As the West helps rebels in Syria, it must pause to consider the lessons from Libya, where dubious forces armed by the U.S. turned on it in a matter of months

Sometimes, turning full circle takes no time. Eighteen months after NATO forces bombed Qadhafi’s Libya citing their responsibility to protect the citizens of Benghazi, U.S. drones hovered over the city looking at possible strike options in the wake of the tragic killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three Americans at the consulate on September 11.

The drones and warships that U.S. officials said were headed to the Libyan coast to give the U.S. Navy “flexibility” prompted former Libyan rebel commander Abdel Hakim Belhadj to warn in an online comment on the Guardian that U.S. “intervention will only inflame the situation”. “Drones are not only provocative and illegal in international law,” he wrote, “but have also led to the killing of many innocent civilians in other countries … [and] had a serious impact on how the U.S. is perceived in the region. Libya’s sovereignty must be respected, in spite of what has happened.” Ironic words, given that it was the same drones and missiles that were credited with crushing Qadhafi’s troops.

Dangerous ally

In Libya, irony comes in many layers. Belhadj himself has a disturbing past that NATO forces chose to ignore as they gave air-support to his forces to “liberate” Tripoli. In the 1980s, Belhadj and a group of Islamist Libyan guerrillas fought alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Through the 1990s, as leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Belhadj fought Qadhafi’s forces, plotting twice to assassinate him. When it got too hot in Libya, he moved to Sudan, working with al-Qaeda as a guest of Osama bin Laden and then returned to Afghanistan in 1998. He spent the next few years in Jalalabad, directing funds and arms for al-Qaeda training camps before he was arrested by the CIA and MI-6 in 2002. Belhadj was then, according to a lawsuit he filed against the British government, tortured brutally before being bundled on to a plane along with his pregnant wife and handed over to Qadhafi. Eventually, as part of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s “de-radicalisation” programme, Belhadj and other associates were freed in 2010. Within a year, he had become the commander of the Transitional National Council (TNC) rebel force.

That the U.S. cooperated with Belhadj and others like him to oust Qadhafi speaks volumes either of its broad-mindedness or its naiveté. Even as the British, French and U.S. intelligence services armed the rebels, they turned a blind eye to the troubling ideological differences they had with the forces fighting Qadhafi — from links with al-Qaeda in the Maghrib, to avowals of the harsh Sharia law they planned to implement in Libya, to the human rights violations by TNC units. Of equal concern should have been the domination of different parts of post-Qadhafi Libya by lawless militias answerable to none.

Instead, NATO leaders proclaimed themselves satisfied that the ends in Libya had been met, a brutal dictator was finished, and that was that. Until a year later, when heavily armed men launched a deadly assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.

Despite concerns

At a time when many in the U.S. are asking whose responsibility it is to disarm this heavily weaponised society, NATO countries have embarked on a similar path of arming rebels in Syria, with a view to pushing President Bashar al-Assad out. France is providing direct aid to rebel authorities in five so-called “liberated zones”, while CNN and NBC report that President Barack Obama has authorised greater support to the rebels. Concern is also growing about the extent of Syrian rebel links to al-Qaeda and other international terror groups. A recent monograph, Jihad in Syria, published by the Washington-based Institute for the study of War, lists more than a dozen terror attacks carried out by the local Jabhat Al Nusra group in 2012, including car bombings, suicide bombings and IED attacks. The Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the July 18 bombing at the national security building in Damascus that killed three of Mr. Assad’s closest advisors, including his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat — an attack that suggests deep levels of training from international terror organisations. And in the past few weeks, the calls by the U.S., U.K. and France for Mr. Assad to quit have been uncomfortably matched by messages from al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri.

It is possible to understand the West’s anguish as the death toll in Syria crosses 20,000 and daily images appear of innocents bearing the brunt of the Assad regime’s brutal attempts to quell the rebellion.

But while the U.S. administration sees parallels to Bosnia and Rwanda — where the international community intervened too late and allowed massacres to take place — it is possible also to understand the hesitation of others in authorising intervention. Given the parallels with Afghanistan and now Libya, it may even be possible to understand India’s nebulous stand on Syria at the U.N., where it has balanced two ‘Yes’ votes against the Assad regime with two ‘No’ votes and two abstentions.

U.S., U.K. and France must see these parallels even if it is too late to avert a full-blown civil war in Syria. In Libya, the failure to recognise blowback lulled the U.S. Consulate into a false sense of security. Security agencies have admitted to being underprepared despite warnings about the prevalence of Islamist terror groups in Benghazi.

At that time, the inconvenient truth about those groups was brushed aside, or white-washed in dispatches. It would be equally hazardous now to accept the reports that those Islamist militias have simply been “swept out of Benghazi”, and that others have agreed to lay down their arms overnight. Often the most dangerous thing about one’s rhetoric is believing it oneself.

(Suhasini Haider is with CNN-IBN.)

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