Frozen Sovereign Funds Behind the Libyan ‘Invitation’ to Bomb Sirte
Vijay Prashad said the Libyan Government of National Accord has been under pressure to invite the US bombing campaign because western governments won’t grant access to $67 billion in sovereign funds until the Islamic State is defeated
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
President Obama signed off on a 30-day mission of air strikes against ISIS in Libya on Tuesday but he added that it would continue as long as necessary to make sure that the extremist group does not get a stronghold in Libya. These airstrikes will be armed drone strikes that will take off from Jordan to strike militant targets in the coastal city of Sirte, according to the New York Times.
To discuss these strikes and to provide us with more context I’m being joined by Vijay Prashad. Vijay is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford. He is the offer of 18 books including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, and the forthcoming book, the Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution. Thank you so much for joining us.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Pleasure, thanks.
PERIES: So Vijay, how does ISIS have such a strong hold over Sirte and what happened to Sirte’s militia that was fighting there?
PRASHAD: Well you know ever since the NATO war in 2011 Libya’s politics have been extraordinarily fragile. And various militia groups that so called won the war of 2011 decided to take charge of cities like Sirte which had not joined the rebellion with the same kind of enthusiasm. But these militia groups whether it’s from the western city of Misrata or it’s the eastern city of Benghazi these militia groups have been fighting each other and in the space a little vacuum opened up.
The second reason why the Islamic State was able to come into this vacuum in the city of Sirte was that many Libyans had gone to fight in Syria. In fact, they had been in quite encouraged by intelligence services of the region to go and join the fight against [2:12] in Syria. Several of them joined the Islamic State.
When the United States started to bomb the Islamic State in 2014, many of these militants including Tunisian members of the Islamic State returned to Libya. They came through Sirte. They created the [inaud.] of the Islamic State of Libya and they basically created Sirte as their citadel. So they’ve been there for almost over a year. The United States has bombed from the air Sirte once in November and then again in February. So this is the third attempt by the US government to bomb the Islamic State targets in Sirte.
PERIES: Now Libya’s national unity government apparently invited the US to come in and try to rid of ISIS in Sirte. But from what I understand it’s not so united, this unity government. Tell us more about it.
PRASHAD: Well for about a couple of years there were two governments inside Libya. One in the city of [Tripoli] one in the city of the Tobruk and Al Badya. There was also of course a third government which is the Islamic State which had established itself in the center of the country. There were any number of militias including the petroleum guards of Ibrahim Jadhran that basically ran riot outside the control of any institution inside Libya.
So that fractiousness has not been erased by the creation of the government of national accord. Which was basically put together by the initiative of the United Nation. Pushed very strongly by the west. Now this government of national accord has been under pressure to go off the Islamic State and indeed the troops of the government of national accord have been making some gains against IS.
Now one of the interesting things that a member of this government told me is that right now there’s 67 billion dollars of Libyan sovereign funds which are being held in banks and which the western, the UN is not allowing this government to access. One of the things apparently that this government has been told is if they’re able to defeat the Islamic State, if they’re able to take very strong action against the Islamic State, if they’re able to show essentially that they’re actually a government, then this money will be turned over to them.
So the idea that this government has asked the west, asked the United States in particular to bomb Libya is not entirely about its agenda. This is–they also want access to their money, they’re starved for scarce resources, this is beside the fact that Libya is an oil rich country and this is perhaps a major motive in why they have allowed or invited the US to bomb inside Libya. So one shouldn’t take this invitation at face value.
PERIES: Now, coming state side Obama said a few months ago that bombing Libya without planning for what comes after Gaddafi was his greatest foreign policy error. Is there any indication that this time around there’s any more planning going on as to what comes after all of this?
PRASHAD: Well I think they are hoping that this government of national accord will pick up the pieces and I very much doubt it. You know just as when the west bombed inside Syria and when ISIS fighters went back to Europe, went back to Belgium, went back to France, went to Tunisia, went to Libya and began to create mayhem here in these countries, in the same vein when the Americans now bombed Sirte, the Tunisian militants are most likely going to turn tail and head back to Tunisia.
You know just last week there was a vote of no confidence in the Tunisian parliament and the Prime Minister essentially lost the support of the legislature. There’s tension inside Tunisia. There’s been attacks within Tunisia on the border between Tunisia and Libya. There have been pitched battles between the Islamic State and the Tunisian military.
So bombing the Islamic State inside Sirte is not necessarily going to degrade them so that they disappear. It might in fact move these fighters off to go and destabilize Tunisia. So I’m not sure there’s really clarity in Washington on what these strikes are going to do. There’s direct kind of religious belief that aerial bombardment works on the war on terror. So far the evidence suggest that this is not true at all.
PERIES: And in terms of the conditions on the ground for ordinary Libyans, has this new government been able to make any progress there?
PRASHAD: Well let’s face it, the government is basically restricted to Tripoli and two other cities. In the city of Benghazi which is the second largest city, there’s been a civil war being fought inside residential neighborhoods between the army of General Khalifa Haftar who has long ties with the American government. He lived for decades in Vienna, Virginia 5 minutes from the CIA headquarters in Langley.
Khalifa Haftar is their backing out the Shura council of Benghazi revolutionaries. You know this is an Islamist group that includes Ansar al-Sharia and other groups like that. They have essentially run riot. Destroyed Benghazi. So you know this government of national accord was a positive thing to see fractiousness be somewhat tempered with some kind of political process but this is a very restrictive political process. It’s restricted to the fact that they’re in Tripoli and they’re in Tripoli at the behest of militia groups who have openly said we’re going to protect them for now.
It doesn’t seem that this is entirely a way forward. As far as the Libyan politics is concerned this is just a small little detour in a very dangerous road.
PERIES: Now Vijay, thousands of refugees are crossing over from Libya to Europe, Italy in particular. Are these refugees a result of the conflict that’s going on in Libya or are they coming from somewhere else?
PRASHAD: Well you know, Libya is the staging point for large numbers of refugees that come from the rest of Africa and for a while as well from Syria. So it’s not Libyan that are crossing over the Mediterranean to enter Italy in large numbers. It’s that Libya became the staging point. You know many Libyans who were–whether associated with the Gaddafi regime or seemed to be associated with the Gaddafi regime, left the country in 2011-2012. They went to Algeria, they went to Egypt, and some went to Tunisia.
You know so a large number of people who were pro Gaddafi are sitting in prison. They’ve been under trials since 2011. You know one of the things that the west said that Gaddafi regime was guilty of was putting people in prison and not trying them. Well this pro-Western government has now held people that they accuse of being Gaddafi sympathizers, thousands of people, they’ve been held in prison since 2011. There have been people in towns like Tawargha who have been expelled from their town and are sitting in refugee camps.
So Libya has not had any possibility of coming to terms with what has been happening which is the distraction of the state and the slow erosion of Libyan society. So there’s nothing good to report here Sharmini. Things are bad on the ground for people. But it seems like they’re not the main people fleeing to Europe. Those are people coming from other parts of Africa for whom Libya is a major springboard.
PERIES: Alright Vijay I thank you so much for joining us today and we’ll keep an eye on this as I’m sure you will. Good to have you with us today.
PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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