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Thursday, 5 July 2018

Review: The Burning Shores

Bronwen Griffiths

The 2011 Libyan and Syrian revolutions began within weeks of each other, and the Libya intervention profoundly affected international responses to Syria. Bronwen Griffiths reviews a new book by Frederic Wehrey on the Libyan experience.

The Burning Shores—Inside the Battle for the New Libya,
Frederic Wehrey, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2018

The NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, which the UK took part in, is still contested. A report in 2016 by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee stated that the UK’s strategy was based on ‘erroneous assumptions and an incomplete understanding of the evidence’, accusing the government of selectively taking the threats of Quadafi at face value. After the Government argued that its actions ‘undoubtedly’ saved civilian lives in Libya, the Committee accepted that ‘as the Government response suggests, UK policy in Libya was initially driven by a desire to protect civilians. However, we do not accept that it understood the implications of this, which included collapse of the state, failure of stabilisation, and the facilitation of Islamist extremism in Libya.’

The idea of an international ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) and a possible enforcement of human rights is seen as a way of preventing authoritarian governments from hurting their own populations. In a contrast to Libya, the violent protests in Syria, which were met with extreme violence by the Assad regime, demonstrates the limits of this idea. This raises questions about the international context of the intervention in Libya, and possible reasons for differences between the two countries.


The UN Security Council adopted UN Resolution 1973 (2011), allowing all ‘necessary measures to protect civilians’ in Libya, by a vote of ten in favour and five abstentions. By contrast, attempts in the Security Council to condemn the Syrian government for its violent crackdown on the protesters failed twice. Western states and NATO have proved in the past that they are able and willing to act to protect civilians even without a mandate of the UN Security Council. The NATO-led operation in 1999 against Yugoslavia to protect the population of Kosovo is an example of this.

The Burning Shores deals purely with the intervention in Libya. The author, Frederic Wehrey, a US military veteran, is a specialist in post-conflict transition with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has reported widely from Libya and the Middle East and has spent time in Libya.  His account examines the uprising in Libya in 2011, the subsequent intervention by NATO forces and what has happened in Libya since then (up until 2017). He examines what went wrong after the regime fell and Muammar al-Quadafi was killed. However, his account does not delve into the colonial history of Libya, nor is it concerned with the wider Arab World or why dictatorships are still thriving in many Arab countries. Wehrey does not discuss in depth the moral issue of whether the West should have got involved. Nor does he examine the wider term view about international interventions.  This is more of a forensic account of what and why, told from an American point of view and for an American public.

Wehrey agrees that without intervention by NATO, it is likely that many more civilians would have died. The Americans and their allies were also concerned that if the war turned very bloody it would spill over into its neighbours, Tunisia and Egypt. He discusses some of the anxieties America and its allies had about intervention but he does not discuss this in depth. However, after the uprising against Quadafi which began on the 17th February 2011 and Saif al-Islam’s fiery speech supporting his father (February 20th), the Americans realised that any hopes of reaching a negotiated settlement with the Quadafi regime were hopeless. Because of the debacle of Iraq, Obama was reluctant to intervene. In the end a compromise was reached—the Americans would use its airpower and then hand on responsibility to its European partners. The first strikes took place on the 19th March against Quadafi forces assembled outside Benghazi. Twelve days after the first strikes, the USA handed leadership of the air campaign and naval blockade to NATO.

The initial idea was for ‘civilian protection’ but as the campaign progressed ‘the logic… demanded that the regime had to go.’ Wehrey does not write about this in any detail.  His view is that arms shipped to the opposition—by the Americans, French, British, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates—ended up having far-reaching effects after the war. Qatar also gave weapons and training to Islamist fighters, not because it was committed to a covert Islamist project as Wehrey sees it, but rather because it saw them as the most capable fighters. This too would have far reaching effects.

Wehrey is critical of Obama and his reluctance to get involved in Libya after the NATO intervention, and he is critical of the continued reluctance of America to properly engage with Libya; there is still no American Embassy in Libya. It is true that the Libyans were opposed to any involvement by outside powers, though, as Wehrey makes clear outside powers were already involved. ‘Libya seemed all but forgotten’ he writes. He is also critical of the Europeans for the same reason: everyone seemed to think the UN would take a larger role, which it did not.

