In the wake of the appalling death toll in the Mediterranean at the end of April – when up to 1,300 refugees were estimated to have drowned in one week – the EU was quick to jump on the tragedy as an opportunity to ramp up military involvement in Africa.
Resisting calls to restart search-and-rescue operations, an emergency European Council meeting last month instead called for the bombing of the boats on which the migrants were fleeing, vowing to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers in accordance with international law.”
A leaked ‘strategy paper’ presented to the UN Security Council last week by EU foreign representative Federica Mogherini, spelled out exactly what this would entail: “The operation would require a broad range of air, maritime and land capabilities. These could include: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; boarding teams; patrol units (air and maritime); amphibious assets; destruction air, land and sea, including special forces units.”
Meanwhile, ‘onshore activities’ might include “action along the coast, in harbor or at anchor of smugglers assets and vessels before their use.” In other words, another large scale assault on Libya waged from air, sea and land.
Needless to say the plan has been rejected by both Libyan ‘governments’ – the internationally-recognized one in Tobruk, and in a rare display of unity, also by the Libyan Dawn government based in Tripoli.
Taken at face value, such an approach to the problem of illegal migration is hard to understand. Experts have been queuing up to condemn the planned bombardment, arguing that not only will it be gratuitously cruel, but counter-productive as well. A joint statement issued by the UN’s human right experts on migrants, Francois Crepeau, and on trafficking in persons, Maria Grazia Giammarinaro warned that “Increasing repression of survival migration has not worked in the past and will not work now. Destroying boats is only a very short-sighted solution to combating smuggling. Smugglers continue to skillfully adapt, as long as there is a market to exploit.”
Indeed, the ‘war on drugs’ has already proven that militarized solutions aimed at the ‘supply side’ of criminal enterprises without addressing demand are invariably disastrous. As Ioan Grillo has brilliantly documented in the book El Narco, attempts in Mexico and Colombia to wipe out drug crops through aerial attacks over the past four decades has had two main consequences: first, it drives up the price – and therefore the profits – of the trade; second, it consolidates that trade in the hands of only the most ruthless, vicious and armed gangs. The result has been a massive concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the most ultra-violent drug cartels. The estimated 100,000 killed in Mexico’s Jalisco province over the past eight years is the latest bloody testament to this grim reality. Any attempt to deal with ‘people smuggling’ by bombing their boats out of existence would almost certainly have a similar result.
In Libya, the ‘people smuggling trade’ is currently run by a plethora of small providers, some organizing occasional runs in small vessels hired from fishermen. These small providers would probably not withstand a concerted military assault. With prices going through the roof as a result of continued demand and declining supply, however, the trade would certainly continue. But it would do so in the hands only of those with the firepower necessary to run the operation in the newly militarized terrain – that is to say, in the hands of groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda. And they would be doing so in a market that would have become immeasurably more profitable.
Thus, the practically guaranteed result of the EU’s strategy would not be to eliminate the ‘people smuggling’ trade, but to ensure that it helped concentrate massive wealth and firepower in the hands of Libya’s most violent gangs. This much should be obvious to any high school economics student with even a basic knowledge of supply and demand. No wonder, then, that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the Russian government, and even, apparently, parts of the French military are opposed to the plans.
So why is the EU so firmly in favor of this self-defeating exercise in moral bankruptcy? Of course, one explanation says it is simply a way for governments to outflank their far-right opponents by proving their ‘toughness on immigration.’ Cameron and his ilk, for example, can argue that not even Nigel Farage has promised to actually blow refugees out of the water! This analysis makes some sense when we note that it is Britain, France and Italy in the forefront of the ‘war party’ on this issue – all of whom have witnessed large support for anti-immigrant parties in recent years.
But seen in terms of the broad context of European capitalism’s deep, multi-layered crisis, another explanation also suggests itself.
