How the wars in Libya and Syria are strangely intertwined

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 22 July 2020

When Egypt recently threatened to intervene in Libya’s war, Cairo received the wholehearted support of Damascus.

That the embattled Syrian regime, itself still fighting a gruelling civil conflict that has drawn in a myriad of foreign intervention, would so enthusiastically back similar interference elsewhere might seem odd. But it serves a wider purpose for Assad, ingratiating him to Egypt and its allies.

It also fits a pattern that has been present since the beginning of both the Syrian and Libyan civil wars in 2011. Though the two conflicts have taken different paths, the Libya war has frequently impacted events in Syria, with reverberations felt in unexpected ways on the other side of the Mediterranean.

One key way in which the Libya war has impacted Syria has been to inspire some opposition actors to take up arms in the first place. When Syria’s uprising began in March 2011, the early opposition movement against President Bashar al-Assad was consciously peaceful, taking its cues from the successful bloodless revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt months earlier.

Yet, when this failed to achieve the rapid success seen elsewhere and Assad responded with brutal violence, some looked instead to the Libyan model of revolution, where armed rebels had toppled Muammar Gaddafi. While this prompted heated debate among Syrian opposition members, by March 2012, the opposition in exile, the Syrian National Council, had formally endorsed the armed strategy that rebel fighters on the ground were already taking.

Libya had already become a source of Syrian rebel arms and finance. As early as November 2011, Syrian rebels were reportedly negotiating with the new post-Gaddafi government in Tripoli about providing weapons. After a leading Libyan rebel, Abdul Hakim Belhaj, travelled to Turkey, the Libyan government made a $100m donation to the Syrian rebels.

A regular supply of weapons was sent from Libya to Syria’s rebels via Turkey. Also, Qatar was inspired in Syria by its apparent success in backing rebels against Gaddafi. It is an interesting question as to whether Doha would have been so enthusiastic were it not for events in Libya.

‘The intervention is coming’

A similar question could be asked on the importance of Libya in impacting western views of the Syria crisis, and the Syrian opposition’s expectations of western intervention. After Nato directly intervened against Gaddafi, Syrian opposition groups increasingly expected something similar against Assad.

The rebels’ strategy in 2011-12, encouraged by their allies in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, was geared towards taking territory and holding out long enough until the inevitable western intervention. One opposition figure, Bassma Kodmani, later recalled regional powers frequently telling the opposition: “It is coming definitely, the intervention is coming.”

Yet, the Libya campaign paradoxically deterred similar western intervention in Syria. Former US President Barack Obama had reluctantlyagreed to attack Gaddafi, under pressure from interventionists in his administration and his international allies. When Libya then descended into civil war, leading to the murder of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in September 2012, Obama’s initial caution returned to the fore, and he became even more unwilling to intervene in Syria.

This was seen in 2013, when he found a way to avoid striking Assad, despite Damascus defying Obama’s “red line” of using chemical weapons, to the outrage of the Syrian opposition and its allies. Obama and the anti-Assadists took different lessons from the Libya intervention, impacting their approach to the Syria war.

Turkey-Russia rivalry

More recently, as Libya’s civil war has heated up, it has begun playing a new role in Syria’s conflict. Whereas once knock-on effects from Libya reverberated in Syria, now, Syria’s war is having consequences in Libya.

The clearest example of this is the rivalry between Turkey and Russia. They back opposing sides in both conflicts, though Ankara and Moscow have both invested more in Syria. In recent years, however, each has increased their presence in Libya, seemingly as a means to boost their regional leverage in general and, at times, in Syria specifically.

It has become common at bilateral meetings between Russia and Turkey for both Syria and Libya to be under discussion. Setbacks in Syria have led to an increased presence in Libya. This was seen recently after Turkey’s comparative defeat to Russia and Assad in Idlib in March, precipitating a massive and decisive increase in Ankara’s support for the government in Tripoli.

