By Scott Taylor
In recent days there has been considerable progress made towards paving a pathway to peace in war-ravaged Syria. This latest flicker of hope is pinned on a ceasefire agreement brokered between Russia, Turkey and Iran. What is significant about this particular cessation of hostilities is that it was negotiated without the inclusion of the U.S.A. For their part, the oft-maligned Russians are dealing from a position of power and with a clearly stated objective.
Since first committing combat troops to the Syrian civil war in September 2015, Russia announced its intention to support those forces loyal to embattled President Bashar al-Assad. Their motivation for assisting Assad was to protect Russia’s only military base on the Mediterranean Sea — the large naval facility at Tartus.
On the flip side of that equation, when the Syrian insurrection first erupted in March 2011, Canada was one of the loudest cheerleaders for the anti-Assad rebels. Canada’s Foreign Affairs minister of the day was the leather-lunged John Baird, and he took advantage of every photo opportunity to be seen encouraging Syrian rebels with the chant “Assad must go!”
Of course, the longer Assad and his loyalists clung to power, the more evident it became that many of those opposing his rule were some pretty nasty Islamic extremists. At first it was the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, and then we saw the emergence of Daesh (also know as ISIS or ISIL). As things in the Syrian conflict became that much murkier, Canada chose to simply go quiet and officially distance itself from a conflagration that our government’s bombastic rhetoric had helped to ignite.
In contrast, the Russians chose a side that was in their best personal interest, and then deployed sufficient combat force to ensure that Assad’s loyalists were victorious on the battlefield. The recent victory over the Syrian rebel stronghold in Aleppo has put Russia in the driver’s seat in terms of dictating the terms of the peace agreement.
With the ink still not dry on the Syrian ceasefire, and with multiple violations still occurring, the Russians are already setting their sights on the quagmire that has overtaken Libya.
In March 2011, Canada led the NATO intervention to oust Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi. Ostensibly, NATO was only to enforce a no-fly zone to prevent Gadhafi from using his air force to bomb Libyan rebels. However, from the outset, NATO aircraft mounted a bombing campaign of their own against Gadhafi and his loyalist forces. The NATO air armada was commanded by Canadian Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, and Foreign Minister Baird ensured that everyone knew Canada was leading the charge to depose Gadhafi.
Like Assad, Gadhafi had enough loyal fighters to stave off his immediate overthrow. As the Libyan civil war dragged on from days to weeks to months it became apparent that many of the anti-Gadhafi rebels were in fact Islamic extremists.
In fact, prior to heading into Syria to fight Assad, the al-Nusra Front was a major faction in the eventual rebel victory over Gadhafi in October 2011. Despite media revelations about the dubious composition of these Libyan rebels, nobody in the West cared, so long as they defeated Gadhafi.
Well, hindsight being 20/20, in the immediate aftermath of Gadhafi’s capture and brutal public execution, it became readily apparent that someone should have cared about who these rebels were.
The widely disparate militias refused to disarm, and following their collective victory they began fighting each other. Libya, a once prosperous, oil-producing, progressive, secular Muslim country, devolved rapidly into a failed state of total anarchy. Today, there are an estimated 2,000 independent militias active in Libya, all controlling their own personal fiefdoms, many of them enforcing strict Sharia law.
There are two self-declared parliaments: one is United Nations-backed and based in Tripoli, and the other is based in Tobruk with limited international backing. Add to this mix a powerful warlord by the name of Khalifa Haftar, whose militia controls the largest swath of Libyan territory. Despite the fact that Haftar is in conflict with the impotent UN-backed Libyan regime in Tripoli, Russia is betting that this 73-year-old warlord — a former general in Gadhafi’s army — is the only force with the capacity to reunify and secure Libya.
If Canada is truly seeking a meaningful military mission on the African continent, we should look at following Russia’s lead in the backing of Haftar in Libya. In our rush to rid the world of Gadhafi, we created a power vacuum that has proven to be far more deadly than the murdered Libyan despot ever was. Haftar may not be a perfect choice, but anything would beat the violent anarchy in which Canada and NATO have plunged the Libyan people for the past half decade.