US closes Libyan embassy, evacuates personnel

The long and sad descent of Libya into the Somalia of the Mediterranean has almost reached its nadir. After the US-initiated, 30,000-foot NATO intervention to depose Moammar Qaddafi succeeded in 2011, most of the country has fallen into the control of terrorist networks as central authority collapsed outside the capital of Tripoli. Even there, the Libyan government’s writ didn’t run far; the defense ministry couldn’t clear the street in front of its offices of militias last year, and fighting erupted in the capital shortly afterward, although that was between the militias. In the most humiliating episode, the US lost four Americans when it kept our consulate in Benghazi open long after everyone else had left, and long after it became very clear that the city was unsafe.

Now the collapse of Libya, and of US and Western “Arab Spring” policy toward it, is all but complete. The US closed the embassy in Tripoli and has evacuated personnel as the capital teeters towards chaos, reports the Associated Press:

The United States shut down its embassy in Libya on Saturday and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort amid a significant deterioration in security in Tripoli as fighting intensified between rival militias, the State Department said.

“Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya,” spokeswoman Marie Harf said. …

The evacuation was accompanied by the release of a new State Department travel warning for Libya urging Americans not to go to the country and recommending that those already there leave immediately. “The Libyan government has not been able to adequately build its military and police forces and improve security,” it said. “Many military-grade weapons remain in the hands of private individuals, including antiaircraft weapons that may be used against civilian aviation.”

American personnel at the Tripoli embassy, which had already been operating with limited staffing, left the capital around dawn and traveled by road to neighboring Tunisia, according to Harf. As the evacuation was underway, residents of the city reported in real time on social media that American military aircraft flew overhead while U.S. soldiers escorted a convoy of vehicles out of town. The State Department would not confirm the evacuation until all staffers were safely in Tunisia.

The Guardian has more on the deterioration of Tripoli. Where are the government’s security forces to restore order, you might ask. These are the government’s forces:

Libya is now witnessing one of its worst spasms of violence since the overthrow of Gaddafi. In Tripoli, the militias are fighting mostly for control of the airport. They are on the government’s payroll since authorities have depended on them to restore order.

The US is just latest in a number of countries to have closed down their diplomatic operations in Libya. Turkey on Friday announced that it had closed down its embassy and militia clashes in Benghazi have prompted the United Nations, aid groups and foreign envoys to leave.

In Tripoli, clashes near the international airport have forced residents to evacuate their homes nearby after they were hit by shells. On Friday, the official Libyan news agency LANA reported that explosions were heard early in the day near the airport area and continued into the afternoon.

The battle in Tripoli began earlier this month when Islamist-led militias — mostly from the western city of Misrata — launched a surprise assault on the airport, under control of rival militias from the western mountain town of Zintan. On Monday, a $113m Airbus A330 passenger jet for Libya’s state-owned Afriqiyah Airways was destroyed in the fighting.

The rival militias, made up largely of former anti-Gaddafi rebels, have forced a week-long closure of gas stations and government offices. In recent days, armed men have attacked vehicles carrying money from the Central Bank to local banks, forcing their closure.

Ironically, the US evacuated its personnel to the original Arab Spring country, and the only one to have a successful transition. That may be because the West stayed out of Tunisia’s upheaval, and also because Tunisia’s populace was more Western by taste than Islamist in the first place. There should be a lesson in there for all sides.

Until the Arab Spring, the West had forced Qaddafi into at least a grudgingly cooperative role in the war on terror, based in large part on his own self-interest. The Islamist networkks threatened his regime as well as the West, and after the US interventions in Iraq, Qaddafi figured that he’d be better off dealing with us than with al-Qaeda and its offshoots. Until 2011, the West more ore less had reached the same conclusion, until we suddenly thought that a freedom movement in Tunisia meant that unrest in Libya, Egypt, and Syria had the same motivations and players (although in Syria, there was at least some reason to believe that at first). We’ve lost most of Syria and Iraq to ISIS and barely recovered Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood, and now the collapse of Libya into a failed state has been almost completed. The wreckage of Western policy in the region is a horrifying marvel to behold, and we’ll be paying for it for generations to come.

Update: John Kerry insists that the US embassy isn’t closing, just suspending operations:

When personnel have to get evacuated by military transport to another country, that’s a closure in all but diplo-speak, not a suspension. The distinction is that the US still has diplomatic relations with the Libyan government, but effectively a “suspension” is nonsense. We’ve closed that embassy and we won’t be back for a while — likely a very long while.