It was hugely illustrative of the madness currently gripping Libya that a passing reference by the country’s foreign minister Mohamed Siala in a speech to the UN General Assembly should have been taken as a request for the UN to put peace-keeping boots on the ground.
What Siala actually said was that he wanted an expanded role for the local UN body, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). But because he did not spell out what he meant, commentators in Libya immediately concluded he was calling for UN troops.
Despite his reported denial 24 hours later, Siala’s comments have stirred up something of a hornet’s nest.
The ambiguity of his statement has unleashed typical local suspicions.
Libyans no longer take any information at face value. They generally assume there is some sort of conspiracy afoot.
The country has been torn apart by competing armed factions.
The internationally recognized Presidency Council (PC) led by Faiez Serraj exists in the capital Tripoli on sufferance from a half dozen contending militias.
The PC’s attempt to form a presidential guard and re-establish a police force answerable only to itself have been a failure.
The fact that this government-in-name-only also has militant supporters in its midst makes the idea of independent security institutions laughable.
Ironically in this country broken up by competing armed groups, victimizing the communities where they have established their power bases, there is one single point on which all Libyans can unite.
This is a visceral opposition to the presence of foreign troops.
Memories are long.
The centuries of Ottoman occupation were succeeded by almost 50 years of often brutal Italian rule.
This ended with the devastating fighting in World War Two as British, Indian, New Zealand, South African and Australian forces battled against the German general Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps which had arrived to reinforce the failing Italian army.
It is perhaps significant that in all the many military histories published of that conflict, there is barely a reference to the plight of the Libyans across whose country these battles raged back and forth for over two bloody years.
Further credibility was given to Siala’s assumed call for UN troops by a statement from President Obama’s former special envoy to Libya, Jonathan Winer, who said armed groups had to be removed from the scene and a regular army established.
In the current situation the only way such groups could be removed would be by well-trained regular troops who, at the moment, could only be from outside the country.
The fact that Winer went on to talk about the need for consensus demonstrated the pointlessness of his comments.
The militias are busy arming themselves ever more heavily, each dreaming of imposing consensus on all the others through the barrel of a gun.
Unfortunately, one important point that Siala did make to the UN was largely drowned out in the response to that ambiguous statement about extending UNSMIL’s role.
This was that all international efforts to mediate a solution for Libya simply had to go through the UN.
This was a clear attack on competing initiatives from the French and Italian governments to broker agreements between the rival east and west of the country, both of which have already been largely honored in the breach.