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JUNE 2023

Big Game in Libya

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Big Game in Libya

Written and produced by SF Team: Igor Pejic, Viktor Stoilov, Edwin Watson

MA Igor Pejic, graduated Political Science Foreign Affairs Department at the Faculty of Political Science and now he is MA in Terrorism, Security and Organized Crime at the University of Belgrade, Serbia.

After the fall of Mummer Gaddafi, absence of coherent government and constant turmoil between various armed groups which filled the power vacuum in the country, led Libya to become a classic example of a failed state. The article, “Post-Coup Libya“, described the variety of armed groups in the country (both sate and non-state affiliated), their organization, resources and interests; though these groups have an immense influence on the internal policy of the country, they are not the initial factor which started the fall of Libya, but rather a result of such occurrences. With the start of the Arab Spring, the geopolitical plane of North Africa and the Middle East started to shift. Libya was no exception. Regional and global powers all sought interest and ways in which they could profit from such huge event like the Arab Spring which spread across many Arab states. Unlike Syria at the moment, Libya doesn’t have a crucial geopolitical position for which global powers like the US and Russia may openly intervene and clash directly or via proxies (one of the reasons why the US took a so-called back-seat role in the Libyan intervention); on the other hand Libya has great significance for Europe and especially for France. In this article I’ll focus on the sates that were primarily engaged in the Libyan uprising like France, the UK and the US, but also countries that have some degree of interests in this event such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Since the start of the clashes in Libya, France has been at a forefront of voicing for military intervention against the regime and helping the rebels in order to achieve democracy and free society. This, of course, doesn’t come as a surprise, the French interests are strong in this region and countries like Morocco, Algeria, Mali and Tunisia fall directly under the French sphere of influence. Libya, on the other hand, didn’t allow foreign powers to have an easy access to its domestic policies and especially the energy sector, and the Arab Spring was just the thing external factors needed. French president at the time Nicolas Sarkozy saw many opportunities in Libya for the French policies. President Sarkozy wanted to project an image of a strong and powerful France which can also take the leading role in NATO when fighting authoritarian regimes across the globe. This image projection was focused on two things:

  • First, Nicolas Sarkozy tried to boost his popularity in the oncoming presidential elections in France (although it’s theoretical, at that time the far right and the leftist parties were gaining popularity hence this decision).
  • Second, he wanted to portray France as a leading nation of Europe which was at that time highly compromised by Germany.

Both objectives ended up in a partial success. Germany abstained during the vote for 1973 resolution in the UN Security Council, and one year later Francois Hollande won the election. Although Sarkozy lost the elections, France managed to retain its status of one of the most military capable nations of Europe, also the intervention in Libya showed that France is still leading the Continent in foreign and military affairs, side by side with the UK.

Beside these political objectives, France also had more practical economic and security interests in Libya. Libya is a big oil producer (at least it was before the uprising) with top tier oil quality, this meant that the extracted oil was easy to refine. Before the uprising, French oil companies didn’t have much space on the Libyan oil markets unlike Italy’s, Germany’s and even Chinese oil producers, one of the objectives of the regime change in Libya was a market shift in order to allow French companies to take part in the Libyan oil production. Some of the French oil producers were present in the past but they have been driven out by the Gaddafi government. As some reports suggest, this would be allowed by the new government as a form of payment for the French support during the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi (some rebel groups allegedly promised France 35% of Libya oil output in exchange for recognition of their government in Benghazi). Beside oil, France had a good arms deal with Libya. After the embargo, France was exporting large amounts of fire arms and other military equipment to Libya. Although the civil war did disrupt this deal, perpetual conflict and chaos is always profitable for any military or arms contractor.

Last, there are security challenges and interests considering Libya and the region, though these security challenges are a direct consequence of a violent regime change and as the time passes by they will become harder to assert and control. With the destabilization of Libya, much of the violence spilled over into Mali, and there is a good possibility that a big portion of radicals/extremists managed to get into Niger, where there are already active armed groups with Islamist connections. These countries, as well as the whole Sahel region, are in the jurisdiction of French counter-terrorism operations. The French military already has its bases in some of these countries but, as mentioned earlier, a perpetual conflict in a country as big as Libya won’t make this any easier. After the uprising, many foreign fighters that were deployed in the Libyan military returned to their home countries – Mali and Niger are some of them. With the beginning of 2015 and the rise of the Islamic State in Libya, the situation has become gradually worse. The threat of salafism and jihadism not only troubles regional countries in North Africa and the Sahel region but Europe as well, and the main defender of the current situation, is the country which destabilized Libya via pretext of democracy and human freedoms – France.

