Let’s start with the indisputable facts: the “Arab Spring” Colour Revolution created the pretext for NATO’s 2011 War on Libya and the subsequent murder of Gaddafi. US foreign policy is fully responsible for all this and for the rise of terrorism in Libya and the present problem with Daesh in that country.
Having got that out of the way, this article is not a polemic. It is an analysis of the reality that currently exists in Libya taking into consideration the geopolitical imperatives of all the sides.
The UN Security Council recently decided to relax the arms embargo on Libya. Why did that happen and why did Russia and China support it?
For starters, illegal arms have been pouring into Libya for years. It’s just that they have not been going to the Libyan government.
The arms embargo against Libya imposed by the UN Security Council is hurting the only forces that are legitimately capable of fighting terrorism in Libya, just as the unilateral Western embargo against Syria had been doing the same in Syria.
The UN Security Council’s decision to relax the arms embargo on Libya does not provide for a full resumption of unrestricted weapons sales to Libya. Rather it permits “exceptions” to the embargo based on the Libyan authorities’ requests individually assessed on an “as-needs” basis.
The West created this mess and now wants to profit by “fixing” it by selling weapons to the newly formed Government of National Accord (GNA). Of course it wants to do this for all the wrong reasons. The main reason – other than the publicly stated one of “fighting terrorism” – is to equip a new loyal proxy enforcer. However it is not guaranteed that will succeed. it is not impossible that the person chosen – CIA-linked General Haftar – might get a massive ego boost causing him to turn on his unipolar patrons, especially if he feels he can play them off against potential multipolar rivals like Russia and China. Already he is refusing to recognise the UN-approved government in Tripoli, so there’s a chance he might one day “go rogue” and become the second most disruptive factor in Libya behind Daesh.
A widely expressed concern about the partial lifting of the UN arms embargo is that weapons might inadvertently end up in the hands of terrorists. Presumably it was to prevent this happening that the embargo was imposed in the first place.
This is certainly possible. There is definitely a risk that undisciplined and/or untrained army units might hand over their weapons to terrorists some of whom they might just see as “local rebels” or even as “freedom fighters”. There is also a very real possibility that army units might surrender them to the terrorists on the battlefield as the Iraqi military did during the summer of 2014. However the presence of US, UK, French, Italian, and the (likely though unacknowledged) presence of Egyptian and/or Gulf (UAE) special forces on the ground should preclude this from happening at least on a wide-ranging scale.
In saying this I should make it clear that I do not support the presence of foreign troops in Libya. I am simply stating a fact. As undesirable as the presence of these troops may be for supporters of multipolarity like myself – and indeed for the Great Powers like Russia and China which support multipolarity – their presence is the current reality.
Whilst there is plenty to criticise in the presence of these troops, one possible ‘silver lining’ is their potential capacity to prevent weapons ending up in the hands of terrorists they weren’t intended for. That does not of course mean that once Dash is defeated they won’t channel weapons to other terrorists and other non-state actors. However that does not seem to be their intention at the moment.
The Kremlin’s Calculations
Amidst all the outrage in the alternative media about the UN Security Council decision to allow a partial lifting of the embargo, it might be useful to remind everyone that this decision was also supported by the Russian and Chinese governments – the twin stewards of the emerging multipolar world order. Whilst some criticisms of the decision are legitimate, it is doubtful Moscow or Beijing would have agreed to the loosening of the arms embargo if they did not have their own reasons for doing so. These would certainly not be because Moscow and Beijing have “sold out to the West” as certain information provocateurs routinely say. It is because Moscow and Beijing pragmatically understand the nature of the terrorist threat on the ground and realise that the only way it can possibly be defeated is if the legitimate UN-approved authorities are provided with the military means to do it.
Consistent with this approach Russia is planning to sell its own weapons to the Government for National Accord if an agreement to do so can be reached.
This would be a major development. It would offer a whole new set of opportunities for Russian diplomatic engagement in Libya.
One of the traditional means through which Russia cultivates strategic relationships is through “weapons diplomacy”. This entails selling weapons, training local troops to handle them, and providing maintenance as needed.
Such “weapons diplomacy” often prepares the groundwork for more robust and comprehensive relations in other fields. It is regularly used by Moscow as the first step in reaching out to non-traditional partners.
Whilst Tripoli has historically always been close to Moscow, it would have been unthinkable just a few years ago for its new pro-Western regime – created as a result of a Western military intervention in the country – to look to Moscow for help in fighting terrorists. That it is doing so is a sign of the exceptionally strong impact in the region of Russia’s anti-terrorist intervention in Syria and of the way Libya’s authorities have come to think of Russian weapons as a game change in their struggle.
