The European Union recently agreed to a new military mission to stop the flow of arms from trickling into Libya. This will entail patrolling new routes with naval forces from multiple European countries, as well as undertaking aerial surveillance operations to gather intelligence. The news comes just as the Turkish government reported its first two military casualties in the country since electing to send in troops to support the UN-backed government in Tripoli.
Libya is in the midst of a second civil war, one that has been raging since early 2015. The internationally-recognized Government of National Accord or GNA, is struggling to maintain control of its own territory and to govern the country in the face of relentless assault from the Libyan National Army, led by the military strongman General Khalifa Haftar. Tripoli has been under a ten-month siege and, lacking significant military power, the GNA has been forced to rely on an assortment of irregular militias to defend its capital against Haftar’s Russian/Egyptian backed forces. There have been several internationally-mediated ceasefires since the battle began, but none thus far have held for long. All the while Libyan civilians have been trapped in the fighting between the two titans, with dwindling access to clean water and electricity. Efforts like that of the EU seek to stop the munitions that flow into the country illegally.
The current conflict in Libya is multi-faceted, with numerous rival factions and origins dating back to a series of failed political settlements in the early 2010s. After Muammar Ghaddafi was deposed in 2011, Libya attempted to transition to a parliamentary style democracy. This resulted in the first elected body in Libya, the General National Congress or GNC, in 2012. They were given 18 months to transition the country to a permanent democratic constitution. However, the organization quickly became bogged down by infighting and corruption. Many of its prominent members were also hard line Islamic fundamentalists, and there was a widespread proliferation of militia groups and violence under its reign. In 2014, new elections were held with a newly-elected political body known as the House of Representatives set to take over. However, the GNC denounced the House as illegitimate due to exceptionally low voter turnout. The GNC refused to give up their mandate and sent armed men into parliament to oust the newcomers from power. The House fled to the city of Tobruk under the protection of General Khalifa Haftar, a fervent secularist and leader of the armed forces. He launched Operation Dignity in order to dislodge the GNC as well as stamp out the rampant fundamentalist militants roaming the countryside. The civil war officially began and a year in the UN intervened to try and stop the conflict. Both sides entered into talks, ultimately resulting in the Libyan Political Agreement and the creation of the Government of National Accord, a new elected body that was to unify the country under one government. Both the GNC and the House of Representatives quickly rejected the authority of the GNA though over disagreements with the deal. The GNC and its coalitions splintered with some declaring allegiance to the GNA, while others formed their own independent militia groups. Fighting continued, between the Libyan National Army, the GNA, the remnants of the GNC, and radical Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State.
The EU’s mild response to the violence, however well-intentioned, will most likely bear little weight on the outcome of the conflict. Although most of the fighting occurs between domestic forces, the Libyan Civil War has mutated into an international crisis, complete with a web of intersecting alliances so sprawling that a simple arms embargo will never have the intended effect of halting weapons and munitions or sparing the GNA. A wide array of state actors having been lending support to both sides, and in doing so have added fuel to the fire. Since the conflict began Egyptian President Abdel al Sissi has funneled weapons, munitions, and even artillery pieces to Haftar’s army through Egypt’s shared border. By supporting his forces, Sissi is able to curb the influence of the Islamist militias connected to his political opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood. Russia provides arms as well as contractors from their own Wagner Group to Haftar in the hope that they will gain influence over the country when the dust finally settles. France, breaking with many of its peers in the EU, has provided covert military training and arms to the Tobruk-based government since 2015 in the hope that Haftar can reign in the proliferation of insurgencies and prevent them from exporting violence abroad.
On the opposing side, Turkey and Italy both support the failing GNA-Turkey because the GNA supports its maritime ambitions against Greece in the Aegean Sea and Italy because it views stabilization of the region as imperative to stopping the flow of Libyan refugees to its shores. Other governments such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE lend small degrees of support to numerous sides. With such a wide range of competing interests at play, it further complicates the prospect of a nonviolent solution. In addition, Haftar, a man known for his dogged determination, is unlikely to sheathe the sabre as his forces tighten their grip on the capital. Already he has ignored repeated calls for a ceasefire. By lending material support to both sides, the international community has escalated the Libyan Civil War to a point beyond reconciliation.
Had the EU’s new efforts to enforce their arms embargo come five years earlier, it might have served its purpose. Now it serves as a prime example of the old adage, “too little, too late” as international actors prop up various players in a bloody tug of war. A scant few warships patrolling the seas will make little difference while war material continues to flow daily over the Egyptian border from states that are not held by the EU’s mandate.
Any solution aimed at resolving the conflict peacefully must first incorporate the entire international community. No lasting arrangement can be achieved without the explicit agreement of the interested parties, not just those that support the House of Representatives and Haftar’s Libyan National Army. Given the wide range of conflicting political goals of each side, it might be perceived that such an agreement is impossible to achieve, at least without significant concessions to the integrity of Libya’s current government. However, that does not mean that some agreement cannot be reached, but rather that there needs to be compromise that can assuage the worries of states such as Egypt and France, as well as the GNA. Haftar might well have a role in the politics of the future, perhaps taking up the military post he once held in the early years of post-Ghaddafi Libya. Any arrangement for a peaceful solution likely must incorporate him in some form, as his forces control most of the country’s territory as well as its significant oil supplies. One of the primary reasons that the House of Representatives withdrew its recognition of the GNA is due to the fact that it promoted one of Haftar’s political rivals to a position of power and the GNA’s refusal to reign its aligned militias.
It is paramount that the GNA remains the sole political authority in Libya. For 40 years the country lived under the boot of a military dictatorship, and only after a violent uprising that cost 150,00 lives was that dictatorship finally toppled. Haftar participated in the 1969 coup that brought Ghaddafi to power; he is no stranger to playing the role of the strongman. A political arrangement cannot have Libya return to a state of subjugation under military authority. That would be an erasure of all the progress the country has made since holding its first free elections in 2012. Dictatorships, although providing temporary security, cannot ensure a state of long-lasting peace the like of which Libya desperately needs in order to rebuild and create a better quality of life for its citizens. Only an elected, internationally recognized unity government such as the GNA can provide long term civil liberties to its citizens. The military must also return to the authority of the civilian government or it could easily become a tool for political upheaval as it has been in the past. There are many issues plaguing Libya that the Libyan National Army have the resources to tackle, such as rebuilding damaged urban areas and distributing food aid, as well as providing security against militant groups that still operate in Libya. In a country where much of the south is populated by independent tribes which have little contact with the GNA, such visible outreach could help build a solid base of support for the new government.
Above all, the most decisive factor to resolving the current civil war will be the international community and whether or not they can come together in support for the UN-recognized government in Tripoli. Their geopolitical ambitions have thus far only produced greater instability. Ulterior motives and lethal aid will never produce the conditions that the country needs in order to move past years of strife.
If the various sides of the civil war are able to come to an agreement, and find some common ground within the new unity government, then perhaps a non-violent solution may be reached in Libya. That will depend greatly on the international community’s ability to compromise and put the needs of Libya above their own designs. If such an arrangement is to occur, then it must happen immediately. Haftar’s forces are still actively trying to slip the noose around Tripoli and even if the GNA is able to turn the tide, that will only mean countless more dead and displaced in prolonged fighting. According to the World Health Organization, 1,093 died in Tripoli alone by October, and that number has risen steadily every month since. The country stands on the precipice of anarchy. Only a dramatic and quick deescalation by all belligerents can halt the course of the fighting and prevent further damage to both the people and the future of Libya.
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