Libya doesn’t represent a crucial geopolitical point for the US foreign policy, and the Obama administration wasn’t exactly aiming for the post 9/11 unilateral military approach. At that time, the newly elected president Obama was trying to avoid a direct intervention in Libya in order to boost the appearance of the US in the international relations, meaning that military actions and interventions should be, to some extent, legal and legitimate and also approved or sustained by the international law, though not all members of that administration shared the same views on this matter. Liberal interventionists like UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, NSC senior director for multilateral engagement Samantha Power and Mike McFaul NSC senior director for Russia were the people who pushed forward for the Libyan intervention. The intervention was pushed via pretext of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), although the US was initially unable to react to the radical developments of the Arab Spring (mostly due to the inconsistent Obama doctrine towards the Middle East) it managed together with France, the UK and some Arab countries to implement the 1973 UN resolution and the “no fly zone”. Fierce bombing done by the coalition members ultimately led to the killing of Muammar Gaddafi “an evil and vile dictator” and crackdown of the Libyan society. All of this, again, was done for the greater good of democracy and human rights. The United States saw Libya as a “doable state” and a chance to redeem themselves for the transgressions in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting the democratic forces which fought the dictator. This was of course planed in order to boost the US popularity in the Arab world. Sadly it ended in a failed state. In the terms of realpoilitik, on the other hand, the US had much more pragmatic interests in mind. Two of those were the AFRICOM and the vast Libyan energy sector. United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) is a part of a larger global military network which provides assistance and help to the militaries of that region, but it also projects the US military power and provides constant presence of US troops in the selected region/continent. The resources and strategic location of Libya along with its long Mediterranean coast and terrain that extends into the Sahara desert could provide a good location for AFRICOM and its potential operations in that region. There were many attempts to persuade Gaddafi to accept this African policy, however all those attempts made by the US government ended with a failure. Colonel Gaddafi was rather reluctant about AFRICOM and the whole project. As stated by some US officials, he was actively trying to derail the project because it represented imperialist attempts in order to control Africa and its resources (not far from the truth). Removing Muammar Gaddafi from the scene couldn’t launch AFRICOM directly into Libya but it could definitely “soften” other potential factors in the region who would oppose it. The energy sector, which was nationalized during the Gaddafi government, is ready for privatization for various external companies, including the US corporations. Though the majority of the Libyan oil is exported to Europe, it should be noted that NTC’s first oil sale was to the US refinery.

Although not as hawkish as the French President, UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron was rather eager for the intervention in Libya. In fact, the British Prime Minister was the first who proposed the idea of a no fly zone over Libya. Motivation for the UK engagement in Libya could come from various reasons.

  • First, after the French decided to support the rebels, the British didn’t want to be left out and portray themselves as a lesser military power in Europe. Of course, the same as the US, the UK government saw an opportunity to mend or even boost relations with the Arab population by engaging and supporting a “democratic revolution” in a predominantly Sunni country. There was also a strong internal criticism in the UK, because the government was relatively slow to evacuate British nationals from Libya when the conflict began. Also we shouldn’t forget the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, for which the Libyan Intelligence Service claimed responsibility in the late 90s. This doesn’t represent a crucial factor for the UK engagement in the Libyan intervention but it played a partial role.
  • Second, and probably the most significant interest, was the Libyan energy sector and the role of British Petroleum. When the 2010 oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico hit BP, the scenario for Libya became relevant for this oil giant. The oil spill costed BP around 17 billion dollars and 20 billion dollars which the company needed to pay as a compensation fund. This huge loss for BP threatened the company’s future in the United States. Also this disaster allowed other companies to wage negative publicity campaigns and question the capabilities of BP for offshore operations. British Petroleum didn’t have a solid ground in Libya unlike some other oil giants such as Italy’s ENI. At that time, even the Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini argued that BP shouldn’t be allowed to continue any drilling operations in Libya until the Mexican crisis was resolved. The British government couldn’t allow a company as big as BP to lose more of its assets and fall further behind on the global market. The intervention in Libya had a potential to change that.