Wehrey explains the complicated politics and factionalism that arose after the ousting of the regime. The National Transitional Council was set up in late February 2011,= in Benghazi. But the NTC was weak and cracks started appearing almost immediately. The Chairman, Mustafa al-Jibril, tilted towards Qatar and the Islamists, while Dr. Ali Nayed, the leader of Tripoli’s Task Force charged with developing post-conflict plans, began to lean more on the Emirates. After the murder of General Younis, who had been commanding the rebel campaign, mistrust between the Islamists and ex-regime factions widened even further.  Decades of neglect in Benghazi under the Quadafi regime also meant that those in power in Benghazi began to move towards a federalist approach, fearing a return to the marginalisation of the past. This only added to the distrust between east and west Libya.

As Wehrey suggests, holding elections too soon after a conflict can be problematic: ‘past experiences showed that doing so rewarded the strongest factions and those with the guns.’ Initially, the election results came as a relief but all too soon the questions of weapons became a serious issue. The weak government insisted that the state could not be built until the revolutionaries gave up their guns, but the revolutionaries insisted they would not do so until the state was formed and their interests were secure. In addition there was also the issue of Libyans returning from abroad, many of whom knew little of the country they had left, and certainly not the vast region outside the main cities.  Women’s rights were also ignored.

There were problems with the amount of support given post-conflict. Wehrey is highly critical of this. For the first half of 2012, the United Nations Support Mission (UNSMIL) had no-one on its staff with expertise in reforming security institutions and when a section was set up to do this, it was under-staffed.  As Wehrey explains, there was a real need for a ‘stabilisation’ force of peace-keeping troops. However the Libyans didn’t want foreign forces in Libya and, as Wehrey suggests, ‘the record of UN deployments shows it is exceedingly hard to maintain the perception of total neutrality.’ The USA’s defence attache, Colonel Linvill, was little more than an observer. After he left in the summer of 2012, Linvill wrote that ‘Libya lacks an alternative to the entrenched power of local militias.’

In Benghazi the local militias became increasingly Islamist; the group Ansar al-Sharia, led by al-Zahawi, rejected democracy as un-Islamic. Wehrey sees this as partly an internal problem and partly due to outside events but the book does not really analyse what was happening elsewhere (e.g. in Iraq and Syria).

Wehrey writes in detail of the events of September 11th 2012, when the American Embassy in Benghazi was attacked and Chris Stevens, the US Ambassador was killed, along with three other Americans. Following the attack and the increased power of the militias, the space for civil discourse shrank and political divisions within Libya worsened. Then, in May 2013, the Political Isolation Law was passed. Wehrey states: ‘It eroded, perhaps fatally, public confidence in Libya’s first elected parliament in decades, the General National Congress (GNC).’ The Political Isolation Law prohibited anyone formally tied to the Quadafi regime from holding government office for a period of ten years. There was indeed support in Libya for some form of exclusion of high-ranking officials from the previous regime but many, both in Libya and elsewhere, thought the law far too wide.

Wehrey is clear that we should not fall for the narrative that Jibril and his allies put forward: that they were all that stood between a democratic future and an Islamism one. Almost everyone in Libya agreed on some role for Islam in political life.  The conflict, as he sees it, seemed to be more a scramble for political supremacy and access to wealth, based around towns and tribes, and their militias.  But most of all, there was something bigger at work which Wehrey likens to the factionalism of the Spanish Civil War. Like Spain in the 1930’s, Libya was ‘becoming an arena for proxy competition between outside powers with clashing visions of politics.’

The elected Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, who had only been elected by a narrow margin was soon under intense pressure by the militias. A plan to train the Libyan army as a general purpose force was doomed from the start, due to funding problems and opposition from the militias. Zeidan’s government faced other pressures, including the take-over over of the oil ports in the east.  Then, in October 2013, Zeidan was abducted. Though he was released, he was becoming increasingly powerless. And violence erupted again in Benghazi.

In 2014 the figure of General Hiftar emerged. He soon announced the suspension of the GNC and attacked the bases of the Benghazi militias, not only the radicals like Ansar al-Sahria but also pro-state militias like the Libya Shield and February 17 Brigade. He called his mission, ‘Operation Dignity.’ Meanwhile, Zeidan fled to Germany.

Wehrey believes that in the end ‘the line that divided those who supported Operation Dignity and those who didn’t wasn’t really about ideology… instead it was about how much of the old order to preserve and how much to discard.’ Libyans themselves were divided; certainly people wanted security, but Hiftar also threatened elected institutions.  After Salwa Bugaighi, the human rights lawyer, was murdered in Benghazi on June 25th 2014, General Hiftar redoubled his efforts to wipe out the militants in Benghazi, supported by Egypt and the Emiratis, while Libya Dawn was supported by Qatar. Libya in effect now had two governments: Libya Dawn’s National Salvation Government in Tripoli, and the House of Representatives—controlled by Hiftar—in the eastern city of Tobruk.

