Libya may be failing. But much can be done to save the revolution
BY Imad Mesdoua
Libya has become a failed state. Since the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, the country has gradually fallen into a state of lawlessness and insecurity.
With virtually no central government to speak of, as it stands, warring factions have asserted their control over disputed zones of influence. Despite the U.N.’s efforts to broker a political solution to the conflict, Daesh and other armed groups have continued to grow stronger by exploiting this political vacuum. In the eyes of Western policymakers, opening a new front against Daesh in Libya has become an inevitable course of action to stop its expansion. The clock is ticking, but Western powers are considering the negative consequences an intervention could produce. Without trustworthy partners on the ground to fight Daesh, any militarized effort is unlikely to produce positive results.
Libya has had two governments that are nearly implacably opposed to each other since 2014. On March 12, however, Libya’s Presidential Council, headed by Prime Minister Faiz Al Siraj, called on all institutions to transfer authority to a unity government—a move that may yield a political settlement. So far, Libya’s rival governments have resisted fully endorsing a U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
Both the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HOR) supported by General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, and the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) are consumed by their vested interests. Amidst the political confusion, a Daesh presence continues to grow unchecked. Capitalizing on tribal and political divisions, the group has been able to gain control over the late Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte and has since spread along its coastal periphery.
This development has raised alarms within Western intelligence agencies, which fear Daesh’s shift in focus from Syria towards Libya. There are a number of factors that contribute to making Libya an attractive destination for groups like Daesh. Since the collapse of Libya’s central state, ungoverned spaces have made it easier for militia and terrorist groups to operate. In these areas, they are able to establish training camps and control territory relatively unchallenged. Daesh has also taken advantage of long-standing smuggling routes across the desert and arms depots—remnants of the 2011 war—across the country. The availability of natural resources within the country is also an important feature. In January 2016, Daesh militants attacked Libya’s Ras Lanuf oil and gas facilities with the aim of using the oil wealth and depriving the GNA of much-needed revenues.
Furthermore, Libya’s location at the heart of the North Africa-Sahel region and its proximity to Europe, make the country all the more strategically important. Using Libya as a regional headquarters from which to launch its operations, Daesh has set its eyes on Tunisia as its next target. In the past year, coordinated attacks by Tunisian militants, most of whom trained in Libya, on the Bardo Museum and the resort town of Sousse dealt a considerable blow to the country’s tourism industry. Daesh has clearly spotted Tunisia’s vulnerabilities and is now looking to exploit them. With Tunisia contributing the largest number of foreign fighters to Daesh, the group is now looking to use them to prepare more spectacular attacks on the country. In a well-coordinated assault on the Tunisian border town of Ben Guerdane on March 7, a group of Daesh terrorists sought to test the country’s capacity to resist attacks. A worrying sign of things to come.
Though there seems to be a consensus for the imperative to counter Daesh, Western powers and Arab states appear to be just as a divided as the Libyans themselves on how best to achieve this goal. Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia support Haftar’s anti-Muslim militant groups “Operation Dignity” whereas Qatar, Sudan and Turkey are closely linked to the GNC and “Libya Dawn.” Meanwhile, Western powers, having disengaged from the political process since 2011, seem somewhat disconnected from the granularities of local dynamics. The underlying power plays outside of Libya make a solution within seem all the more complicated.
Western powers would prefer to intervene at the request of Libya’s GNA once it is properly established. But British and French Special Forces have already been on the ground for months discreetly advising local forces and preparing intelligence to support an intervention. Italy has reportedly taken the lead in coordinating an intervention force, whose objectives would be to train and support a new Libyan army. U.S. forces already carried out airstrikes in February near Sabratha. The strikes targeted a Daesh camp where Noureddine Chouchane, a senior Tunisian Daesh leader and recruiter, was staying.
The consequences of a poorly conceived and implemented intervention could have disastrous consequences for Libya and its neighbors. A targeted air campaign alone can contain but won’t eliminate the Daesh threat entirely. No matter how carefully they are conducted, bombings will inevitably lead to the loss of civilian lives and could alienate (or radicalize) part of the population.
A Western intervention, with the symbolism it carries, would also galvanize Islamist militant groups and marginalize moderate factions. Some militias, for example, could be tempted to unify under the Daesh banner. This type of intervention could also trigger a humanitarian crisis, which will heavily impact Libya’s neighbors Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. These countries have already begun to brace for an influx of refugees by tightening their border controls. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have already been displaced by the fighting since 2014 and this could become much worse should fresh clashes erupt.
In the short-term, identifying, vetting and ultimately supporting those armed militia groups willing to fight Daesh is the international community’s best bet. But this is a delicate balancing act, which requires careful consideration and preparation. A training program to coordinate an anti-Daesh effort, for example, would have to avoid favoring some groups over others. In the long-term, order will only return once a legitimate and inclusive GNA is established and given time to cement its authority and to gradually restore Libya’s broken state. It is important for the GNA to integrate and restructure these armed groups into a unified national army, capable of securing the entirety of Libya’s territory. Convincing them will not be easy and will require considerable incentives to encourage demobilization.
Imad Mesdoua is a political analyst at Africa Matters, a risk advisory company.