The Difficulty of Choosing Sides in Libya

5 MINS READAug 28, 2014 | 09:15 GMT
Fighters from the Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn) coalition guard the entrance to the Tripoli International Airport on Aug. 24.

Weeks of fighting to the south of the Libyan capital have resulted in an uneasy stalemate. The lull came after Islamist fighters backed by the powerful coastal city of Misrata successfully ousted the Zentan-based al-Qaaqaa and al-Sawaaq militias from Tripoli International Airport. Misrata is Libya's third-largest city and has maintained a remarkable degree of localized stability and security, while the larger cities of Tripoli and Benghazi have grappled with repeated bouts of violence, militant activity and cuts in water and power supplies. The renewed presence and authority of the Misrata-backed brigades in Tripoli after their ouster in November 2013 will have broader political and security implications for Libya's post-revolutionary transition.

Early champions in the fight against former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Misrata's political and militia leaders are attempting to leverage their strong presence in the capital to achieve broader national authority, a move that has sparked a violent and chaotic competition for power in the process. Neighboring countries and international observers are uneasy with the growing instability within Libya's borders, but calls for international intervention to prop up Libya's struggling transitional government will continue to be confounded by the difficulty of establishing who legitimately represents the fragmented and chaotic post-Gadhafi state.

On Aug. 27, the U.N. Security Council passed resolution 2174 authorizing sanctions against individuals and groups that undermine Libya's political transition, as well as those who attack ports, diplomatic offices and key infrastructure. Libya has also been under an arms embargo since the 2011 revolution, though it has done little to halt the proliferation and transfer of weapons across its vast deserts and into neighboring states. Even though Libya's newly installed transitional government, the House of Representatives, issued multiple requests for foreign intervention to help stabilize the country, outside observers, including the United Nations, the United States and NATO, balked at the idea of placing troops on the ground to help limit violence and support Libya's political transition.

There are multiple conflicts spanning the Libyan political space. Competition between advocates of either a centralized or federal model of governance brought much of Libya's oil exports offline for over a year. Meanwhile, regional, sectarian, ethnic and tribal disputes regularly erupt in armed clashes that affect urban centers and target key infrastructure installations. The return of groups from Misrata to Tripoli is itself part of a larger battle that has turned Benghazi and the region south of Tripoli into battlefields, pitting foreign-backed forces organized under retired Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter's Operation Dignity campaign against alliances of jihadist and Islamist forces. In Benghazi, Islamist militias that are rumored to be supported by states such as Qatar and Turkey have partnered with jihadist groups like Ansar al-Sharia to fight Hifter's forces, while in western Libya — and specifically the area around Tripoli — Misrata-backed regional fighters allied with Islamist forces under Operation Dawn have banded against Hifter's Zentan-based allies, the al-Qaaqaa and al-Sawaaq brigades.

Libya's Urban and Rural Power Centers

Libya's Urban and Rural Power Centers

Hifter's rumored foreign backing, demonstrated by alleged Egyptian and Emirati coordinated airstrikes against Operation Dawn targets in Tripoli and claims of his cooperation with the CIA, has left much of Libya's powerful network of nationalistic tribes and militias apprehensive of directly engaging in fighting against other forces on his behalf, despite many regional centers' growing fear of the rising regional clout of Misrata and its Islamist allies. Herein lies the challenge for outside observers, including the United States and NATO: The international community is concerned about the geographic space Libya's post-revolutionary chaos has made available to regional militants, but fighters within the current battlefield spectrum — from Misrata-backed forces, to Islamist fighters, to the divided national army — do not always fit neatly into the category of ally or foe. There are serious fears that a foreign intervention launched to tackle jihadists or renegade militias could quickly turn into a broader conflict between foreign forces and the very revolutionaries that they trained and armed to fight Gadhafi.

The United States' and Libya's primary partners in NATO — the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy — have all publicly decried the alleged Emirati airstrikes in Libya, warning against adding violence to the country's already volatile security situation. Western states, the United Nations and neighboring Algeria and Tunisia are calling for a "political process" to solve Libya's problems. Since early August, Libya's struggling national parliament, the House of Representatives, has convened in Tobruk instead of Benghazi as originally planned because of security concerns. Some 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) away from the nation's capital, the internationally recognized parliament has struggled to make its voice heard in the power centers of Tripoli, Misrata, Zentan and Benghazi.

In response to the most recent ouster of the Hifter-aligned Zentan militias in Tripoli, members of the defunct General National Congress have reconvened in the capital, leaving Libya with two competing parliaments, a divided army and an uncertain political future. Clashes and violence are inevitable, and covert involvement by states — particularly Egypt and its primary Gulf backers, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — is likely. The competition for legitimacy between the two parliaments will also likely extend into a fight for control of the country's sizable oil revenues and the right to receive revenues from export cargos — a dispute that will probably cause production and exports to falter yet again. Additionally, the decision by Libya's more moderate Islamists to reject their erstwhile jihadist partners after their gains against the Zentan militias may reflect a desire to portray a more moderate disposition but also risks pushing the jihadists to target the more moderate Islamist militias as well as the Operation Dignity forces lead by Hifter.

Libya's democratic transition will remain stagnant until Libyans themselves can coalesce across tribal and regional lines to form a majority body that external governments can more effectively support. Even then, Libya will likely face a broader conflict than the ongoing localized fighting between regional competitors as the national government attempts to bring opposition forces — of which Libya has many — under a single national authority through either coercion or force. Outside powers such as the United States are still unwilling to designate who is "good" or "bad" within Libya's divided landscape, and even power centers such as Misrata remain too fundamentally weak to extend authority beyond their immediate geography, leaving Libya without any force that can operate on a national scale. A foreign intervention in Libya still seems unlikely, and there are few indigenous solutions to keep the country from moving closer to an eventual de facto fragmentation along its internal fissures. Meanwhile, Libya remains without a permanent government, national Cabinet or expectations of a constitution or national elections before the end of 2014 — in short, without an effective domestic entity that is capable of working with outside governments.

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