Certain catastrophe - GulfToday

Certain catastrophe

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Rescuers sit in front of collapsed buildings caused by Mediterranean storm Daniel, in Derna, Libya.

In the early hours of Sept.11, Storm Daniel’s downpour burst two fragile Libyan dams. A seven-metre wall of water swept through the centre of Libyan coastal city of Derna, drowning 10,000-20,000 people and sweeping away a quarter of its neighbourhoods into the Mediterranean Sea. Derna is not just an obscure outpost on the Mediterranean coast but an ancient city that has played a crucial role on the multi-millennial history of North Africa.

The Derna tragedy was waiting to happen due to war, post war-division and chaos, and climate change.

After the 2011 Arab Spring protests erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, Libya was plunged into civil conflict between forces loyal to the country’s leader Muammar Gaddafi and opponents who established a rival regime. When Gaddafi’s backers rallied and marched eastwards to reestablish control, Nato launched a bombing campaign which helped rebels drive him from power and resulted in his murder. Libya emerged divided between east and west and overtaken by anarchy. In 2014, Daesh, al-Qaeda, and other takfiri militias seized control of Derna and were expelled from the city only in 2016 by the Libyan National Army affiliated with the Tobruk government in the east which rivals the UN-recognised Tripoli government in the West.

Built in the wadis which channelled the rush of water into Derna, the dams were not maintained and collasped when stressed by heavy rain. Repairs contracted to be made before 2011 were not carried out. Civil conflict prevented the Turkish firm involved from fixing the dams and building a third dam to ensure Derna was protected.

The unprecedented deluge which hammered Derna’s dams, Storm Daniel was fuelled by climate change which is largely caused by the Western industrial world’s emissions of greenhouse gases.

Before the Western air campaign which ousted Gaddafi, oil-rich Libya was a stable country which had an effective government that provided security and free education, health care, and housing. Libya was ranked 55 out of 187 countries on the UN Human Development index and its per capita income was the fourth or fifth highest in Africa.

In 2020, Libya’s ranking was 105 out of 189 countries surveyed. The World Bank estimated that the Libyan economy contracted by 1.2 per cent in 2022 alone, unemployment stood at 19.6 per cent, and rising food, housing and electricity prices were driven by inflation.

The Bank reported that “the country experienced a 50 percent decline in GDP per capita between 2011 and 2020. Absent the conflict, the economy could have witnessed, on the contrary, a high positive growth of 68 percent over the ten years growth, a possibility that remains attainable and highlights the country’s enormous potential.”

After ousting the Libyan monarchy in 1969, Gaddafi adopted both pan-Arab and pan-African policies. The West was alienated and eager to get rid of him because of his support for Palestinians, Irish Republicans, and African liberation movements and alignment with the Soviet Union and Cuba during the Cold War.

The West dubbed its involvement in the Libyan crisis a “humanitarian intervention” although this was just as disastrous for the Libyan people as the 2003 US-UK war against Iraq which toppled secular President Saddam Hussein. The US turned over that oil-rich country to pro-Iranian sectarian politicians who have their roots in militia formations. Like Libya, Iraq is divided between its 15 Arab majority and three Kurdish majority provinces and between the largely Shia south and the mainly Sunni north and west. Like Iraq, Libya has become a mismanaged, corrupt economic basket case as well as a failed state.

The West – which is afflicted by imperial overreach — never seems to learn lessons from its deadly and destructive aggressions which negatively impact the lives of millions innocent civilians in far away lands. US military involvement in Vietnam escalated throughout 1964 with heavy bombing of North Vietnam, became a war of attrition against the Communist Viet Cong, and ushered in a failed phase of Vietnamisation of the South’s military. For the US, the war ended with humiliating withdrawal in 1973. The total death toll in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos was estimated at 3.8 million, more than half of whom were civilians caught up in the fighting.

Although the US architects of the Vietnam war warned against repeating the mistakes made in that conflict, Wash-ington’s warrior presidents and armchair generals have not listened to this advice. The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 ended in an equally humbling pull out in August 2021 and the country’s take-over by the ultra-conservative Taliban. The US occupation of Iraq produced a period of anarchy which led to the rise of al-Qaeda’s offshoot Daesh and the 2014 creation of a Daesh caliphate in Syria and Iraq which compelled the US to intervene again. In both of these cases the US military trained local forces but did not cede command-and-control or provide logistics training essential for the functioning of armies. Consequently, the Afghan army melted away when confronted by the Taliban and the Iraqi army, weakened by sectarianism and coruption could not contain Daesh.

Having failed in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Biden administration has opted to fight a proxy war against Russia in Ukraine by training, arming, and funding local forces under Ukrainian command and served by local logistics teams. So far, the US has invested $75 billion in the war, most in military equipment and munitions, and President Joe Biden has requested another $24 billion from Congress. The European Union and its member countries have invested largly in financial and humanitarian aid.

This war is not going as well as the US and its allies in NATO had expected and hoped. The Ukrainians have recaptured about half of the territory initially occupied by Russia. But Ukrainian forces remain largely stalled along the long, 20-kilometre-wide defensive front line constructed by the Russians who are determined to hold onto the eastern Donbas region and strategic Crimea. The conflict has become a war of attrition which is consuming men and materiel.

Like the 2003 US Iraq war, this is a war which should not have been fought. Ukraine could have avoided the conflict if it had declared it would not pursue membership in NATO, which Russia sees as a threat to its very existence. After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the US promised not to urge Ukraine to apply but reneged on this pledge. Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly warned that Ukraine was a “red line” for Russia as NATO had expanded into Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and other former Soviet states. Western leaders did not take him seriously. That was a dreadful miscalculation. Ukraine is paying the price in lives and destruction while the West maintains the flow of guns and funds instead of investing in tackling the abuses of climate change which devastated Derna and threatens the whole world.

Photo: AP

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