'Chaos caused by Libya war delays Syria action'

Expert tells 'Post' that the lessons drawn from the intervention in Libya affect Western decisions regarding Syria.

May 21, 2013 06:00
4 minute read.
A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra

Islamist Nusra Front fighter in Syria 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Libya is now a center of jihadist terror. The Western intervention in Libya in 2011 accelerated the destabilization of the Libyan state and the North African and Sahel regions, and as a result chaos, weapons, and jihadist groups have spread outside of the state’s borders, said Prof. Yehudit Ronen of the political science department at Bar-Ilan University.

After the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya became a weak state that fails to exert control over its territory and borders, and various armed militias have now come to power.

In a lecture at a symposium on post-revolution Libya at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, Ronen described the current situation in the country and how the results of the war have made many Western governments scared of intervening in Syria. Various radical Islamic groups that were kept at bay by Gaddafi suddenly sprang into action during the Libyan civil war in 2011, forming the base of the opposition forces, as has been the case in other countries that underwent uprisings.

She also stressed the geographical importance of Libya, as it lies between two other “Arab Spring” states – Tunisia and Egypt.

Libya is predominantly Sunni, with some ethnic minorities such as the Tuareg and black Africans, which made up much of Gaddafi’s security forces, many of whom fled the country to neighboring states after the government fell.

Some of the Tuareg retreated back to their fellow tribesman in northern Mali and declared the independence of the state of Azawad. The French-led intervention, however, ended the dreams for Azawad for the time being.

In addition, states such as Niger, Algeria, Chad, and Nigeria are having to deal with negative blowback from the chaos in Libya.

For example, in northern Nigeria the radical Islamic organization Boko Haram, which is linked with al-Qaida, has been massacring civilians and trying to wrest control from the Nigerian government, and some evidence suggests the group has been strengthened since the Libyan war.

In Syria, the opposition is dominated by Islamist groups; in Egypt and Tunisia, Islamists came to power through popular elections; and in Jordan, the government is trembling as it faces the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated opposition.

Ronen professed deep skepticism over the logic of Western intervention in Libya because the Western forces entered Libya without having real knowledge of the political alternatives to Gaddafi’s political leadership.

As it turned out, the West’s interests in Libya and its geostrategic position in the region have been seriously damaged by the military intervention, she said.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post after her lecture, Ronen said that the lessons drawn from the intervention in Libya affect Western decisions regarding Syria, where it seems likely that jihadists would play a central role in taking control of the state.

Another characteristic of the current situation in Libya, says Ronen, is that jihadists are coordinating their activities across borders and smuggling weapons and fighters to hot spots throughout the region. Libyan weapons have found themselves in the hands of Islamist fighters in Syria, Sudan, Mali, Sinai, and Gaza.

“The Islamists won in Libya and toppled Gaddafi, and this is a motivating message carried by the Islamist opposition in Syria, which is trying to follow this example in bringing down Syrian president Bashar Assad’s regime,” she said.

It was during the Afghanistan war during the 1980s that many Arabs fought a jihad against the Soviets and then returned to their countries of origin as experienced jihadi fighters, said Ronen. Libyans who participated in that war and later in Iraq became the core of the Libyan jihadists in Libya, with some becoming affiliated with al-Qaida. Gaddafi was able to keep a lid on them through his brutal dictatorship, but after he fell, they gained freedom of action, as Libyan jihadists residing elsewhere along with other foreign fighters reinforced them.

Therefore, it is no surprise today that Libyans and other Arabs can be found fighting with the Syrian rebels based on ideological kinship.

In regard to the deaths of the US ambassador and other officials in September 2012 at the consulate in Benghazi, Ronen questioned the wisdom of placing US diplomats there in the first place.

“What was the US doing there?” she asked, adding, “the attack was a message to stay away.

“The jihadists wanted Western military support to topple the regime, but after Gaddafi’s fall many of them reverted to referring to the West as the enemy,” she said.

Asked by the Post what she sees as the future for the country, she said that the government remains weak with little experience, and it needs external aid to function and to establish a security force that could exert control over its territory and break down the various armed militias.

“The situation is not going to change soon. The state and the society are in a dizzying maelstrom of violent disorder,” Ronen told the Post.

For now it is the militias that are imposing their interests on the country, she said.

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