Everything has now been set in place for an imperialist intervention in Libya. Ashton Carter, United States Defence Secretary, has anointed Italy as leader of the “Coalition”. Meanwhile, in Italy, the past imperialist master of Libya, the war drums are beating.
At the end of February a meeting of Italy’s Supreme Defence Council decided to start preparing the Italian contingent. Already forty Italian intelligence service personnel are on the ground and 50 commandos will soon be on Libyan soil. They will join the intelligence services of other imperialist powers, such as France, USA and Britain. The official reason given for the intervention is, as usual, the fight against terrorism and “restoration of order” in Libya.
The question that has to be asked is: what caused the present chaos and civil war in the former Italian colony? It was the intervention promoted in April 2011 by the same imperialist powers, headed by France and Britain, with the support of the USA and with Italy having a secondary role. They presented their intervention as “helping the revolution and halting the civil war”. In reality the aim was to divert the movement of the masses, which was trying to follow the example of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and also to sow confusion among all the peoples of the Arab country who were moving in the direction of revolution. Thus, the imperialists bombed without mercy cities and villages, producing more than 10,000 casualties, and overthrew and then killed Muhammar Gaddafi without even the pretence of a trial. Their aim was to divide the country up among themselves and get their claws on the country’s vast oil supplies.
What was the result of all this? They destroyed the old state apparatus, which in turn led to the break-up of the country. Every city is now controlled by a different armed militia and sometimes several militias are fighting for control over the same town or province. There is no state institution or military force that can claim to control the entire country.
This situation is what enabled ISIS to get a foothold and gain in strength. From Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown, at the beginning of the year ISIS began to move eastwards towards the oil port of Sidra and the refinery of Ras Lanuf, and also towards oil production sites in the southern desert. The seizure of oil supplies and ports alarmed the western powers, but it is also worth nothing that ISIS has been funded and supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, two historical “partners” and supposed allies of the west.
In Libya what we are now witnessing is a proxy war, with every imperialist and regional power backing its own protégés. As Von Clausewitz once wrote, “War is the continuation of politics by other means”. In this period of economic crisis, the struggle to conquer new markets and spheres of influence can assume a particularly ferocious character. The conflicts between rival powers are not only commercial or financial, but can spill over into armed confrontations.
The different factions in Libya
Apart from ISIS, the two main players are the government of Tripoli, supported by Qatar and Turkey, in the western part of the country, and the government of Tobruk, recognised by the so-called “international community” and supported by Egypt and the Arab Emirates. Imperialism is calling for the formation of a government of national unity, whose main task would be to ask for foreign military intervention.
As usual, a United Nations resolution has already been voted to be used as a fig-leaf behind which all the imperialist powers can hide. A government of national unity would be useful not only to appease public opinion in general and keep petty bourgeois pacifists happy – those same people who always cry “peace” but stop demonstrating as soon as they see a blue helmet labelled “United Nations” – but more importantly, in order to make such an intervention viable.
Despite all their efforts, however, there is still a long way to go. A deal was struck in Morocco last December but after three months it has not yet been approved by any of the parliaments. Both Tobruk and Tripoli are against, as are the majority of ordinary Libyans.
Both sides are trying to make substantial gains on the ground before sitting round the negotiating table and discussing an agreement. With the aid of the air strikes of the Egyptian air force, Tobruk is making a breakthrough in Benghazi, which on several occasions was about to take over from Ansar -El Sharia, a group formerly linked to Al-Qaeda. The real master of the Tobruk government, General Haftar, would like to be a prominent minister in the new unity government, that he presently considers to be too unbalanced.
Tripoli would also like to have a “place in the sun”. In this sense, the recent killing of two Italian technicians in Sabratha, in western Libya, on March 2 was quite revealing. Firstly, it revealed to the entire world that imperialism is already intervening in the country. Ten days before the murder of the tow Italians, the US air force had bombed Sabratha, leaving 41 people dead. French raids have also been frequent. Secondly, it revealed that Sabratha, as is the case with most areas of Libya, is not under the control of any “national” government, but is in the hands of local militias. Only after the mayor of Sabratha was recognised as such by the Italian government did he give permission for the other two Italians who had survived the attack to leave the town together with the corpses of the two victims.
Easy to go in, not so easy to leave
Once western troops are in Libya they will be seen as invaders, not liberators. This Western intervention will have far more disastrous consequences than that of 2011. Since in war one cannot be neutral, the Italian-led troops will have to side with one of the contending forces, most likely on the side of the Tobruk government, because of its links with the Al Sisi regime in Egypt.
It will not be too difficult to enter Libya, bit it will not be so easy to leave. The Pentagon has made references to a 5,000 strong contingent. ISIS alone, according to US intelligence sources, has around 6,000 fighters and is growing. More troops will inevitably be needed and the conflict will take on an increasingly more aggressive character. Tensions with NATO members such as Turkey will also be exacerbated.
