Libya’s foreign minister says the interim government cannot stop Libyans from joining the Syrian uprising, as Tripoli takes the hardest line in the Arab world against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
On Thursday, Libya’s transitional government gave Syrian diplomats 72 hours to leave the country, just days after it handed the Syrian embassy in Tripoli to the opposition Syrian National Council – the first country to take this step.
This week, former Libyan rebel fighters from the city of Misurata announced the combat deaths of three Libyan comrades fighting against the Syrian regime. Many former rebel fighters speak approvingly of heading to Syria to join an increasingly armed uprising against Mr Assad.
“Actually, we cannot stop anyone from going to Syria,” Ashour Bin Khayal, the career diplomat now heading Libyan foreign affairs told the FT. “People want to go and fight with the Syrians; no one is going prevent them. Officially, we don’t have this stance; but we cannot control the desire of the people.
“Libya took a very revolutionary step to recognise the Syrian National Council,” he said. “Those who are fighting the regime in Syria, we are supporting them.
“The Syrian regime is pushing the country toward a stage that no one wants. They are doing the same as Gaddafi did. The regime will fall sooner or later.”
Libyan rebels may be motivated by the support the Syrian president gave Colonel Muammer al-Gaddafi, the former president, until the very end of his life, hosting a television channel that lambasted the former rebels as stooges of the west.
Libya barely has a functioning government and is still struggling to define itself after 40 years of one-man rule. But as it emerges from almost a year of chaos, it has already begun to reposition itself on the global stage, altering its postures toward the west, Africa and the rest of the Arab world, the foreign minister said.
Mr Bin Khayal, who spent decades in North America, sought to assure the international community that Libya would serve as a force for peace following the overthrow of Gaddafi’s regime.
“Libya now is not going to be a source of trouble,” he said. “It’s going to be a peaceful country.”
But the passions stirred by the Arab Spring uprisings that included Libya’s revolution may undermine the drive to normalise the country’s place in the world.
Mr Khayal said Libya would also reorient its approach to its southern neighbours, where Gaddafi lavished business projects. Libyans widely believe African regimes supported the former president during the uprising against his rule, supplying him with diplomatic support, weapons and mercenaries.
“The rules of the game toward Africa are going to be different,” Mr Khayal said. “The image of Africans among ordinary Libyans is not very good.”
He recently visited Niger, Chad and Mali and attended the African Union summit in Addis Ababa in part to “strengthen borders” between Libya and the rest of Africa to prevent the flow north of drugs, contraband and migrants.
But he also vowed to end the former regime’s nefarious activities in African countries. He revealed to his AU counterparts that Gaddafi was using Libyan diplomatic missions in 11 African countries to store and smuggle weapons and explosives, a practice he promised would end.
Mr Khayal predicted that the goodwill generated by Nato’s support for the Libyan uprising “is going to be translated in one way or the other” into better relations with western countries. His number one priority was to continue pushing western countries to release frozen assets held abroad. So far, restrictions on more than $100bn in assets have been lifted.
He was also trying to convince European and other international companies to return to Libya to staff oilfields and installations and to finish various construction projects, including a huge housing project in Benghazi.
Libya was “not yet at the stage” of trying to initiate debt relief or drum up new business. “We’re trying to focus on projects that are not finished,” he said.