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Feb 18, 2015 | 02:00 GMT

4 mins read

Why a U.N. Intervention Would Fail to Help Libya

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Almost four years to the day after the Libyan uprising began, the U.N. Security Council will meet to determine whether it should intervene militarily in the beleaguered North African country.

On Tuesday, Egypt, Libya's eastern neighbor, became the latest in a growing number of countries to implore the international body to act after Islamic State militants killed 21 Egyptian Copts in the Libyan city of Sirte. Egypt, situated so close to Libya, is naturally concerned about instability to the west. But since Mohammed Morsi, the former Muslim Brotherhood-backed president, was removed from office in 2013, its position on the matter has been fairly consistent: It has provided limited logistical assistance to actors who can advance its interests. Likely, it has done so with the help of its main backers, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

But Egypt certainly is not the only country put ill at ease by what Libya has become. Europe, too, has cause for alarm. As a former colonial power, France has deep-rooted interests in the region surrounding Libya, and Italy, Libya's former colonizer, has extensive economic interests in the country's oil industry. And both, but especially Italy, have struggled to manage the flow of illegal immigrants from across the Mediterranean.

Other countries farther afield broadly agree that Libyan instability poses a significant security risk not just to Libyans and neighboring states but also to international interests. But they cannot agree on how to create stability from the chaos. After all, there is no central government in Libya, let alone a national military force. Libya's problems with militancy are symptomatic of its disunity, not the cause of it. And so international efforts meant to route jihadist groups such as the Islamic State will do little to heal the political, ideological and tribal wounds that have torn Libyan society apart since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

Regional leaders like Algeria and Egypt understand as much and are therefore disinclined to take a bigger role in rebuilding Libya. Even if they wanted to help, they probably could not afford it. Those who could afford it — the European Union, NATO and the broader international community — have yet to volunteer for the job. Egypt is content to continue direct, albeit limited, involvement. 

But not everyone agrees with Cairo's approach. Qatar, Algeria and Turkey have strongly advocated negotiation as a solution to the Libyan problem — an approach that has also received support from the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom, which have worked behind the scenes to monitor militant groups and to encourage reconciliation talks between the competing governments in Tripoli and Tobruk. Washington has even publicly warned against unilateral airstrikes, since they may make the security environment even worse.

And as the killing of the Egyptian Copts shows, direct attacks also run the risk of retaliation against those who meddle in Libyan affairs. The Egyptian military has since deployed soldiers throughout the country to defend key infrastructure and population centers from potential reprisal attacks. (Of course, Egyptian citizens have long been the target of Libyan militants, organized crime groups and local tribal elements for a variety of "offenses," including proselytization by Christian Copts and competition for jobs in a region ravaged by the Arab Spring uprisings.)

At best, the U.N. Security Council, which will meet Feb. 18, can condemn the instability in Libya and perhaps even authorize a military operation like the one underway in Iraq and Syria. But the United States will be only a marginal participant in such an operation, and indigenous Middle Eastern militaries probably cannot handle the logistical and economic demands of maintaining an open-ended air campaign against Libyan militants. In any case, Washington probably would not trust Cairo and its regional backers to lead the operation on their own — in the past, they have targeted more moderate Islamist groups and political opposition groups. Even France, which has worked closely with Arab states in pushing for a U.N. Security Council meeting on Libya, has sought to bring together an international coalition to avoid shouldering all the responsibility on its own (as it did in Mali in 2012).

Ultimately, the international community is most likely to leave Libya to its own devices, waiting to work with whoever wins the conflict. Tomorrow's council meeting may offer a solution to the problem posed by the Islamic State in Libya, but it will fail to address the broader challenges brought on by four years of instability.

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