Lessons from Libya
Illustration/ A.I. Marin
As of right now it seems that Bashar al-Assad of Syria is partially disarming; he is handing over control of his stockpiles of chemical weapons to the United Nations. As a result, the bellicosity of Western governments has been dampened, and it seems that at least for now, policy intervention is a less attractive option than diplomacy.
The situation in Syria, however, is anything but predictable and even if Bashar al-Assad disarms in good faith it would not be the first time that a dictator who has disposed of all his “Weapons of Mass Destruction” is nevertheless invaded.
Since intervention in Syria is still an option—as Barack Obama likes to say, it is still “on the table”—I would like to direct attention to that other victim of Western intervention in recent years, both as a comparative case and as a warning: Libya.
Libya today is not the Libya of two years ago, when to call it a “victim” would be an odd choice of words. The country had just been “liberated” with NATO’s help and it seemed a stable liberal democracy could grow from the ashes of Gaddafi’s autocracy. But now is not two years ago, and we can see what the destruction of the only central authority that has a monopoly of violence does when opposition is splintered and sectarian opposition.
Since the fall of Gaddafi, there has been no effectively functioning central government in Libya. The collapse of the extensive state apparatus that maintained Gaddafi’s grip on power also meant the collapse of the infrastructure that supplied Libyans with some of the highest standards of living in Africa. In the two years since his fall, the void left by the collapse of the state has been filled with a panoply of armed militia groups whose constant (and often violent) struggle for power has left the country in a state of crisis.
Since the rise of the militias the country’s economy has been in tatters. Businesses operate in conditions of extreme insecurity while infighting over control of the oil fields has caused a drop of more than 66 per cent in the production of Libya’s most vital export.
Liberty, insofar as such an amorphous concept can be measured, has failed to materialize; the centralized despotism of Gaddafi has been replaced by the decentralized despotism of the militias (though the “official” central government is also no beacon of freedom). According to the latest Human Rights Watch data, roughly 8,000 people are being held in detention in Libya; the majority of them held for over a year without being charged, without due process, and without access to a lawyer.
Those that protest this new oligarchy are met with the most brutal violence, as evidenced in June of this year when 31 people protesting the behaviour of the “Libya Shield” militia were gunned down with anti-aircraft guns and other high-calibre weapons.
Mark Almond, a professor of International Relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, estimates that roughly 30,000 Libyans have perished because of the escalation of violence that followed the NATO intervention in 2011 (a startling figure when taken in the context of Libya’s population of 6 million).
There is no doubt that both Gaddafi and Al-Assad were autocrats whose blatant disregard for the interests of their citizens led to revolt, but we should not allow the intensity of their oppression blind us to the fact that Western bombs and missiles are not the tools for building a better alternative. The arbitrary destruction of another government (though we may find it repulsive) is an easy path towards only more pain and suffering.comments powered by Disqus