As for Beijing, it probably won’t get as involved on the ground as Russia, the West, and Washington’s Arab allies are. However Beijing undoubtedly hopes it can recoup some of the losses it has suffered since the Western backed conflict in Libya began 5 years ago.
When the Libyan conflict began China dramatically evacuated all its citizens from Libya, leaving behind billions of dollars in capital investments. However, when the situation improves, China will doubtless seek ways to reintegrate the country into its global network of investment bases and turn it into a key node along the One Belt One Road (New Silk Road) project.
The Chinese will probably continue with their usual policy in these situations, which is to remain quietly on the sidelines while the other Great Powers sort the mess out, and then quietly come forward with a raft of win-win deals in order to clinch the strategic partnerships that everyone else had previously competed for.
Taking into account the nature of the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership, this would also work out to Moscow’s benefit. The Libyan conflict in fact provides an excellent example of how Russia and China, by playing to their individual strengths, are able to compliment each other in achieving shared objectives.
Russia will provide the Government of National Accord with the arms and diplomatic support it needs in its anti-terrorist struggle, which will have a disproportionate psychological effect despite their likely small scale since they will be supplied by the military power whose actions have had such a dramatic impact in the Syrian conflict. China will then – as it always does – step in after the situation has been stabilised, reaching out to the Libya elite and striking deals that – at least to a certain extent – will partially realign Libya with the multipolar axis led by Russia and China and away from the exclusive control of the unipolar system dominated by the US.
As for the US and its partners, once the conflict is over (which could take years) they could find themselves deprived of at least some of the ‘booty’ they assumed would be theirs.
Libya will likely remain a mostly colonised, strongly pro-Western state for the foreseeable future. The enormous scale of the Hybrid War the West has waged against Libya since 2011 – culminating in the killing of Gaddafi and the subsequent years-long anarchy – realistically allows for no other possible scenario.
The US and its allies seem to have made a strategic decision to refocus on Libya and to rebuild it into the sort of occupied state they want it to be. Such a state will not of course be one that works for the benefit of all the Libyan people. However reconstituting the Jamahiriya is impossible unless pro-Gaddafi “Green” elements both return to power and remain in power for decades. That obviously is something the West will not allow. The only possibility is that the West might at some point in the future permit some sort of “pseudo-Green” elements claiming a notional fealty to the idea of the Jamahiriya to return to power, but only provided they actually continue to collaborate with the West.
The EU for its part had previously wanted to participate in Libya’s reconstruction. This despite the fact the EU was party to the US-led war which destroyed Libya in the first place. It was not until the US-engineered Immigrant Crisis came crashing on the EU’s shores and Daesh began to attack Europe – under very suspicious circumstances – that the EU changed its mind and fell in with the US plan for Libya. Today in Libya the EU is a fully paid up ally and foot-soldier of the US.
The scale of the anti-terrorist war in Libya is gigantic. The myriad of non-state actors and openly terroristic groups like Daesh that are operating in Libya is so large that it would be impossible for a “secret war” to root them all out.
This is what forced the US’s hand, obliging the US to “go public” by turning to the UN Security Council to seek approval for a loosening of the UN arms embargo. That required the backing of Russia and China, which in turn has led to the door into Libya being re-opened for them.
Moscow and Beijing supported the loosening of the embargo in part primarily because of their unwavering commitment to fighting all forms of terrorism no matter where they happen or who is behind them and regardless of whether their Great Power counterparts are fully committed to the struggle or are pursuing it for some ulterior purpose. However, although the prospects are limited, there is now also a real chance that Russia and China might be able to capitalise from the anti-terrorist struggle in Libya to reach out to those sectors of Libyan society that might be interested in seeing Libya integrate with the broader multipolar world once the conflict is over. If done intelligently, in a properly thought out way, drawing on the respective strengths of the two partners in the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership, this could open up a way to at least a partial re establishment of Russian and Chinese influence in a country that had appeared to be completely lost to Western influence.
Though there are risks inherent in this strategy, given the threat of Daesh turning Libya’s North African coast into a terrorist oasis, easing the UN arms embargo on Libya is the least bad of option available. The Russians and the Chinese no doubt also see it as the only way to draw Libya back towards a multipolar alignment. As such their support for the loosening of the embargo can be seen as a long term investment which might pay dividends one day in the future.