Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1163, (5 - 11 September 2013)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1163, (5 - 11 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Libya: divided over Syria

The presence of Libyan jihadists in Syria makes fraught for Tripoli deciding a stance on expected US strikes against Damascus, writes Kamel Abdallah

Al-Ahram Weekly

The possibility of a military strike against Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack against Al-Gouta on the outskirts of Damascus has raised numerous pressing questions in other Arab countries that have watched the steady deterioration in the humanitarian conditions in Syria since the uprising against the Bashar Al-Assad regime began over two years ago.

The Syrian opposition blames the Syrian army for the attack that caused the death of more than 1,400 people by suffocation due to inhalation of toxic Sarin gas. Authorities in Damascus vehemently deny the accusation.

Quarters of the international community have added their voice to that of the Syrian opposition. Washington and its Western allies have lashed out at the Syrian regime and declared that its use of internationally banned chemical weapons will not go unpunished. Earlier this week, US President Barack Obama announced his intent to act on this principle and has sought congressional approval for a military strike against Syria.

As a large number of jihadists from Libya are fighting alongside the Syrian opposition, Libya will undoubtedly be affected by a US operation targeting the Syrian regime.

Although the Libyan Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning the Al-Ghouta massacre and calling upon the international community and UN Security Council to intervene to halt hostilities in Syria, opinion in Libya over a likely military strike is divided. In the General National Council (GNC), Islamist members are divided between those who are in full support of a strike and those who have reservations, while liberal forces are opposed, largely on the grounds of the adverse repercussions that they fear would be greater and more widespread than can be anticipated.

GNC members that Al-Ahram Weekly contacted refused to comment on the question before giving it further study. Most likely they wanted to avoid issuing premature statements that might be held against them, as occurred in response to some of the statements they had issued with regard to the Egyptian crisis.

What is certain is that Libya will find itself in a very difficult position when it assumes the chairmanship of the Arab League in September. Actions it takes in this capacity will have an impact inside the country, which is still gripped by an acute political crisis at the core of which are the tug-of-wars between Libyan parties over the fate of the interim government headed by Prime Minister Ali Zeidan.

The Weekly tried to obtain statements from Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, who is currently in Cairo in order to assume leadership of the Arab League Council, and from Libya’s ambassador to Cairo, Mohamed Faez Jebril, on what they believed would be the consequences of a military strike against Syria. However, the Libyan officials were unwilling to issue statements until after officials in Tripoli declared the government’s position.

Several months before the Al-Ghouta massacre a chemical weapons assault was reported in another part of Syria. At the time, Haitham Al-Maleh, a prominent Syrian opposition activist, charged that the Libyan jihadists in Syria were responsible for that attack. He said that the Libyan fighters had obtained these weapons from Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals following the outbreak of the Libyan civil war in 2011 and then smuggled them into Syria via Turkey. Al-Maleh at the time urged the international community to take action against the Libyan jihadists in Syria who had joined the extremist Al-Nusra Front that is fighting the Syrian army.

In this regard, former president of the Libyan Interim National Council Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, Syrian opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun, deputy-general inspector of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood Tareq Taifour and Abdel-Hakim Belhajj, a former jihadist who served as chairman of the Libyan Military Council and who is currently the head of the Nation Party in Libya, were reported to have concluded an agreement in accordance with which fighters would be trained in Libya and then sent to Syria along with various types of weapons via Turkey. The agreement was signed in Libya immediately after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, according to The Guardian, which revealed the news of the agreement a week later.

Following the recent incident in Al-Ghouta, Libya’s ambassador to the Philippines, Idris Bin Al-Tayyib, wrote the following on his Facebook page: “We should begin from the latest shams in political manipulation and tell the truth! I charge that Abdel-Hakim Belhajj, the military adviser to the jihadist militias in Syria, is responsible for supplying those weapons. This would not be the first time! His training camps for the Libyans to send into the furnace of the Syrian war and his numerous and diverse shipments of every type of weapon that a madman such as Gaddafi could buy are well known to the entire world — and have been for a long time — as well as to his partners in the unflagging shipment operations (Turkey + Qatar).”

Bin Al-Tayeb goes on to argue that the Syrian regime could not have been responsible for the chemical attack because the chemical weapons of the Syrian regime had remained under lock and seal since the first US caution. In addition, “the regime wanted to court the US and the world — as embodied in international organisations — at a time, moreover, when the inspectors probing the effects of the previous chemical attack — with respect to which there is near unanimity over the identity of the perpetrator — were present in Damascus. Could the Syrian regime have suddenly been struck by political stupidity to such a degree?”

The Libyan ambassador’s assessment is consistent with Al-Maleh’s observations with respect to the Libyan jihadists fighting in Syria. That the UN inspection team arrived in Damascus precisely an hour before the chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus seems to reinforce the argument that opposition militias should not be excluded from suspicion. It is clear what their motive would be for staging a second chemical attack in Syria at this particular time when the UN inspections mission is there: to precipitate foreign military intervention against the Syrian regime. Indeed, if this was the case, they appear to have succeeded.

The Libyan journalist and commentator Mohamed Al-Madini told the Weekly, “the extremist Islamist groups and the jihadist ones in particular do training in Libya and they receive material, weapons and logistics support from Turkey and Qatar. These movements recruit youth from Libya and some other countries and send them to Syria via Turkey. Their work is facilitated by a non-patriotic creed, which is to say a lack of allegiance to a particular national identity since they do not believe in the concept of the nation state. The groups [that are trained in Libya] join Al-Nusra Front and other factions of the Free Syrian Army. Many of the young fighters have been killed in the fighting in Syria. As for the leaders, they give orders but they don’t fight.”

On the question of the impact of a possible Western military operation against Syria on Libya, Al-Madini was of the opinion that it could have a positive consequence: “Any military strike against Syria would rid some countries of those groups. This applies to Libya in particular, which has yet to establish a state and does not yet possess a regular army or police, but rather militias.”

The journalist did not rule out the possibility that a Western military operation could have a dual objective: to strike military targets of the Syrian regime, on the one hand, and to strike the locations of extremist Islamist militiamen on the other. The hoped for effect, which would serve certain interests in the region, would be to weaken both the Syrian regime and the militant Islamists, which could eventually pose a danger to Israel.

Still, the fallout of such a scenario on Libya could also be negative. In view of the links between Libyan jihadists on the ground in Syria and certain parties in Libya, most notably the more radical Islamist groups, the situation could become awkward for Libyan officials if Libyan fighters in Syria ended up targets of Western military intervention. Libya’s beleaguered authorities hardly need the additional complications. Some authorities in Libya must be weighing this prospect against the secret wish that such an operation would get rid of certain Libyan extremists who, if they returned to an unstable Libya, could aggravate the headache of the current government.

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