A further Syria connector is their use of Syrians to fight in Libya. Turkey transported soldiers from its Syrian rebel proxies, the Syrian National Army, to fight in Libya, while Russia has used former Syrian rebels as mercenaries to fight for its Libyan ally, General Khalifa Haftar.

Sad pattern

Though less consequential than either Turkey’s or Russia’s actions, Assad’s own involvement in Libya is similarly expedient. His endorsement of Haftar, including by recently giving him Libya’s embassy in Damascus, carries ideological components. Both are autocrats who loathe the Muslim Brotherhood, are allied to Russia and are opposed by Turkey.

Despite these commonalities, Assad did not weigh in on Haftar’s side for several years. His move now comes more from a desire to woo Haftar’s key external allies, the UAE and Egypt. A desperate need for Abu Dhabi’s economic support, especially, to prop up his floundering, sanctioned economy – rather than ideological solidarity – seems his primary motivation.

With both states likely to remain unstable for some time, subject to intervention and influence from the international powers that have helped drive and prolong the conflicts, it is unlikely that this will be the last time that events in Libya and Syria impact one another.

For almost a decade, Syria’s tragic war has been strangely interwoven with the equally grim conflict unfolding in Libya – and this sad pattern seems unlikely to end soon.

Arab Spring: Coup d’etat or Revolution?

Part of the series ’10 myths about the Middle East’ in this month’s Majalla:

Within days of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in Egypt, memorabilia of the popular anti-regime protests that preceded his downfall went on sale in Tahrir Square, the scene of the largest demonstrations. Pin badges and T-shirts, embossed with Egyptian flags proudly boasted of the “2011 Egyptian Revolution,” reinforcing the narrative already adopted by the international media that a popular revolution had toppled the Egyptian president, just as it had his Tunisian counterpart a month earlier. Yet such an analysis glosses over the back-room politics and shifting alliances among the elite and their international backers that actually transformed popular unrest into regime change. As has since been seen in Syria and, to a lesser extent, Yemen, in the months after Tahrir, widespread anti-regime popular unrest alone may prove incapable of toppling dictators if it lacks the support of key sections of the elite, notably the military.

The involvement of the military in the ousting of the only leaders to be toppled thus far, raises questions about how “revolutionary” the Arab Spring has actually been. Among the many frustrations voiced by activists who took to the streets against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, has been the amount of power wielded by the military in the post-ouster states. Though both the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries have fashioned themselves as the “guardians of the revolution,” activists have subsequently complained that the army has hijacked popular unrest to safeguard their own privileged positions. In Egypt, since Mubarak’s ouster on 11 February, the army has broken up further demonstrations and arrested hundreds, the same as the Mubarak regime did in its final days. With the interim government, guided by the supreme military council, pushing for constitutional changes and elections that aren’t as deep or as transformative as ardent democrats demand, the situation in Egypt appears at times more of a coup d’état than a revolution.

However, it remains too early to write off the revolutionary potential of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt or elsewhere. That departed leaders were ousted by military coups, albeit under popular pressure, does not delegitimize claims that a revolution has taken place. Many celebrated revolutions in history were the result of coups rather than widespread popular unrest, such as Egypt’s own in 1952, Iraq’s in 1958 and, further afield, the Bolshevik’s October 1917 Revolution. What makes them revolutionary or not is the extent of the political, social and economic change that follows rather than the exact method of regime change. For the Arab Spring it is too early to say. Perhaps the elites of the old regimes will remain in place, under the protection of a military that seeks to pay only lip service to the democratic changes demanded by the street. Alternatively, after this adjustment period, the old pillars of the deposed regimes may be gradually whittled down as widespread political and economic transformations take place.