The lessons of the Syrian experience are there for anyone who is prepared to take not. The Americans did learn something. Obama has openly criticised the 2011 attack, and recently lambasted Cameron and Sarkozy because they just abandoned Libya after the overthrow of Gaddafi, leaving the country in the present state of chaos.
Obama is clearly clashing with the hawks in the Pentagon that would prefer a more aggressive role on the part of the United States. But in the meantime he at least shares the generals' view about who would lead a future coalition.
A more reliable, but weaker ally: Italy
“Libya for us is a net loss, the biggest loss since World War II" explains an editorial in “Il sole-24 ore” (March 4, 2016) the daily newspaper of the Italian bosses’ confederation [the Italian equivalent to The Financial Times]. That is why Prime Minister Renzi would like to regain Italy's past imperialist role in the Mediterranean. It is true that in the last few days he has repeated many times that “there is no plan for a military mission in Libya”, hastily adding, however, “for now”. In a recent press conference held together with Hollande, Renzi said, “The Libyans must know that the time at their disposal (for the formation of a national government) is not unlimited”.
If Italian troops are sent in, Renzi's government will be doing so not for humanitarian reasons but in order to defend the economic interests of the Italian bourgeoisie. Libya is seen as booty worth 130 billion dollars, and which "has 38% of the [African] continent's oil, 11% of European consumption..." (il Sole-24 Ore , March 6, 2015).
The Libyan civil war has produced a dramatic drop in oil output. Total current production stands at 360,000-370,000 barrels per day (bpd), and sometimes it drops to around 300,000 due to technical problems. That is less than a quarter of the 1.6 million bpd that Libya was producing before the 2011 uprising. ENI, the Italian multinational oil company, controls 70% of Libyan oil production, and it is the only multinational which presently still operates in Libya. Libyan oil accounts for 20% of ENI's total production. (La Stampa, March 8, 2016) The Italian bourgeoisie, and the Renzi government, cannot afford losing control over Libya’s oil fields.
The real record of Italian imperialism
In this context, we should not forget the past record of Italian colonisation of Libya, before the Second World War. The Italian ruling class likes to prettify its past imperialist adventures as being different from those of other imperialist powers, somehow being less brutal and more humane. “Italiani brava gente” (Italians: good people) is the common saying. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In 1911 Italy occupied Libya with an expeditionary force of 100,000 soldiers. Shortly after landing, the army shot dead or hanged 5,000 Libyans, and deported several thousand others. In 1930, on the orders of Mussolini, half the population of Cyrenaica, about 100,000 people, was deported to fifteen concentration camps in Italy, while the air force crushed the resistance, bombing villages with chemical weapons. The region was fenced in with 270 km of barbed wire. The leader of the resistance, Omar Mukhtar, was captured and hanged in 1931. Then they began the colonisation of Libya, with an influx of Italians who seized the most fertile areas, leaving the local population to survive on parched infertile land.
There is also another reason for today’s intervention. The European ruling class is firm in its belief that the only way to stop the influx of refugees and immigrants is to close the borders at the gates of Europe. "Refugees, do not come to Europe!" was the warning of Tusk, the President of the European Council, uttered a few days ago. And this is to be enforced by any means possible. This explains the agreement with the authoritarian government of Erdogan and the allocation of 3billion Euros for Ankara and also the need for military intervention in Libya. They forget that the 2011 bombing did not work, and the intervention led to the exodus of a million refugees from the Libyan coast, mostly to Italy. But the bourgeoisie, like a desperate man about to fall off the edge of a cliff, is incapable of reasoning and simply bases itself on its primeval instincts of plunder and arrogance. Thus, against all the textbooks of military strategy, some kind of intervention is likely.
We have to remember that whether they succeed or fail, they will make the workers in Italy pay for the cost of this adventure with more austerity while at the same introducing more repressive laws at home in the name of the fight against "terrorism." Their hypocrisy has no limits, and the fate of millions of human beings, as far as the rulers, bankers and bosses are concerned, is of no concern. Wars for them are just another expression of their domination of the world and of their struggle for the conquest of markets and spheres of influence.
We, the workers and youth, have nothing to gain from this conflict and everything to lose, and that is why we must resolutely oppose this imperialist military adventure and side with our brothers and sisters, the workers and youth of all the Arab countries. The only way of putting an end to both the barbarism of ISIS and the dictatorial regimes of the Middle East was shown by the revolutions of the Arab Spring in 2011. Only a return to class struggle can offer a way out, but this time the struggle must end with the overthrow of capitalist oppression that generates these monsters.
Our most important task in Italy and Europe, and the most concrete way of expressing solidarity with our class brothers in Libya and throughout the Middle East, is to fight capitalism and imperialism in our own countries, where we find those who are really to blame for the barbarism that permeates the world we are living in.