By Roger Boyes
The Libyan civil war is spreading its toxins across Europe. It is drawing in mercenaries from Syria and from Russia. Local militia commanders sit on stockpiles of guns.
Makeshift training camps teach a new generation how to put together rudimentary explosives. Migrants from sub-Saharan states are queuing up for an illegal passage across the Mediterranean; but asylum seekers, among them the suspect arrested over the Reading attacks, may harbour hidden traumas.
The Libyan diaspora in Europe is furious, frustrated and unsettled as their country is torn between government forces backed by Turkey and the army of the maverick commander Khalifa Haftar, backed for now by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Since Colonel Gaddafi was murdered by insurgents nine years ago it has become clear to all that Libya is neither a nation nor a state. For the most part it is lawless terrain, its kaleidoscopic politics defined by the shifting loyalties of tribal leaders and heads of crime syndicates.
Britain and France seeded the crisis by launching air raids in 2011 supposedly designed to stop Gaddafi slaughtering his opponents in Benghazi.
The intention was noble enough — to head off another Srebrenica-style massacre, to demonstrate that the West was not a passive spectator as the Arab Spring turned nasty — but it was half-baked. No thought was invested in what would happen after the fall of the dictator.
We got out of Libya as fast as we could. Our observation of the Libyan meltdown is now confined largely to the terrorists who take the war to European cities: the rucksack bomber at the Manchester Arena, the organiser of the Bataclan attacks in Paris, the gunman who mowed down British tourists on a Tunisian beach.
These problems, say the professional diplomatists, have to be tackled at their root. Libya is a test above all of European statecraft. The migration flows from Libyan coasts towards Italy and Greece are a European problem.
So is the export of illegal guns and the long-term brutalisation of a young generation, providing recruitment potential for a recovering Isis. And the aim, the diplomats say, has to be to arrange an enduring ceasefire as a precursor to a genuinely inclusive and legitimate central government.
But that has already been tried and it has failed. The fact is the European Union has become marginal in brokering peace in its most volatile neighbour.
Instead, foreign leverage on the Libyan players has come from Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the one side and Vladimir Putin, aligned with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, on the other; all self-identifying strongmen seeking to plug Libya’s vacuum.
There’s a carve-up under way. The Turkish leader has used sophisticated drones to snatch command of the air from Haftar’s forces, who have been thwarted in their efforts to capture Tripoli and oust the incumbent coalition government.
The Egyptian president has warned that there will be a military response to the Turks if they push Haftar further back. US intelligence has spotted the arrival of a dozen Russian fighter jets.
The sheer bizarreness of this war was underlined when two Russians, one of them supposedly a sociologist, were arrested in Libya last year after attempting to build a Moscow back channel to Saif Gaddafi, second son of the late dictator, former PhD student at the LSE and a war crimes suspect.
The Russians have been in jail for 13 months, long enough for a film to be made about their plight. The final scene shows them walking free from the jail in a blaze of gunfire, apparently liberated with the help of Russian special forces.
That was presumably a warning to the established Libyan government not to take Russian hostages. But what does it tell us about the Kremlin position?
That it recognises the Tripoli government diplomatically while giving muscle to Haftar’s troops, and yet it explores the idea of bringing a member of the Gaddafi dynasty into the game.
It is playing all sides in the hope that it can win, one way or another, an oil-producing client state with a strategically sensitive coastline. Perhaps it can pick up an added bonus by setting France (which backs Haftar) against Turkey, two Nato members at each other’s throats.
The Russian writer Alexander Herzen, analysing the failure of the 1848 revolutions, noted that the death of an old order did not produce an heir but rather a “pregnant widow”.
He said: “Between the death of one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.” Libya, which lost its old order almost a decade ago, is still in the grip of that very long dark night.
Britain, as it shapes a new post-Brexit foreign policy, has to accept that it has no business there. Human rights groups demand that Haftar stops laying mines, that mass graves be investigated, that would-be migrants are not cooped up in dirty prisons.
They’re right and it’s fine talk but ultimately meaningless as long as it’s unclear who rules the country.
There is only one reasonable policy conclusion: Britain should publicly oppose bloodshed committed against civilians everywhere. But it should not mount even the most limited of interventions until it can be sure that this won’t make matters worse.
Global Britain has to be clear about this; we’re not applying to be a global policeman. In Libya, recent history has shown us our limitations and we should respect them.
Roger Boyes is the Germany and East Europe correspondent for the Times of London. His latest book, Meltdown Iceland, is about the global financial crisis.