It has been almost a decade since a NATO-supported movement overthrew Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization sought to free Libya of authoritarian rule, improve living standards, and increase the overall security of the country. Nonetheless, in the last decade, Libyans have experienced deteriorating living standards, corruption, numerous power cuts, and tension between two rival domestic governments. As Al Jazeera reports, recent protests have erupted throughout both the eastern occupied region of Benghazi and the western occupied region of Tripoli. The demonstrations are a direct response to poor living conditions in Libya. In Benghazi, demonstrations have culminated in the resignation of an interim government allied with Commander Khalifa Haftar. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya reports that at least one civilian was killed during the protests, and others have been injured.
Libya’s stability is of great concern to external actors, particularly the European Union, whose borders lay extremely close to Northern Libya. Chaos in the region has caused hundreds of thousands of Libyans to be displaced, and the country’s lack of security has turned its northern border to a key access point for refugees looking to cross over to Europe. According to the Independent, more than 4,700 refugees died in attempted sea crossings in 2017.
One of the key factors of Libya’s instability is the country’s division between two opposing governments, both of which claim legitimacy. This was the outcome of a parliamentary dispute in 2014. The dispute collapsed key institutions like Libya’s judiciary system, and the two current rival governments emerged from the chaos. On the one hand, the United Nations-recognized Government of Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, is supported by Qatar and Turkey. The GNA is based in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, but occupies only a fragment of the country’s western region. On the other hand, the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar, is supported by Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt. The LNA is based in the eastern region of Tobruk and occupies the majority of Libya, including the country’s lucrative oil fields. Local militias also occupy large sections of the southern region, further fragmenting the country.
Hostility between the two governments has varied. Last year, General Haftar waged an unsuccessful advance into Tripoli. More recently, Al Jazeera reported that powerful tribes loyal to Haftar have blocked off the GNA’s access to key oil pipelines. The attempt to pressure the Government of Accord succeeded, resulting in power cuts and an escalation of conflict.
This almost decade-long tension has been influenced by numerous external actors, many of whom are primarily pursuing their own interests. Despite shared concerns for Libya’s stability and an overall agreement that conflict must end, the external actors’ involvement in the conflict has only distanced this possibility. For instance, a UN report released in 2017 revealed that the United Arab Emirates had built an air base in eastern Libya and supplied General Haftar with military vehicles and aircraft. Egypt has also supported Haftar by supplying weaponry and logistical assistance, according to Al Jazeera who also suggest that both the UAE and Egypt support General Haftar in the belief that his government can curb the spread of political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. While both are seeking an end to the conflict, the GNA’s open support for the Muslim Brotherhood means its victory would go against their interests.
Turkey, on the other hand, has provided immense support to the GNA, acting as a significant counterweight to the LNA’s efforts. Upon deploying troops in Libya earlier this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Turkey’s objective was “not to fight” but “to support the legitimate government and avoid a humanitarian tragedy.” In any case, external military support to the opposing Libyan governments has hampered diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict. In fact, military aid has only escalated the conflict and increased civilian casualties.
Although the UAE, Egypt, and Turkey are all focused on improving the state’s security, conflicting national interests are preventing a peaceful solution. Sadly, it is the Libyan people who are suffering the consequences of this prolonged instability. Perhaps a carefully revised United Nations mission could bring about a rapid and peaceful end to the conflict by focusing directly on the implications of foreign intervention.
Thus far, the UN has reduced the degree of hostility in Libya but not successfully resolved it. Its efforts are certainly impeded by the severity of Libya’s political fragmentation. To reunite the devastated country, international efforts must be directed at eliminating the local militias’ power and establishing a revised institution, concerned foremost with diplomatic talks between intervening actors.
Local militias destabilize Libya by increasing the number of competing power centres. Militias harness great military capabilities that can be used to influence Libyan politics. Additionally, both the GNA and LNA have been reported to use local militias to increase their own military capabilities. This prolongs and intensifies the conflict. As such, the local militias’ power and influence must be eliminated. In a less hostile environment, this would involve the GNA and the LNA co-operating.
To eliminate the local militias, firstly, domestic support for them must end. This will diminish their influence in Libya’s politics and demonstrate a willingness to co-operate from both governments. Secondly, rule of law must be re-established in the country. Militia members must be held accountable for their crimes. To ensure acceptable and consistent sentences, the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice should agree to support the country’s faltering judicial system. Third and finally, the local militias must be de-militarized. Although it would be preferable to achieve this goal without international involvement, UN peacekeepers might be necessary to ensure this is done as peacefully as possible. All three efforts to eliminate the local militias’ power and influence are essential, and all require a high level of co-operation between the GNA and the LNA.
Given Libya’s current political climate, maintaining the co-operation this solution requires would likely require significant international assistance. However, the country’s intervening actors’ conflicting interests greatly impede this possibility. As mentioned earlier, states such as Egypt and Turkey are supporting both side with military force, limiting diplomatic efforts. A new international institution, concentrated primarily on increasing negotiations and peace talks between these intervening actors, could resolve this issue. This theoretical organization would improve communication between the states, making it easier for co-operative efforts to end the conflict.
Successful co-operation would remove the external military support enhancing the GNA’s and LNA’s offensive military capabilities. Likewise, successful co-operation would see a mutual focus on enhancing Libyans’ quality of life through economic and social aid. Ultimately, this will reduce the barriers to diplomatic efforts and make initiatives to diminish the local militias’ influence and power more achievable. At the same time, it will reduce Libya’s violent conflict and lower civilian casualties.
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