Myself and many others have argued over the past four years that the unleashing of sectarian violence across the Middle East and North Africa was not an accidental by-product of Western foreign policy in the region, but in fact its very purpose. By the mid-2000s, the growing economic clout of the global South was presenting a very real threat to the continued European/ North American extortion of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Ever since these regions gained formal independence from colonialism, they had remained tied to former (and new) colonial powers through a million economic threads. Yet the rise of China (and to a lesser extent, India and Brazil) has smashed the West’s former monopoly of markets and finance, and has facilitated one country after another freeing themselves from economic dependence on Europe and the US, and moving towards a growing South-South cooperation in which the West has been edged out. The massive rise in Chinese investment in Africa – from $6 billion in 2000 to an estimated $200billion today is but the most vivid example of this global trend.
Destabilization through terrorism, then, has been the West’s way of using military means to claw back that power it can no longer maintain through economic manipulation alone. For destabilized regional powers cannot contribute to the growing strength of the BRICS, cannot support their regions’ moves towards self-sufficiency, and are likely to be ever more reliant on both Western military aid and international finance. By creating one failed state after another – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Kosovo and Libya – the US and Britain have created the conditions in which terrorist activity can thrive; and then by directly supporting sectarian militias, in Libya and Syria in particular, they have ensured that these militia keep the affected countries in a state of violent chaos. That is to say, weak and dependent.
If this analysis is correct – if the West is pursuing a policy of destabilization against the global South in order to keep it weak and dependent – then the apparently self-defeating strategy of concentrating the ‘people smuggling’ trade in the hands of ISIS and Al-Qaeda suddenly makes perfect sense. It may be a desperate measure to keep these groups alive.
The tide has now definitively turned against the sectarian death squads that the West has been fostering for the past five years. No longer seen as the ‘freedom fighters of the Arab Spring’, the West’s proxy militias – and their political apologists – now inspire little more than revulsion across much of the region. This began with the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt in 2013, and continued throughout 2014 with both the military gains made by Syrian President Bashar Assad and the ousting of the pro-militia parliament in Libyan elections. In Libya, in particular, which has been steeped in sectarian violence and civil war ever since NATO’s invasion in 2011, there are some encouraging signs that the death squads’ reign of terror might be on its last legs.
Last month, the UN envoy to Libya Bernardino Leon announced that the country’s two rival factions have reached a draft accord which is “very close to a final agreement,” and each side has begun putting forward their nominees for positions within a unity government. Of course, this may yet fall though. After all, the Libya Dawn coalition – formed of militia supporters who lost the last election – has apparently rebuffed the agreement. Yet if it is rejected, this just makes it more likely that the Libya Dawn militias will simply meet with outright military defeat – for two reasons.
First, they are intensely divided. The rise of ISIS in Libya has split the so-called ‘Islamists’, with Libya Dawn now officially at war with ISIS, although this is a policy not all of the party’s militias support. Furthermore, the Misrata militias, who broadly support the idea of a ‘unity government’, are increasingly fighting other more hard-line groups that do not. While there are also divisions on the elected government’s side, so far these are on the level of political faction-fighting rather than shooting battles. Clearly the violent divisions on the Misrata – Libya Dawn – ISIS side are likely to be more corrosive than political disputes.
Second, the intervention of Egypt on the side of the elected Tobruk government has significantly altered the balance of power in that government’s favor. And according to intelligence reports from DebkaFile, Egypt is “preparing a large-scale ground and air assault along the Libyan border to oust the Islamic State group from eastern Libya.”
If Egypt does indeed wage such an assault, wiping out ISIS (together, possibly, with its allies and supporters from within Libya Dawn), that will again increase the pressure for Libya Dawn to come to a compromise or risk total annihilation. Either of these outcomes would be a serious spanner in the works to British-US led ‘divide and ruin’ strategy – in which Libya is supposed to play the role of the base of destabilization across the whole region.
Hence the urgency for a ‘new intervention’. Not only would ISIS and company see their smuggling profits boosted exponentially, but the EU plan would also pave the way for SAS involvement in revitalizing the militias (just as they did in 2011) and to serve as a bulwark against Egyptian forces.
The result would, of course, be a much more bloody conflict. But that is precisely the point.