Russia had not yet managed to signal its interest in Libya, when UK defense minister Michael Fallon, speaking at an international security conference in Munich, said with clear irritation, “We certainly don’t need Russia, we don’t need the bear sticking its paws in.”
We can assume that the British defense minister’s mental breakdown was a belated reaction to the visit that Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan forces under the control of the government in Tobruk, paid in January to Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. “Putin is testing the West,” Fallon announced. “He is testing the [NATO] alliance and at any point he sees weakness, he pushes home. That’s why it is important we stand up for our values and continue to back the Sarraj government while urging it to be more representative of the interests of the [Libyan] east.”
Momentarily overlooking the Briton’s churlish tone, his statement should apparently be understood to mean that interfering in Libya’s internal affairs is the prerogative of NATO’s member states. They are the ones meddling by sticking their “paws” into Libya. For example, British SAS special-forces units have taken part in military operations inside Libya, which has included assisting armed Misrata brigades to oust Islamic State (IS) troops from Sirte. However, it is more likely that London is upset about something else: the budding prospects for cooperation between Russia and Libya in the oil sector. On February 21 Russia’s Rosneft signed a contract with Libya’s National Oil Company (NOC) laying the foundation for Russian investments in the Libyan oil industry. As noted in the NOC’s statement, “The agreement envisages the establishment of a joint working committee of the two partners to evaluate opportunities in a variety of sectors, including exploration and production.” According to the Guardian, by taking this step Russia has considerably boosted its involvement in Libya.
The British defense minister got his official answer from his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu, “To continue with the ‘animal’ topic… What is on their coat of arms, a lion, isn’t it? There is an old saying: every lion is a cat, but not every cat is a lion. Everyone should deal with their affairs. We do not think that there is an animal in their zoo that can order a bear around.”
London’s anti-Russia political maneuvering coincided with the sixth anniversary of the anti-government protests in Libya that led to a bloody civil war and the collapse of the Libyan state. From the very beginning, the anti-government protests were supported by Great Britain and France. And it all culminated in British and French aircraft bombing not only Libyan military targets, but also civilian ones.
We can see the result of NATO’s actions in Libya – a civil war that killed 50,000 in 2011 alone (the number continues to grow), approximately one million refugees, wrecked infrastructure, and rampant inflation. The country has disintegrated and rival armed factions have each carved out their own slice of territory. The warring militias in Tripoli, taking no notice of Sarraj’s government, periodically delineate their relationships with one another with the help of not only light but also heavy artillery.
Libya is now a hot spot that draws international terrorist groups. The most dangerous of these is the Islamic State. Libya’s IS contingent emerged in April 2014, and in July of the same year it swore allegiance to “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Eight hundred militants formed the original core of that organization, 300 of which were Libyan mujahideen who got their combat experience in Syria, mainly in the province of Deir ez-Zor. Initially, the Mediterranean city of Derna was becoming the center of the new IS wilayat in Libya. Al-Baghdadi, however, refused to provide his Libyan supporters with financial assistance, sending them instead two “overseers” – an Iraqi named Abu Nabil al-Anbari and a Saudi named Abu al-Baraa el-Azdi. Lacking financial support from “headquarters,” the Libyan rebels have turned to “self-financing” – through illegal trade in drugs, weapons, and ransoms for kidnappings.
The jihadists in Libya are leaving behind a trail of unusually brutal executions and acts of terrorism. In September 2014, they executed several Egyptian citizens at a soccer stadium in Derna. In January 2015, they attacked the five-star Corinthia Hotel Tripoli, killing four foreigners (including one US citizen) and four citizens of Libya. This was followed by attacks on oil fields and the capture of the city of Sirte. The apotheosis of the jihadists’ crimes in Libya was the execution of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians, which was videotaped and posted on the Internet.
From inside Libya, terrorists are also destabilizing the status quo in neighboring Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, and Chad. Specifically, they are moving militants into the Sinai Peninsula, where a different IS affiliate is active – Ansar Bait al-Maqdis.
Libya today is a war of all against all. Armed factions from Misrata and Tripoli, feeling threatened by the growth of the Islamic State’s influence, announced the capture of Sirte in December 2016 after lengthy fighting that lasted nearly six months. However, the main IS forces (several thousand people) were able to evacuate the city without incident. Now they are concentrated nearby so they can fight to reclaim Sirte. But this doesn’t worry Michael Fallon. On the contrary, this war of all against all makes a great excuse to expand the British military presence in Libya.
In 2011, the Libyan “revolution” began when a number of tribes on the eastern part of the country were goaded into protesting the “unjust” (or so they were convinced) distribution of oil revenues. This is a classic example of neocolonialism, as Great Britain and France – with the support of the US – attempted to ride the wave of protests in Libya to further their own ends. Prior to declaring independence, Libya was divided into three colonial sectors of responsibility: Tripolitania under Italian control, Fezzan under a French mandate, and the oil-rich region of Cyrenaica under the control of the British. The desire to revive that history has forced the British cat, depicted as a lion, to plunge its paws deeply into Libya.