Violence increased, as did tribalism. Quadafi had always pitted the southern tribes (the Tuareg and Tabu) against each other. In addition, due to poor border control, towns like Ghat on the Algerian border, became porous and Islamists flowed in. And as the war between Libya Dawn and Hiftar’s forces (Dignity) intensified, Islamic State supporters managed to get a hold in Derna and Sirt.

Finally in December 2015 the two sides, Dawn and Dignity, signed an agreement for a government of National Accord. However, the agreement was beset by problems from the start. It failed to deliver services, and was unwieldy, and Hiftar refused to co-operate with it. After Hiftar’s victories against ISIS in Sirt and Benghazi in 2016, he moved to consolidate his power. After the election of President Trump, Hiftar sent two of his sons to meet with Trump’s transition team. Hiftar was asking to take over, promising elections in two years. The Americans said no. In January 2017, Hiftar was seen aboard a Russian aircraft carrier, which had stopped off on route back from Syria. Russia had always been a supporter of Quadhafi—now it saw an ally in Hiftar.

Before Obama left office, he agreed the Americans would intervene against Islamic State forces camped outside Sirt. Wehrey sees Obama’s legacy in Libya mainly as a failure: ‘The regional proxy war in Libya was the clearest evidence yet of the failure of Western and international plans for post-revolution Libya.’ It was partly this failure that dissuaded him from intervening in Syria, but Wehrey does not discuss this in the book.

When Trump came to power there was even more of an absence of American diplomatic leadership. In theory, the Trump administration still supported the UN-backed government in Tripoli ‘but in practice it saw Libya primarily through the lens of countering the Islamic State.’ Wehrey himself testified before the American senate in April 2017: ‘The United States must avoid subcontracting its Libya policy to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates,’ he said.

By the middle of 2017, Hiftar had more or less defeated IS in Libya but his power was now much greater than before and many Libyans felt that the ‘deep state’ had returned.

The book does contain a chapter on the migration issue, and how Qadhafi portrayed himself as the gatekeeper ‘who could turn the taps on or off at will.’ Wehrey points out that this was largely illusory and that even in 2016 Italy was paying the traffickers themselves, via the Tripoli government, to stop carrying migrants across the sea and the desert; a short-sighted move that has been mostly ineffective.

Libya post 2011 is a confusing place. Wehrey certainly helps to untangle some of those threads. His book does include personal accounts by Libyans but he doesn’t include much on civil activism and society. The book is much more concerned with Western policy, particularly American policy. He does write the end of the book about a need for a ‘social contract, drawn up by the Libyans themselves, which devolve some degree of power to the local level and is supported by outside states that must cease their harmful meddling,’ but he does not make suggestions as to how this might happen, nor does he discuss the wider issue of military, political or economic interventions in general.

Wehrey’s account is even-handed. He concludes that the problem of Libya is due to the Libyans themselves, to outside meddling, to a lack of preparation for post-conflict Libya and also to a lack of understanding of the nature of Libyan society. What has happened to Libya also reflects a deeper malaise in the Arab world, a disorder that is ‘the consequence of decades of dictatorship.’


Note: Since the book was completed, France has proposed an initiative to end Libya’s political impasse by holding parliamentary and presidential elections by the end of 2018 as per a United National timeline. It remains to be seen whether this will happen and what will be the outcome.

A selection of further reading:

History of Libya
  • John Wright, A History of Libya, 2010
  • Dirk Vandewalle, A History of Modern Libya, 2006
  • R. A. Bagnold, Libyan Sands, 1935
The Revolution
  • Rana Jawad, Tripoli Witness, 2011
  • Lindsey Hilsum, Sandstorm, 2012
  • Alex Crawford, Colonel Gaddafi’s Hat, 2012
  • Stefan Hasler, Explaining Humanitarian Intervention in Libya and Non-Intervention in Syria (article), 2012
Post conflict
Fiction/memoir
  • Hisham Matar, The Return—Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between, 2016
  • Ibrahim al-Koni, The Bleeding of the Stone, 2014
Bronwen Griffiths is the author of a work of fiction, A Bird in the House, (2014) set in Tripoli during the Libyan Revolution. The book was written after she visited Libya in February 2011. Bronwen also works as a volunteer with SyriaUK.

See also: Libya and Syria, and the failure of the UN by Clara Connolly.

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