Will the west regret toppling Gaddafi?

Will France, Britain and the US come to regret their decision to topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi? Nearly two years after these three states began their mission to remove the Libyan leader, the question is one which some commentators are starting to ponder.

Nobody would deny there was a strong humanitarian interest for the US and its allies to intervene in Libya in the spring of 2011, stopping what would otherwise have been Gaddafi’s massacre of his rebel opponents in Benghazi. But nearly two years on, some might be tempted to argue that his removal ran against the west’s strategic interest, given the course of subsequent events in north Africa and the Middle East.

The first reason to look back at the consequences of Gaddafi’s fall is because of what is happening in Mali. Today, France is leading military operations inside Mali to stop the advance of a powerful group of militias linked to al-Qaeda, who have established a major foothold in the country. France and its allies say their intervention is essential because the rebel militias – who comprise al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – will ultimately threaten the wider region and western states.

However, there are good reasons for arguing that the rebels’ rise to prominence in Mali was a direct result of Nato’s decision to topple Gaddafi in 2011. As Paul Melly of Chatham House,argued in a paper at the end of last year, Gaddafi’s fall “triggered the sudden return to Mali of the thousands of Tuareg fighters that Libya had recruited since the 1990s. The disintegration of the dictator’s security forces flooded the Sahara with weaponry, easily affordable by Al-Qaeda and its allies who were flush with income from drugs trading and hostage ransoms.”

The second reason to look back at the impact of Gaddafi’s removal is its impact on Syria. It could be argued that his toppling accelerated and intensified the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Nobody can have the remotest sympathy with the Syrian leader who bears prime responsibility for the death of 60,000 people in his country. Most western governments would dearly love to see the Syrian leader go.

But the question raised here is whether the decision to topple Gaddafi worked for or against the west’s strategic interest. The hard reality for western governments is that the intensification of the civil war in Syria has created a major opening for the jihadist group Jabhat al Nusra, one of the leading militant groups in the fight against the Assad regime. If Jabhat al Nusra were to gain a major foothold in Syria in the aftermath of Assad’s fall, this could end up being a major security threat in the west. The rise of this group is certainly a real worry for western intelligence services.

Are these arguments far-fetched ? Shashank Joshi, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank, believes so. In his view, Gaddafi’s regime was badly destabilised by the uprising against him at the start of 2011 and this would have remained the case. “Even without Nato intervention, there would have been all manner of destabilisation of militias like the Tuareg groups, and displacement of weaponry across the region.” Nor does he believe events in Libya ended up deepening the Syrian civil war. “The peaceful protests against Assad may have been influenced by events coming from Libya. But by the autumn of 2011, when Gaddafi, was toppled the revolt against Assad was already well underway.”

Still, what cannot be doubted is that western security chiefs at the start of this year are once again under pressure. In May 2011, many believed the global jihadist movement had been dealt a decisive blow with the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. Now, jihadist threats have emerged on two new and significant fronts. Whether AQIM in Mali and Jabhat al Nusra in Syria turn out to be movements with broad ambitions and which challenge western interests remains to be seen. What cannot be doubted, however, is that the toppling of Gaddafi, who was ultimately the west’s ally in the fight against regional jihadist groups, is a factor in their rise to prominence.