Libya crisis speaks to the failures of western intervention

The international community is right to call for calm, but it is finding its influence to be limited

FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2017 file photo, Libyan militia commander General Khalifa Hifter meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia. The U.N. chief says he's worried about a major armed showdown in Libya and is urging warring factions to instead turn to dialogue. Forces loyal to Hifter, who commands the self-styled Libya National Army that's based in the country's east, took control overnight Wednesday April 3, 2019, of the town of Gharyan, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Tripoli, without major clashes. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)
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The crisis engulfing Libya has been years in the making. Ignoring pleas from the international community, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army is marching on the capital, Tripoli, and has already taken the airport. This is an extremely volatile situation, from which the Libyan people will suffer most. Already, Tripoli's streets have emptied and ordinary Libyans have taken to stockpiling supplies, anticipating a bloody confrontation. The world is right to demand peace – and its calls should be heeded.

In a joint statement on Thursday, the UK, US, UAE, France and Italy said: "Our governments oppose any military action in Libya and will hold accountable any Libyan faction that precipitates further civil conflict." Russia and Egypt, both traditional supporters of Field Marshal Haftar – who now controls the country's east and south, and most of its oil fields – have also called for de-escalation. Meanwhile, on Friday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres made an appeal to him in Benghazi, emerging empty handed. "I leave Libya with a heavy heart and deeply concerned," Mr Guterres subsequently tweeted. Libya has been sundered by violence and instability since Muammar Qaddafi's 40-year rule, and his life, were abruptly ended with Western intervention in 2011. And the inability of the West to exert any influence over the country now is testament to the historic failures of intervention.

epa07488184 A handout photo made available by Libyan Army Media office on 05 April 2019 shows Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres (R) shaking hands with commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar (L) in Benghazi, eastern Libya (issued 06 April 2019). According to reports, Haftar has ordered Libyan forces loyal to him to take the capital Tripoli, held by a UN-backed unity government, sparking fears of further escalation in the country.  EPA/LIBYAN ARMY MEDIA OFFICE HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

The internationally recognised government in Tripoli, led by Fayez Al Sarraj, is weak and prey to competing militias, who control the city and its economy. Devoid of its own security forces, the government now relies on these militias – and battle-hardened fighters from the quasi-independent city of Misrata – to repel Field Marshal Haftar's army. The scene is set for a ferocious confrontation, and time is running out to prevent it. It comes ahead of a UN-backed national conference to break the deadlock, scheduled for April 14. But in reality, UN-led stabilisation efforts have faltered, with little incentive for Libya's warring parties to surrender influence in the name of peace. Meanwhile, European nations – who are dealing with the constant flow of African migrants from Libya – have publicly bickered over the country's future. Late last year, Italy's Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, accused France of worsening Libya's chaos to further its oil interests. While the Italians have supported Mr Al Sarraj's government, France has viewed Field Marshal Haftar as a bulwark against Al Qaeda, ISIS and Islamist terrorism across North Africa.

Following the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, western governments now avoid nation-building in the Middle East. But intervention in Libya in 2011 was hopelessly inadequate. Once Qaddafi was deposed and killed, the country was left to its own devices. Enormously divided then, its fissures have only widened since. This latest escalation is extremely concerning, not least for the lives of ordinary Libyans. But resolving it is made all the harder by the inability of the world powers to exert influence. And for that, the US, UK and France only have themselves to blame.