Why has Libya been attacked?

Libya Attack - 4BY RSN SINGH

Since the exit of President Mubarak in Egypt, the geopolitical contours of the Arab world has been changing rapidly. What was touted as a revolution for democracy has now degenerated into pure international power politics. The so-called ‘Jasmine Revolution’ has hit road blocks in Yemen, Bahrain and more importantly Saudi Arabia. The revolution for democracy theory has been torpedoed. Libya with its vast oil resources was too important for Europe, to allow it to lapse into uncertainty.

The Fault Lines

The 6.4 million Libyan people continue to be divided over regional and ethnic lines in the ongoing ‘Civil War’ since February 2011. Even geography conspires to accentuate this division. 90 percent of Libyans inhabit only 10 percent of the area, primarily along the coast.

Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the northeast are the two major population centers with a population density of 50 persons per square kilometer, but in the remaining areas it is less than one person per square kilometer. These two population centers are separated by one of the most formidable desert in the world, wherein in certain areas it rains once or twice in a decade.

Libya Attack - 1The other region is Fezzan in Southwestern Libya, which constitutes 30 percent of the country’s landmass. The people inhabiting this area are basically pastoralists, who cross borders of Algeria, Chad and Niger. The population in Fezzan is estimated to be 0.45 million i.e. nearly eight percent of the total population.

Tripolitania and Cyrenaica sided with Axis and Allied powers respectively during World War II.

Subsequently, when Libya was granted independence in 1951 and King Emir Sayid Idris al-Sanusi, a Cyrenaican was installed as the head of the state with the support of Western powers. The people in Tripolitania resented while the people of Cyrenaica celebrated. In 1969, when a 27 year old Gaddafi along with 70 young army officers, overthrew King Idris in a bloodless coup, the reaction was in the opposite order.

Under Idris, Cyrenaica benefited politically and economically. Idris in fact could not break the shackles of his Cyrenacian identity primarily because that was where he derived his power from.

Gaddafi on the other hand, tried to promote nationalism by repudiating the tribal system and by creating an Arab nationalist regime. It may be mentioned that Libya has 140 tribes and clans. Gaddafi’s search for a new national identity for Libya floundered due to the exigencies of political power. His power base essentially lay in the west to the central part of Libya. Euphemistically speaking, the Cyrenacian tribes were punished by Gaddafi all through his rule. It is these tribes which now sensed an opportunity and decided to strike back.

Gaddafi meanwhile is being stoutly supported by his own tribe Gaddadfa as well as Al-Magarha tribe.

The regional and tribal fault lines, in this fourth largest country in Africa, have therefore hardly been bridged over the years. Therefore, what is happening in Libya is far from an ‘Arab Revolution’. It is the events in Tunisia and Egypt have provided the opportunity and impetus. This is despite a sound economy. Libya has a very generous social security programme especially in the fields of housing and education.

External Dimension and Linkages

The external dimension and linkages to this so-called revolution in the case of Libya cannot be ignored.

The Arab Revolution in Egypt led by Nasser had significant impact on Libya. This revolution was at the height of Cold War and as an outcome there was request of British and American bases to be evacuated from Libya. It may be recalled that Britain and Libya had signed a 20 year friendship treaty and in 1954 US had setup the Wheelus Air base near Tripoli. By 1970, the British forces and American bases were withdrawn, and consequently, cooperation including in the field of defence between USSR and Libya intensified.

The coup by Gaddafi in 1969 should be seen as an adjunct of the Cold War. The discovery of oil in 1959 had raised the geopolitical stakes of the Soviet Union, US and Europe in the country. At the time of independence, Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world. Its most significant exports were metal scraps of World War II.

Today, Libya is one of the world’s 10 richest oil producing countries and of course Africa’s richest.

Libya Attack - 2Libya holds the largest proven reserves in Africa followed by Nigeria and Algeria. 80 percent of the reserves are located in the Sirte basin. This basin constitutes the heart of Libya running from the approximately the center of the country to the coastline in the north. It also extends towards the west for some distance and to the east, falling short of the border with Egypt. As per estimate, only 25 percent of the Libyan oil has been explode mainly due to sanctions, which was effective for at least two decades. The UN and the US lifted sanctions in 2003 and 2004 respectively.