Libya’s golden boy is no black sheep

Here’s a piece i wrote for the Guardian on Saif al-Islam al Gadaffi back in 2008. It is still relevant today given the attrocities currently taking place in Libya…

“He may present himself as the ‘un-Gadafy’, but when the time comes, the colonel’s son will revert to type

Like one of its leader’s flamboyant costumes, Muammar Gadafy’s Libya likes to stand out from its Arab neighbours. While his contemporaries are labelled president, the colonel takes the title “Brotherly leader and guide of the revolution”. Rather than ruling a republic after seizing power in 1969, Gadafy created his own word – the Jamahiriya – to describe the system of councils and committees that veils his dictatorship. Now Tripoli seems to be defying another regional trend – set by Syria and emulated by Egypt – of lining up long-serving rulers’ sons for succession in a hereditary republic. Gadafy’s son, Saif al-Islam, announced this week that he has no intention of becoming leader and is retiring from politicsat the age of 36.

Saif’s denial that he’s being groomed to succeed is not surprising. He and his father have been quick to highlight Gadafy’s unique role as “revolutionary leader”, a position that will neither be inherited nor, according to the colonel, needed once he is gone. More incongruous is Saif’s decision to “retire”, given that he has nothing to officially retire from.

Over the past few years, Gadafy’s son has charmed his way around European capitals, speaking of a deep desire to reform his country – a doctorate from the LSE in one hand, and oil concessions for sale in the other. However, the colonel’s second son has never held a position in the Libyan government, instead creating the Gadafy International Foundation for Charity Associations – an organisation whose public role is as ambiguous and unspecified as that of its founder.

In carefully orchestrated press conferences, Saif has presented himselfas “the un-Gadafy”. He is good-looking, speaks perfect English and has shown a willingness to criticise his father’s regime, though stopping short of attacking Gadafy himself. He has encouraged western investment, while simultaneously rehabilitating Libya’s image in the international community. From embracing the free market and internet democracy to fighting climate change, Saif has been saying almost everything Libya’s critics have wanted to hear, making himself what George Joffe, of Cambridge University, calls “the most likely potential leader”.

Yet, for all his reformist rhetoric, Saif’s only true power emanates from his father, making him at best the friendly moderating face of the established dictatorial order. While he might have had successes persuading his father of the benefits of the market, repairing relations with the west and abandoning WMD, any suggestions of political reform have been met with fierce resistance by the colonel. Gadafy has called upon his allies to “kill enemies” who dared to suggest reforming his Jamahiriya. Consequently Saif, while deriding the “sea of dictatorships” in the Middle East, has simultaneously dismissed any suggestion that his father’s power should be curbed.

Might these limitations explain his withdrawal from politics? Saif’s official explanation was that his messianic mission was done, with Libya now having the systems and institutions it lacked in the pre-Saif era. Yet a few economic improvements aside, the Jamahiriya dictatorship remains steadfastly in place, and reformists such as ex-prime minister Shukri Ghanem have been sidelined, making this statement look either false or delusional. Alternatively, insiders have suggested that Saif has grown frustrated at the slow pace of reform and retired amid a rift with his father.

Yet why bite the hand that feeds? It’s clear that both the colonel and Saif benefit from each other: the son is given limited power to play high-profile reformist, while the father can put a young western face on his decrepit regime. Whatever disagreement has prompted Saif’s retirement it is almost certainly a temporary blip, or even a cleverly planned publicity stunt in his slow ascendancy to power. No doubt he will soon be back in the spotlight. With two local newspapers, both owned by Saif, begging him to reverse his decision, don’t be surprised to see the prodigal son return to the political fold by popular demand in the near future.

Though Gadafy is still only 69, and holds a position that will no doubt be discontinued when he does leave the scene, all signs still point to Saif eventually assuming the role of de facto leader. His retirement and protests to the contrary fool few. Similar noises were made by Bashar al-Asad in the months before his father’s death propelled him to the Syrian presidency in 2000, and you can be sure that Gamal Mubarak will say likewise right up until his appointment as Egypt’s next ruler. For all its desire to appear unique, Libya’s succession is looking awfully familiar.”