Eliminating the Islamic State’s (IS) presence in Libya is just one of many goals that Libyans share with the international community and which could be the building block for a long and productive relationship. Europe, still recovering from the shock of Paris and Brussels, fears a potential extremist enclave a few hundred kilometers away. For Libyans, IS presents a grave danger to national sovereignty and security, a danger accentuated by its expansionary regional ambitions. As such, anxiety over the estimated 5000 IS fighters in Libya, its base in Sirte, and its potential to expand in number and territory is dictating the international community’s Libya policy. However, this represents a shift in policy priorities toward Libya that makes the earlier priority of national political stability a secondary concern. It puts the project of Libyan national unity at risk and is likely to foment discord between Libya and its foreign partners—two outcomes that would actually hinder a comprehensive anti-IS strategy.
Originally the international community’s collective policy goal for Libya was to end the post-revolutionary political factionalism that had resulted in a messy civil war and two competing governments. It hosted political discussions, led by then UN Special Representative Bernardino Leon, aimed at building consensus for a unity government that would grow out of the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR). The international community believed this would counteract the rampant instability and factionalism that initially produced the political vacuum in which the Islamic State appeared. At the same time, Leon and the foreign governments that invested in his approach hoped that a new unity government—the Government of National Accord (GNA)—could act as an internationally legitimate vehicle for Western security services to enter the fray. For many wildly varying reasons—ranging from the truculent nature of Libyan politicians to the narrow scope of the policy, which focused only on political players rather than including more influential military and community leaders—the GNA project has not worked. GNC and HoR members exploited the talks, each attempting to become the new order’s dominant force and battling over the security sector and delegation of powers in particular.
Frustrated with the lack of progress, UN Special Representative to Libya Martin Kobler inaugurated Libya’s GNA from Tunisia on March 12, justifying it with a letter signed by a majority of members of the HoR on February 23. This was promptly followed by a joint statement from the United States, European Union, United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Italy anointing it “the only legitimate government in Libya.” On March 14, the UN Security Council reaffirmed the international community’s support for the GNA in resolution 2273, which also renewed the mandate of its support mission in Libya, and the EU deployed sanctions against three Libyan individuals who were among the most vocal opponents to the GNA. Libya’s new government was rapidly forced into place with blithe indifference to the multitude of problems that prevented its natural formation.
The Tobruk-based HoR, which theoretically enjoys legitimacy as Libya’s sole legislative institution until it approves the political agreement, has been unable to agree on the finer points of power sharing and, more specifically, what role the polarizing General Khalifa Haftar will have in the new order. These persistent disagreements have prevented the body from endorsing the new GNA, despite numerous attempts to achieve quorum for a vote since March 7. This leaves the GNA without the constitutional legitimacy to assume power. Natalia Apostolova, head of the EU’s mission to Libya, has highlighted the lack of a “plan B” and reaffirmed that the purpose of the GNA was to provide the EU a stable interlocutor with which it can work. Rather forebodingly, this blinkered approach to forcing the GNA into power appears increasingly makeshift, disengaged from the Libyan context, and more likely to aggravate than pacify the situation. Despite gradually exerting influence over Tripoli and the organs of state therein, the GNA is still largely opposed by its rival governments—as well as General Haftar’s power base in the east—and is regarded indifferently at best by a population desperate for positive change. As such, it is an increasingly shaky foundation on which to build international policy toward Libya.
The international community’s approach to Libya’s security sector has been similarly sanded down to provide a blunt policy instrument to wield against IS. As with the political approach, officially nothing has changed. A foreign training and assistance force, long mooted to be invited by the GNA once it was installed, is still the main objective of Libya’s international partners. However, many Libyans are concerned about this force’s ballooning scope and the lack of transparency surrounding its mandate. Plans appear to map out a 5000-troop strong, Italian-led force supported by another 1000 non-combat British troops, although Italy has subsequently backed away from this. Moreover, the British ambassador to Libya, Peter Millett, has indicated that the GNA will be given special exemption from the current UN arms embargo on Libya. Various involved parties, such as the current U.S. ambassador to Italy, John Phillips, have mentioned using this assistance force to create “islands of stability” in the country.
Yet Libya has no national army in the traditional sense, and General Haftar and his self-proclaimed “Libyan National Army” are in opposition to the GNA—bringing into question exactly whom this force will train and assist. Given the seeming lack of viable national military institutions, it is likely that this largely European assistance force will be acting on its own to create and secure a Libyan equivalent of Iraq’s Green Zone under the guise of providing security for the GNA and the international staff assisting it. Furthermore, the uncoordinated, unilateral manner in which individual nations are militarily intervening in Libya creates strategic gaps that will only make it less effective in fighting the Islamic State.
Moreover, under this paradigm the frequency of unilateral air strikes and commando raids will increase dramatically to combat IS directly. The inevitable collateral damage will likely garner distrust and rancor toward foreign nationals, particularly if these actions only have the support of a government that has limited legitimacy in the eyes of many Libyans. The UN-led process seeks to secure the GNA with foreign soldiers and give it extraordinary privileges to accrue weaponry by partially lifting the arms embargo—despite the absence of guarantees from the GNA that these weapons will not fall into unapproved hands. However, this gives the impression to Libyans that it is more of a puppet than a unity government. Meanwhile, Libya’s disparate military factions are auditioning for the international community, showing off their strength, posturing toward IS, and trying to seize strategic areas that weaken their rivals. Their logic says that the armed group that distinguishes itself as the only competent military force in Libya will prove that it is worthy of forming the institutional base of a future national army.
Ultimately, Libya’s viability as a unified and peaceful nation-state has been tethered to domestic politics and an international policy founded on frenzied speculation about security threats. Ignorance of the Libyan context was what undermined the military intervention in 2011. The lack of political and humanitarian assistance to complement NATO’s efforts allowed Libya to fail as a state. Empowering politicians who had little actual influence but grand personal ambitions, rather than engaging stakeholders directly, allowed Libya’s post-revolutionary failures to compound. Five years on, the international community can learn from the mistake of engaging unilaterally without due respect to the context or risk repeating this factionalizing approach in an arena where the stakes have grown considerably higher.
Tarek Megerisi is an analyst based in London specializing in Libyan and Arab politics and governance.