Libya’s Ongoing Chaos: What Can Bring the Sides Together?


The attention given to the Syrian Civil War has tended to overshadow the other great casualty of the Arab Spring: the ongoing crisis in Libya. Whilst the former has resulted in a much higher death toll, the latter appears unlikely to be resolved any time soon, and poses just as high a risk of destabilising the surrounding region. Though the Libyan rebels succeeded in overthrowing their dictator, unlike their Syrian counterparts, peace still proves to be elusive. The country is in the midst of a power struggle between the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), based in the city of Tobruk, and the Rival National Salvation Government (NSG) in Tripoli. To further complicate the situation, there are around 1,700 rebel militias. Some of these groups are loyal to Islamic State, which is estimated to have between 5,000 and 8,000 fighters in the region.

It is vital that peace returns to the region as soon as possible. The direct human cost of the war has been severe: 5,000 dead since Gaddafi’s downfall, and as of June 2015, more than 434,869 displaced people, according to UNHCR estimates. The need for peace is all the more urgent though, because of the indirect effects of the conflict. The current instability enables groups like ISIS to flourish and propagate further violence. Such violence can and has spilled into neighbouring regions. Though in some ways the one success story of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has seen several ISIS-inspired attacks, such as that at the Bardo National Museum (22 dead) in 2015, and the Sousse attacks later that year (38 dead). The instability caused by the Libyan war has the further consequence of allowing the smuggling of refugees through the country and transportation across the Mediterranean, usually in substandard boats. The cost of this unregulated movement of peoples was demonstrated again two weeks ago, when at least 74 bodies were washed up on the Libyan coast. For the people of Libya, but also for those in neighbouring regions, and those who use the country as a gateway to Europe, peace and stability are required now.

This situation has largely come about through a lack of foresight shown during the revolution. Barack Obama, in an interview with Fox News, stated that not preparing for the aftermath was the ‘worst mistake’ of his presidency. Efforts by the various groups with a stake in the conflict have all fallen flat. No unity government has managed to win general acceptance, as certain figures on either side of the conflict have proven to be contentious. The GNA has expressed concerns about links between NSG politicians and Islamist militias, while the latter remains adamant in their rejection of the ex-Gaddafi loyalist General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the GNA’s armed forces. Disagreement also exists over the role foreign powers should play. Calls by the UN-backed unity government for international intervention have been contentious. Back in 2015, the then leader of the Tripoli-based government, Nouri Abusahmain was already claiming that they would ‘not accept foreign intervention against the will of the Libyan people’. Given the role of Western powers in creating the situation in Libya, one might feel that they are obliged to help out. Yet if their continued intervention is a cause for discontent and prevents the opposing factions from reaching an agreement, then it is probably best if they have a less active role in the peace-making process.

Foreign powers taking a hands-off approach to Libya could be one step towards securing a lasting peace deal. Another will have to be the reconciliation of the two rival governments. For long-term stability in the region, this can only be achieved through compromise. On the part of the Tripoli faction (NSG), this means recognising the Tobruk government as legitimate, and ceasing to oppose it once the latter has made fair compromises to the former. What these compromises primarily entail is the removal of General Haftar. He is too divisive a figure as it stands, and even if he were to unite the country, it would not be in any way conducive to peace. In 2015, Haftar’s forces bombed Tripoli airport as delegates from the rival government tried to make their way to a set of UN-sponsored peace talks. This, if anything, shows that he is not committed to long-term peace. Were Haftar to gain control, it is likely that he would become a figure similar to Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has ruthlessly cracked down on his enemies since coming to power. The Tobruk government also needs to soften its stance on the Islamist groups associated with the Tripoli faction. Though there is no chance of reconciliation with extremist organisations like ISIS, groups of a more moderate cast need to be conciliated, as the only government which will unify the country is a pluralistic one. Preventing such groups from having a role in the new Libya risks radicalising them, forcing them into the arms of ISIS.

Speaking of ISIS, the methods used to deal with their presence in Libya so far have been inadequate. The main response to them has been the use of military force. In December 2016, after six months of intense fighting, the city of Sirte was cleared of ISIS fighters. Though this was a considerable victory, given that it was the organisation’s last major urban stronghold, military force is not the long-term solution to dealing with ISIS’s presence in the region. The retaking of Sirte relied on U.S. air support, and as we have seen, the direct involvement of foreign powers in Libya has proven to be a sticking point in the negotiations between the rival factions. Moreover, forcing the organisation out of Sirte does not prevent them from simply regrouping elsewhere. In a statement given following the recapture of the city, Nicholas J. Rasmussen, the director of the American National Counterterrorism Centre, said that he was ‘very concerned’ about such a possibility occurring.

If ISIS is to be removed from the region, the rival governments need to put their differences aside, bringing a degree of stability to Libya. In the meantime, it is vital that the country’s oil supplies are secured. On one level, this matters because the reopening of Libya’s oil reserves, the largest in Africa, will help to bring standards of living back up. Prior to the war, these were one of the highest in Africa, with the proceeds from the oil industry enabling the country to enjoy free healthcare and education. Not only will this directly benefit the people of Libya, but it will also lessen the allure of ISIS, as situations of extreme poverty can make groups which promise paradise through martyrdom, more appealing. Additionally, securing Libya’s oil supplies will directly harm ISIS by depriving them of a means of revenue. Their activities in Syria over the past few years have been largely financed this way. Thankfully, progress is being made with regards to Libya’s energy situation. Last month, they announced that they were reopening their oil sector to foreign investment.

There is hope that a peaceful conclusion to this war is achievable. One promising sign was the destruction of the last of Libya’s chemical weapons in September. As long as these weapons continue to be used in Syria, atrocities there will persist. That they have been removed from Libya means that peace is not as remote here as it is in Syria. The peace that will come, needs to be achieved through non-violent means. Both governments must compromise with one another, with Tripoli recognising Tobruk’s legitimacy, and Tobruk respecting Tripoli’s concerns. Western powers must take a step back, and allow Libya to decide its own destiny. Finally, ISIS must be weakened by striking at its sources of revenue. By the time this is done though, the peace between the two governments will hopefully have created a stable region in which ISIS cannot thrive. In this way, the next step will follow naturally from the previous ones, and a new, peaceful Libya can be created in the process.