As The World Focuses On Iraq, Libya Wants Foreign Intervention To Protect Civilians, Too


A security office building is damaged after an attack by Islamic hard-line militias in Benghazi, Libya

Libya’s parliament voted on Wednesday to request international assistance in protecting civilians as deadly clashes continued to rage throughout the country. But despite the ongoing struggle for control over Libya’s future, and the U.S.’ humanitarian intervention in Iraq, the odds of peacekeepers in Tripoli in the near future remains low.

For months now, the militias that have provided security in Libya absent government institutions have been clashing against each other in an attempt to gain dominance. Last month, the attacks and counter-attacks around Tripoli caused a massive fire at an oil refinery that only narrowly avoiding a catastrophic explosion. The fighting has grown so intense in both the capital and in the eastern city of Benghazi that the newly elected parliament has been forced to meet in the small city of Tobruk instead.

It was in Tobruk on Wednesday that the parliament passed a resolution calling on the international community to step in to help protect civilians caught in the cross-fire. According to Libyan lawmaker Abu Bakr Biira, “by 111 of the 124 deputies present a resolution calling on the international community to intervene quickly to protect civilians in Libya, including Tripoli and Benghazi.” He added in his interview with AFP that the international community “must intervene immediately to ensure that civilians are protected.”

As of earlier this month, the fighting had claimed at least 200 lives as gun battles and shelling continued to take place. “Islamist-led militias mainly from the coastal city of Misrata launched an attack on the Tripoli airport, under the control of rival militias from the mountain town of Zintan,” the Associated Press explained about the violence’s origin. “Analysts believe that the operation came as a backlash to Islamists’ devastating loss in last parliamentarian elections and to counter a campaign in Benghazi led by a reneged army general and army units against Islamic militias.”

The concept of humanitarian intervention is looming large in the news again as the United States, United Nations, and others scramble to provide aid to besieged minorities in Iraq. Unlike Iraq, however, there appears to be no plan in place anytime soon for any sort of coordinated response in Libya, humanitarian or otherwise. Instead, foreign entities have been swiftly pulling out of Libya: the United Nations withdrew most of its staff from the country in July and the United States evacuated its embassy in Tripoli under the cover of darkness.

Wednesday’s resolution marks the fourth call for help to the international community since the fighting between militias escalated. Italy answered the call and agreed to provide planes to fight the giant blaze that threatened to consume Tripoli. But an earlier request to the U.N. Security Council to provide more training to the Libyan security forces actually under government control has so far gone unheeded. “We are not asking for military intervention to protect the oil but we need teams – experts, trained people – to work with Libyans … so the Libyans can learn how to protect these strategic sites,” Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdelaziz said in July.

In the aftermath of longtime dictator Moammar al-Qaddafi in 2011, the international community swiftly withdrew the military support that helped rebels topple the strongman. NATO, which lead the airstrikes against Qadaffi, had called for a United Nations presence to help provide stability, warning that there was no intention to deploy NATO ground forces in the country. But the Libyan government never publicly requested such a mission, instead relying on the very militias that are now wreaking havoc for protection. That conscious choice, both on the part of the international community and Libya, is playing out today.

President Obama continues to defend the decision to intervene in Libya, based on the likelihood of a mass atrocity being carried out in Benghazi had the United Nations Security Council not passed a resolution greenlighting protecting civilians. “But what is also true is that I think we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this,” he said in an interview with the New York Times’ Tom Friedman. “Then it’s the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you, America.’ At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions.”