Like Joseph Heller's protagonist in Catch 22, the UK is playing both sides of the war - and leaving Egypt and the UAE with the spoils
To plumb the depths of the insanity of British policy in Libya, factual reports are not enough. A day after he resigned as MP, the UK's foreign affairs committee gutted David Cameron’s reputation as war leader.
The British parliamentary enquiry found that “responsibility to protect” had been used as a cover for regime change (the Russian argument); that the imminent threat of Gaddafi’s forces to civilians in Benghazi was overstated; that intelligence was inadequate and that Britain followed France without an ability to influence it. Sound familiar? But even those judgements stop short of the whole truth. For that, you need to turn to fiction.
Joseph Heller’s contribution to war studies was the character of Milo Minderbinder in his book,Catch 22. The mess officer on a US airbase in Italy said that as there was nothing any soldier could do about war, except die in it, the only rational thing to do was to profit from it. So when Milo found himself with a glut of Egyptian cotton, he invited the Germans to bomb his own airfield.
Milo hotly defended himself: “Oh I know what you are going to say. Sure, we are at war with them. But the Germans are also members of the syndicate and it's my job to protect their rights as shareholders. Maybe they did start the war, and maybe they are killing millions of people but they pay their bills a lot more promptly than some allies of ours I could name. Don’t you understand that I have to respect the sanctity of my contract with Germany?”
Is Heller parody or understatement?
A few hours before the select committee report, the Middle East Eye published recordings of conversations between Emirati pilots on bombing missions around Benghazi, and the control tower at Benina airport, the headquarters of the renegade general Khalifa Haftar.
It's clear, from previously released recordings, that the pilots are not bombing IS targets in Sirte. The coordinates point instead to a neighbourhood of Benghazi called Souq al-Hout, the Fish Market, a crucial battleground during the 2011 intervention against Gaddafi and one of the main areas of fighting between Haftar and Islamist forces since 2014.
It is controlled by the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (SCBR), a coalition of forces which includes Ansar al-Sharia, labelled a terrorist organisation by the UN, US, UK and Turkey, but also groups which are loyal to the Libyan defence ministry in Tripoli, such as the February 17th Martyrs Brigade.
British, American, French and Jordanian military air traffic controllers are heard on the same tapes. They sit alongside the Emiratis in Haftar’s control room.
This means that today’s Milo Minderbinders are helping opposing sides of the same war to fight against each other. Britain is placing an each-way bet.
As MEE revealed when it published a briefing Jordan’s King Abdullah gave to US congressional leaders this January, British special forces are deployed in Libya alongside Jordanian ones, whose Arabic accent, the king said, is close to the Libyan slang.
We know from on the ground reports in Libya that British soldiers are helping Misratan militias, who are loyal to the government in Tripoli, push the Islamic State (IS) group out of Sirte.
But at the same time as that battle is being waged, British military air traffic controllers, pilots and planes are helping Haftar’s forces prevail in Benghazi. Haftar’s forces are not, and never have been, engaged in the fight against IS in Sirte. His war is with the government in Tripoli.
His actions, like those of the IS, are aimed at telling Libyans that the UN-brokered and internationally recognised Presidential Council and its Government of National Accord (GNA) cannot control key state infrastructure, like the oil ports, and that he, Haftar, should be taken seriously.
This led on Tuesday to a moment Milo Minderbinder would have been proud of. Two days after his so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) wrested control of four Oil Crescent ports in Ras Lanuf, Sidra, Zueitina and Brega, from militias controlled by Ibrahim Jadhran, commander of the Petroleum Defence Guards, Haftar had himself anointed field marshal.
A stand-off ensued. Haftar demanded the National Oil Corporation (NOC) lift force majeure and allow the ports to export oil, while the Presidential Council, the US, Britain, France and Italy, Spain and Germany reaffirmed their support for the GNA and their intent to enforce sanctions against illegal exports of oil. The export ban was lifted on Thursday after the NOC chairman Mustafa Sanalla “accepted a handover of the ports“ from Haftar’s men.
It is difficult to know what this means as Hafter's takeover of the ports on Sunday was more a matter of negotiation between militias than actual combat. Sanalla also sowed seeds of doubt about GNA control when he said that the LNA's seizure could "lead to a new phase of co-operation" between the Libyan factions. Control is a moveable feast in Libya.
A few weeks ago, a Western diplomat in Libya dismissed as conspiracy theory the notion that Britain, France and Italy were working to split Libya into three - that Britain would take Cyreneica, the Italians Tripoli and France the south. He admitted the risk of division was there, because of players like Haftar, but that every Security Council resolution had reaffirmed the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Libya and that the collective effort was to try to bring all militias together under one umbrella.
How exactly? The same diplomat admitted his country used the Emiratis as a go-between with the east of Libya.
Egypt and the Emiratis are dictatorships with a track record of suppressing political opposition. Each has been highly active abroad, particularly in Libya, in making sure that Islamist governments do not get into or stay in power. The GNA is not Islamist, but the fact that Islamist groups have deferred reluctantly to its authority is enough for the Emiratis to do everything they can to bring it down.
Allowing the Egyptians and Emiratis to carve out an oil-rich client statelet in eastern Libya, while other Libyans are doing the job of fighting IS, is not a formula upon which national unity can be forged. The militias backing the UN-brokered government have a right to feel betrayed.
Cameron and Sarkozy are no longer in power. Their special forces continue however to provide Haftar with personal protection, while their governments issue statements condemning his defiance of the internationally recognised government in Tripoli. Should he prevail, one dictator in Gaddafi would have been replaced by another.
Britain, France and Italy have effectively leased the franchise of their interests in Libya to regional Arab states, who have injected their own political agenda. That other former field marshal, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, made the militant groups in eastern Libya his first foreign policy priority in the months after staging his coup in Egypt.
It puzzled experts at the time, because this was long before jihadis in Iraq had even come up with the IS name, let alone moved to Sirte. It will not be Western, nor will it be liberal, but the disaster of intervention will continue.
Milo Minderbinder: "We're gonna come out of this war rich!"
Yossarian: "You're gonna come out rich. We're gonna come out dead."
- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.