If the Cold War was the impetus for the coup by Gaddafi, this time, Libya is engulfed by a different kind of revolutionary wave, which many consider as being inspired and abetted by the West. It appears regime changes are being sought for an orderly transfer of power in the Arab world, because most of the dispensations have outlived their age and utility. Most of these ruling dispensations turned into family businesses and so has Libya under Gaddafi and his eight sons. Only a popular swell on the ground, engineered or otherwise can uproot them. Given the wherewithal and monopoly over instrument of war and violence of the rulers, it is impossible to bring regime changes without external support.

The entire script is being calibrated with Egypt serving as the epicenter. But in case of Libya, the calculations have been upset because of Gaddafi and his psychopathic ways. He has been using the safety and security of his own people as a bargaining chip in dealing with the rest of the western world. He and his sons are displaying acute paranoia and therefore the ruthlessness in dealing with the situation. The ruling dispensation in Libya therefore can be very unpredictable and dangerous.

Gaddafi – The Terrorist

The unpredictable and impulsive quotient in Gaddafi’s personality is well known. He has flirted with terrorism. In the 70s, Gaddafi extended financial and training assistance to Arab volunteers for the Palestinian terrorist groups. To establish Arab supremacy, he created a mercenary group i.e. the Islamic legion. In 1973, the Irish naval service had intercepted the vessel ‘Claudia’ in the Irish waters, carrying Soviet arms from Libya to the provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). He was a great friend, admirer and support of Idi Amin. In fact 600 Libyan soldiers had died defending the dawn fall of Idi Amin. When Anwar Saddat, the President of Egypt was murdered in 1981, Gaddafi applauded it publicly.

Gaddafi at one time was desperate to acquire nuclear weapon capability. Libya was most effusive in supporting Paksitan’s nuclear weapons programme. Gaddafi renounced Libya’s nuclear weapon programme in 2003. Some western sources believe that Libya still has a deadly stockpile of ‘Mustard Gas’.

Gaddafi – The Darling of the West

The exigencies and greed for power has seen Gaddafi sway between socialism and capitalism from anti-Americanism to pro-Americanism. Libya till late 2003-04 was treated a terrorist and pariah state by the West, after the bombing of the Pan Am aircraft in 1988 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. Unnerved by the US invasion of Iraq and the consequent fate of Saddam Hussain and the rising discontent due to sluggish economy caused by sanctions, Gaddafi was compelled to make a complete ‘U’ turn. He began to placate the West by taking formal responsibility of the Pan Am bombing in 2003. Following this, the rehabilitation of Gaddafi in the international community was most dramatic especially after the payment of compensation to US victims of the Pan Am bombing in 2008 by Libya.

Following the emergence of this new relationship between the West and Gaddafi, the major oil companies were once again active in Libya. They stepped up oil exploration, using Enhanced Oil Recovery Techniques. Libya had proposed to increase its oil production by 40 percent i.e. from 1.8 million barrels/day to three million barrels/day by 2013.


The turnaround by Gaddafi and his bonhomie with the West was strategic coup of sort. Libya became one of the most ardent supporters of the ‘war against terrorism’. In fact, Libya was touted as a fine example of responsible change in the discourse of Islamic fundamentalism. Italy signed a friendship treaty with Libya in 2008. The treaty included a nonaggression clause. Also, Italy paid $ 5 billion to Libya to compensate for the colonial rule. Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, was awarded a PhD degree by the London School of Economics, allegedly, after having accepted 1.5 million pounds donation from Libya. All the major oil companies of the West were enthusiastic about the fresh and increasing prospects in Libya. It was a happy situation for the West. What went wrong then?

The regime change in Egypt, which ushered in the so-called ‘Jasmine Revolution’, if Wikileaks are to be believed, was engineered by the US for which it had been working since 2007. Egypt was to serve as the pivot for the geopolitical change in North Africa. The European powers, particularly France, were not comfortable with the happenings in Tunisia and to an extent in Egypt. When it comes to the North African region, the Europeans do not see it through the US strategic prism. The economic stakes of the North African region and Europe is intertwined, because of geography, separated as they are by only the Mediterranean Sea.

