Germans did not consider military intervention justified and abstained. According to Ambassador Puri the German Chancellor’s office was unhappy with France’s unilateral and hasty decision to recognise the Benghazi government and thought the abstention to be a “strategic miscalculation” since they would have preferred to vote against the UNSC 1973 which then could not have passed muster.

Finally, India along with Russia, China, Brazil and Germany abstained as the South Africans were swayed at the last minute under tremendous pressure from Obama and Sarkozy to vote for the UNSC 1973 on March 17, 2011, paving the way for military intervention. The rest is history. The South African Ambassador in Libya often lamented his country’s decision as Pretoria had good relations with the new government. At one time even getting the requisite nine votes to pass the resolution was in doubt as the African Union including Egypt, the greatest regional military power, was not in favour of foreign intervention.

However, the Arab League in its resolution recommended imposition of the No-Fly Zone thereby providing moral legitimacy to the ever so willing and trigger-happy French to undertake their regime change operation. Amb Puri aptly subscribes to the view that “ .. the decision to go to war and effect ‘regime change’ had been taken even before Resolution 1973 was passed.” It may have been defended under the pretext of protecting Libyans from Gaddafi’s genocide but was in essence neither humanitarian nor motivated by the R2P but to dislodge a crazy Brother Leader, who was too unpredictable and in his clouded judgement had become naïve enough to trust his newfound western friends. It is a well-known fact that mixed signals were sent to him which emboldened Gaddafi to unleash his forces against his own people.

Interestingly, at the time all BRICS countries were in the UNSC. India, Russia, and China were also worried about the safety and necessary evacuation of thousands of their citizens should the Gaddafi forces raise hurdles. The Russian Prime Minister Putin was unhappy with President Medvedev for acceding to a softer approach on UNSCR 1973 thus giving leverage to the Americans in a larger geo-political context. Russia learnt the lesson quickly and has returned to the Middle East with a vengeance, starting with Syria where he prevented regime change.

India evacuated over 18000 of her citizens from war-torn Libya and continued to get others out in several stages thereafter as the ground situation remained fragile and insecure. India has opposed military interventions except when duly and explicitly authorised by the UN. This also became the reason for India to abstain. Moreover, Gaddafi’s last-minute dalliance with the BRICS Ambassadors in Tripoli was misconstrued by the ordinary Libyans as their support to the dictator since his media machine projected the talks as if the alleged support was in exchange for oil blocs. This was exploited by the western media ad infinitum.

The western media machine multiplied the vitriolic attacks against us, that impacted our interests adversely in Libya during and after the revolution and was compounded by the delay in recognising the National Transition Council (NTC) led by former Justice Minister of Gaddafi Mustafa Abdul Jalil. Tripoli’s displeasure was evident in the delay in my accreditation as new Ambassador to Libya. I was intentionally snubbed by the Foreign office initially on arrival and had to wait a long time to present my Letters of Credence to President Jalil. I have written about it elsewhere but the fact that I was able to tamper the overt negativity towards India also had a lot to do with my slain friend US Ambassador Chris Stevens who introduced me informally to the then Prime Minister Kieb. President Mohammed Magarief (former Ambassador to India in the 1980s with whom I was privileged to have breakfast nearly every day at the Radisson Hotel where the new political formations were being decided) also gave me some precious information and advice, the late PM Abdurrahman El Kieb and my JNU former colleague, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan were also helpful. I guess I was lucky in an exceedingly difficult period not only for Libya but for Indo-Libyan ties. 

I have extensively but selectively quoted from the seminal work of Ambassador Puri but it is not a review as his study and expose of current events is far richer in the information it provides about various hotspots in the Middle East and elsewhere. His book should be compulsory reading to learn from the mistakes that have cost a great deal to innocent people trusting that the UN and other multilateral organisations or for that matter superpowers would protect them from autocratic regimes or chaos. Alas it is not true…

Libyans with a dream of “New Libya” have suffered untold miseries during the past decade. Fortunately, with the Government of National Unity (GNU) of PM Dabaiba, there is a real chance to redeem that nation and hopefully the powerful external players will remain on the same page. India is back again in the UNSC this year and even chairs the Libya committee. Hopefully it will do what it takes to help Libyans achieve stability, peace, and progress.

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Anil Trigunayat

Amb Anil Trigunayat is a former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta.

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