Warnings from Interventions Past: Libya

In the wake of President Trump’s ill advised airstrike on Syria, there has been much speculation as to what exactly the administration will do next (always a fun activity with Trump) in the region. While many have speculated that we may well be heading into the next Iraq War, those more defensive of Trump’s actions have taken to claiming that he’ll be able to achieve his (dangerous) goal of regime change by just launching an air-campaign. This, his defenders claim, will prevent another quagmire in the Middle East.

There’s only one problem with that analysis; we did that already and it created another quagmire in the Middle East. Still drunk off of the recent victory over Hillary Clinton, some on the right have deluded themselves into believing that whatever Trump touches turns to gold, even if he happens to be doing the exact same things as his predecessor.

For those who may not remember what exactly I am referring to, it’s Libya. Where then President Obama launched a seven month air campaign against the regime of then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Since then, Libya has turned into an ungovernable war zone akin to Somalia.

But that doesn’t quite tell us the whole story. So let’s quickly review exactly what happened throughout the Libyan Civil War that got us to this point and what warnings it can offer us about launching an air campaign against Syria, as some have suggested.

In 2011, after 42 years in power, Libyan strongman Gaddafi’s regime was under siege. The Arab Spring had broken out across the region and those governments that were once considered staunch American allies, such as those of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, could no longer count on American support. Indeed, in Mubarak and Gaddafi’s cases, the United States chose to flat-out stab their old allies in the back.

Indeed, starting in the 1990s the Gaddafi Regime quickly became one of Washington’s favorite allies in the slowly intensifying conflict that would become the War on Terror. In fact, Gaddafi’s Libya became the first country in the world to issue an arrest warrant for Osama Bin Laden in 1998. After the War on Terror properly began in 2001, Gaddafi’s Libya quickly became a US favorite for the interrogation of captured terrorists. With Gaddafi’s Secret Police providing the US government with a continuous stream of intelligence right up until the 2011 intervention that ousted him. In 2009 Neo-Conservative warmonger and all around hypocrite John McCain called Gaddafi a, “peacemaker in Africa” and an, “important ally in the War on Terror.”

How very differently the Senator would refer to Gaddafi only a few years later, when in 2011 he became one of the most vocal proponents of regime change in Libya. Perhaps at the behest of his corporate paymasters in ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips; all of whom made campaign contributions in the millions to McCain over the course of his career.

But as the Libyan Civil War got underway it at first appeared as though Gaddafi may well have ridden out the storm sweeping across the Middle East. His armed forces were winning in battle after battle against rebel forces and had them pinned down in Benghazi. Gaddafi, thinking that victory was well within his grasp, gave the now infamous Zenga Zenga speech in which he implored his followers to go and, hunt down the rebels, “inch by inch, house by house, home by home, alleyway by alleyway,” and kill them. Needless to say, the prospect of this evoked international condemnation from the United Nations.

Feeling threatened, Gaddafi lashed out, publically declaring that he would have commercial airliners shot out of the sky. To many, particularly those familiar with the Lockerbie Bombing of 1988, this was a road they knew they didn’t want to go down and thus felt forced to take steps to prevent this in the form of a no-fly zone over Libya. But, what started as a no-fly zone quickly turned into an all out aerial bombardment campaign against Gaddafi’s forces when then President Obama suddenly made clear his belief that Gaddafi had, “clearly lost the confidence of his own people” and that this somehow warranted regime change.

We now know, thanks to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails, that the real reason behind the US sudden shift in policy lay in the fact that Gaddafi had prepared a proposal for the African Union to unveil a new gold-backed currency that would have challenged the dollar and Euro. Clinton’s emails also revealed that from the onset of the protests that turned into a Civil War that the American government was actively attempting to hide and cover up rebel war-crimes in order to make intervention more acceptable to the American people.

Thus, the American air campaign began and the tide of the conflict swiftly turned against Gaddafi. By August the Libyan capitol of Tripoli had fallen and Gaddafi was nowhere to be found. But, on October 20, 2011 US intelligence intercepted a phone call from what was believed to be Gaddafi’s mobile phone. Using this information to trace the call American bombers were dispatched to bomb the convoy believed to be carrying Gaddafi in Sirte. There, shortly after the air-strikes that immobilized his convoy, Gaddafi was captured, sodomized with a knife, and then murdered by rebel forces.

But this was not to be the end of the Libyan people’s suffering. Rather, it was to be the beginning. Throughout the conflict up until this point had largely been a fight between the government and a unified rebel force, commanded by the Transitional Council in Benghazi. But, not long after Gaddafi’s death, the rebels began to fracture into the various different groups that now continue to fight amongst themselves to this day in Libya. In Tripoli, the General National Congress purports to be the new legitimate government of Libya. But they are opposed in this by Council of Deputies in Tobruk who claim the same. Further complicating matters, Islamic Fundamentalist groups within the rebels broke away to form what is now known as ISIS in Libya and the Islamic Maghreb, an offshoot of Al-Quaeda.

Sound complicated? Well you’ve heard nothing yet then. Because the situation in Syria is even more complex than the situation in Libya was at the time of Gaddafi’s death. In Syria the moderate opposition to the government has all but vanished leaving the conflict between the Syrian government which controls the western coastal regions of the country and the southern heartland around Damascus, the Kurdish Rojava which seek to form their own independent nation in the northern and largely strategically irrelevant northern rural heartland of Syria, and then there is ISIS who control much of the Eastern portion of the country and are fiercely battling the Kurds in the North and the Syrian Arab Army in the West and South.

In Libya we saw that a campaign of aerial bombardment turned the nation into an ungovernable failed state. In Syria, the country is even more fractured and has even more factions fighting for control. To engage in any attempt at regime change, be it through a campaign from the air or boots on the ground, would be disastrous and only resulted in yet another failed state in the Middle East.

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