A distinguished statesman and theorist recently described to me the war in Libya as being "the great unmasker" – which is a remarkably apt term for what we have seen there in recent years, especially with things coming to a head in the last month. A brief analysis of the war reveals just how multifaceted this portrayal is:
A simple look at the friends, allies and adversaries shows just how duplicitous the stances are. The Government of National Accord (GNA) is, supposedly, recognized by the international community, and yet we have countries as diverse as Iran, Syria, Egypt, Russia, France and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) backing warlord Khalifa Haftar’s campaign to overthrow it by fair means or foul.
Then we have international alliances and their related organizations, such as NATO, who are – in principle – designed to act in unison in the interests of their member states. It is bizarre then, that even though NATO agrees in principle with alliance member Turkey’s intervention at the request of the GNA, it has decided to sit on the fence in this conflict because another member, France, has decided to throw its lot in with Russia, an old adversary of NATO. The same stance has been adopted by the United Nations, the G-7 and a whole host of other organizations.
If we look at the principles and values that are being thrown under the bus in order to support Haftar, it is equally astounding. From looking the other way when Daesh took over Sirte to the deliberate bombing of schools and hospitals to the laying of landmines and the discovery of mass graves of innocent civilians, the allies of Haftar have left no doubt as to how low they will go to achieve their dirty aims. Add to this the fatwas that have emanated from government-funded religious scholars giving carte blanche to Haftar’s followers to act without reason or restraint and the picture is clear: From international organizations to governments and religious scholars, the masks have fallen and their ugly hypocrisy has been laid bare.
As the war drags on to its conclusion, this unmasking will continue and intensify, but there is one last exposition that the world awaits, and one which nobody has any control over: the question of just how hard a strain will be felt economically by the protagonists in this fight following the endless wars in the Middle East and the implosion of order caused by the devastating impact of COVID-19. How much of a financial hit has the UAE taken, and can it continue to bankroll the despots? How far can Russia commit to this war when its financial backers are collapsing – especially when its other despotic client Bashar Assad seems to be drowning, and there is nothing they can do about it? How far can Egypt go without its rich backers? Will it risk its army that is designed to oppress its own people and maintain the status quo of a military dictatorship in the quagmire next door? How can France and Greece continue if the pro-Haftar alliance crumbles? How long can Donald Trump hold out against his own deep state for the sake of his fellow racketeer in Moscow? Under normal circumstances, this war would end in another brutal occupation followed by the installation of a puppet leader who siphons the wealth of his country to his paymasters, but these are not normal circumstances.
Haftar’s backers may be able to temporarily deceive their public and the world as to the effect that COVID-19 has had on their domestic economies and societies, but their humiliating defeat in the war in Libya is what will be their ultimate unmasking.
* London-based researcher and strategist specializing in Middle Eastern and Islamic Affairs