Qatar’s foreign policy started to shift at the beginning of the Arab Spring. A state known for mediation in conflicts and friendly diplomatic relations, is now actively engaging domestic policy and internal turmoil in the countries across the Middle East. Qatar’s activities in the Arab League managed to suspend Libya’s membership in that organization. Also, Qatar was the first country to recognize the National Transitional Council as a legitimate government in Libya. Qatar was also active in lobbying for the international intervention in Libya, selling a wide spectrum of military equipment to the Libyan rebels including Chevrolet SUV’s and heavy weapons, making Qatar an important ally for the rebellious forces inside the country. Most of these supplies and financial help was directed towards Islamist groups which were forming in Libya at that time, many of those groups were linked to the Muslim Brotherhood or Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. In the terms of media and propaganda, Al Jazeera managed to spin almost any information coming out of Libya and portray Muammar Gaddafi as a blood thirsty tyrant who tortured his own people for almost four decades. Qatar’s neighbor, Saudi Arabia, had a much more private grudge against the Libyan leader. In 2004, Saudi Arabia and the US accused Muammar Gaddafi of plotting to assassinate, at that time crowned, Prince Abdullah which escalated into a major diplomatic conflict between Riyadh and Tripoli. Furthermore, Libya was reluctant in their accusations that the Saudis brought the Americans to occupy Iraq and destroy Saddam’s regime. The blame game was present even in the Arab League. The position of Saudi Arabia, as one of the leading Arab countries, had been shaken. When the clashes began in Libya, the Saudis saw opportunities on three different levels: domestic, bilateral and international.

  • On the domestic front, the support which the Saudis gave to the Libyan uprising allowed them to represent themselves as a “liberal” nation which supports freedom fighters and democratic societies. We should keep in mind that in 2011 the Saudis had a very harsh answer to any reaction coming out from the Shia population in Bahrain and Yemen. Supporting the rebels in Libya, the Saudi regime actually managed to silence some of the criticism for their own violations of human rights and freedoms.
  • On the bilateral level the bad diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Libya actually came to an end with the death of Muammar Gaddafi. The Saudis were very quick to adjust their economic strategy towards new Libya. In 2012, there was a formation of a Saudi-Libya business council, and in 2013 Libya was willing to permit Saudi ARAMCO to invest in the Libyan oil sector.
  • On the international level, according to Kristian Ulrichsen, the Saudis allying their strategy with the one of the US allowed the Kingdom to recover the damage in the relationship between Riyadh and Washington, following their opposing views on the uprisings in the region.

Big Game in Libya

The table is made in accordance with the data at the OEC (The Observatory for Economic Complexity).

The Libyan problem is here to stay, although it was caused by the uprising, implementation of a no fly zone and reckless support for the rebels (part of them had clear salafist intentions), there is no actual effort shown from the international community, nor the US which actively participated in this uprising, to mend the situation in Libya or implement some kind of exit strategy for this state. There are a couple of thing which should be pointed out. After the uprising there was no implementation of any kind of peace keeping operation or mission. Given the fragmented position of the Libyan society, it could have been anticipated that further conflicts could occur especially in the absence of coherent government and organized security force. Since the beginning of the conflict, there has been intelligence information that radical groups could rise and try to “hijack” the revolution. Second, the US and the EU haven’t shown any interest in helping the Libyan people with their new democracy. There has been no institution building process and the new government was riddled with corruption. Strong and working institutions, or in this case any kind of state institutions, could help or partially prevent further deterioration of the society. And lastly the economy of the country is in a far worse condition than before. Unemployment and destabilized society isn’t a place for good foreign investments which directly affects the standard of living. Now, we have a full circle, fragmented society which is in perpetual conflict in combination with unstable government and state institutions lead to unstable market and economy which finally results in fertile ground for the rise of radicalism and terrorism. In the coming years, if there isn’t a decisive international response to the Libyan crisis, like the one Russia did in Syria against the Islamic State, the crisis will affect the neighboring states with the probability of spillover to the Sahel region.


  1. M.Lindström and K.ZetterlundSetting the Stage for the Military Intervention in Libyawww.foi.se October 2012.
  2. http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR500/RR577/RAND_RR577.pdf
  3. http://www.lse.ac.uk/middleEastCentre/kuwait/documents/The-Qatari-Spring%20-%20Qatars-Emerging-Role-in-Peacemaking.pdf
  4. http://ecpr.eu/filestore/paperproposal/2c667447-0f7e-4dd3-a0a2-def571a67394.pdf

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che guevera

When the hell did the Libyan intelligence services claim responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing. Is he talking about when Gadaffi relented to relieve sanctions ? and paid some $$. Bogus.


One major reason for the western central bank ruled countries revealed in some of clintons emails was ghadaffi’s plans to implement the gold dinar for trade. The other reasons listed in the article as well.The gold to be used for minting dinars “went missing” after the intervention and murder of ghadaffi. Lybia went from having the highest quality of life in Africa to what it is today simply by getting in the way of the plans of the biggest organized crime ring on earth. Sad really

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