It is pertinent to note that most of Libya’s oil exports are to the European countries i.e. Italy – 38%, Germany – 19%, Spain – 8%, France – 7%, China – 7%, Greece – 3%, etc. Importantly, the oil sold by Libya to Europe is lighter and sweeter, which implies that it has low sulphur grades. The heavier crude oil is exported to Asian countries. In addition, oil supply from North Africa to Europe is most timely and cost effective. In the recent years, there has been rapid increase in export of gas from Libya to Europe. In 2004, the 540 kilometer long Green stream pipeline between Libya and Italy became operational. This pipeline has a capacity of 11 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year.

North Africa, particularly Libya, is therefore critical to the very well-being of Europe. It is for this reason that the French have taken the lead. It is for this reason that against all norms of international diplomacy, Italy has repudiated its 2008 friendship treaty with Libya and has allowed its military bases to enforce the no-fly zone.

Europe has given clear message to the US that they consider North Africa as their vital area of concern and influence, and therefore expect the same kind of reciprocation for their role in the US led interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.


There is no parallel between Iraq and Libya. The shock and awe that the world witnessed in the former case, is not applicable to Libya as the West is very reluctant to use ground troops. Moreover, there are divisions within Europe itself. Germany has already expressed reservation about military operations in Libya. A major part of the European population has already become war-weary, therefore, a backlash cannot be ruled out.

Though the Libyan army has 50,000 personnel (25,000 volunteers + 25,000 conscripts), most of its equipments i.e. 2000 tanks, 1,500 MIVs, and 2400 artillery pieces are obsolete or in a state of disrepair. Nevertheless, it has enough troops to prolong the conflict, especially by way of Guerilla warfare, if the Western coalition were to commit ground troops. The Libyan Army has 10 x tank battalions, 10 x mechanized battalions, 18 x infantry battalions, 6 x commando battalions, 22 x artillery battalions, 4 x SSM battalions and 7 x AD battalions.

The most important asset with Gaddafi is the Regime Security Brigade also known as the ‘Khamis Brigade’. The fighter prowess of the Libyan Army is not known as it has hardly been tested. Moreover, the air force though has more than 300 aircraft, which includes Mig-17, Mig-19, Mig-21, Mig-25, SU-22 and Mirage-III are obsolete and dangerous. The Libyan Navy, which has two destroyers and two frigates, is hardly any challenge. At one time it had acquired six submarines, none of which is operational.

From the experience of Iraq, it can be possibly be deduced that under the sophistication and magnitude of the war machinery of the West, the Gaddafi forces would have capitulated if the combined weight of the coalition forces was to bear on Libya. The ongoing commitments in Iraq and Af-Pak theater has precluded that.

Therefore, a No Fly Zone may be a prolonged affair.

It is also possible that the east-west divide may contribute to further instability in Libya or at worst cause rupture of the country into two halves. That Gaddafi still has some very staunch supporters cannot be ignored.

A prolonged conflict in Libya is likely to send oil prices soaring.

The growing stability in the region may weaken the international counter-terrorism cooperation and focus. Fundamentalists and terrorists may find it convenient to grow and expand their tentacles in these uncertain conditions.

Given the geopolitical circumstances, the West can hope that it will be able to strangulate the economy of Libya in a quick time frame, thereby forcing the people especially in the West to abandon Gaddafi.

Hydrocarbon exports are the very lifeline of Libya. It constitutes 95 percent of the total exports. Half the GDP of Libya is from revenues from oil and gas. The country has very little agricultural base and is almost entirely dependent on imports for food to feed its people. The denial of hydrocarbon exports can therefore cause the collapse of the regime.

Moreover, 83 percent of the population resides in urban areas, who may not be able to sustain hardships for very long.

If at all, Libya were to emerge out of this crisis with Gaddafi remaining at the helm, the fate of the Libyans and the stability of the region will be on the whims of the unpredictable Gaddafi. It is too much of a risk. His ouster, possibly a dignified one must be ensured.

(RSN Singh is Associate Editor of India Defence Review. He is also a mentor and guest blogger at Canary Trap. Mr. Singh is also the author of the book Asian Strategic and Military Perspective and The Military Factor in Pakistan. His latest book is The Unmaking of Nepal)

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