Five years on from the Arab Spring, the country once seen as its greatest success story has spiralled into a state of violence, constant government upheaval and militant factionalism. Despite UN intervention, authority in Libya is still split between two governments each based in one of its coastal cities. Further south, virtually open civil war rages between revolutionary bodies yet to disband, Tuareg militias and Islamist groups. In the British and American media, the country’s troubles are referenced mainly in relation to the spread of Daesh, who seized the city of Sirte in February 2015 and are reported to be increasing their presence in the country by the day. This week, the G5 met in Hanover for talks that touched on the future of the country, in a move that suggests an overdue recognition that political stability and some long-term planning for Libya are desperately needed.
Authoritarianism to Anarchy
After a summer of fierce fighting, Rebel forces killed Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, backed by a multi-state coalition of airstrikes. The government that assumed authority and gained international recognition (the National Transitional Council) was soon beset by further fighting, especially as the oil-rich east of the country pushed for greater independence. The power vacuum created by the toppling of Gaddafi’s government, which the NTC seemed too fragile to fill on its own, was fertile ground for Islamist groups to gain traction. In September 2012, focus turned once again to Libya as the U.S. Ambassador and three other American citizens were sadly killed by militants who stormed the consulate in Benghazi. A group known as Ansar al-Sharia were among the terrorists, and in 2014 they seized control of the whole city. Elsewhere fighting continued as the NTC gave way to a ‘General National Congress’, and government officials repeatedly resigned or were indicted under laws that criminalised political participation in Gaddafi’s regime.
In May 2014 the continued successes of militant Islamist groups led to the launch of “Operation Dignity” to attempt to push them out of the Benghazi area. Led by a General of the newly formed “Libyan National Army”, Khalifa Haftar, the operation had international backing and air power support from the UAE and Egypt. Although it achieved some successes, Dignity had the effect of causing rival militias to band together in opposition to Haftar, overcoming differing Islamic politics to christen themselves “Operation Dawn”. Tripoli airport was destroyed in the fighting and UN and international officials pulled out of the country.
Power vacuums: fertile ground for the Islamic State
Opposition to Haftar’s forces also provided an opportunity for Daesh, whose presence had been felt in the region for some months, to strengthen their foothold. Furthermore the struggle between the newly-elected parliament (to which the international community were now giving support) and the outgoing GNC once again created a climate of instability, resulting in extremist violence. Radical Islamist groups had been gaining support across Libya since the end of first the revolution in 2011, as well as sending fighters to support Daesh in Syria. One such group, calling themslves “al-Battar Brigade” issued a statement to this effect in 2012. In the video they thanked “the citizens of Derna,” (a city in northeastern Libya known for its support of radical Islamism), for their support for the struggle in Syria. They then pledged allegiance to the ‘Islamic State’ and went on to fight for it in Iraq and Syria, announcing in 2014 the death of 25 “martyrs” in a suicide bomb attack. In the autumn of 2014 a delegation from Daesh arrived in Libya. By this time Daesh supporters in Derna had organised themselves into the ‘Islamic Youth Shura Council’ (IYSC), who proceeded to offer pledges of loyalty to Daesh’s self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Eastern Libya was then declared a province of the Islamic State, known to them as Wilayat Barqa, or Cyrenaica Province.
Pre-existing sectarian and political tensions undoubtedly contributed to the efficiency with which Daesh was able to establish a hold in Libya. The most extreme groups opposed each of the governments being implemented in the post-Gaddafi world, railing against the use of democratic elections and the failure to implement Sharia law. Statements like that issued by the Battar Brigade were full of anti-Shia sectarian language, and ties between Ansar al-Sharia (of the Benghazi attacks) and Daesh grew: with a number of the former’s fighters defecting to the Islamic State. At present though, Ansar al-Sharia maintains its independence despite the death of its leader over a year ago. The seizure of Sirte in 2015 was launched from the port in Derna, following the kidnapping and subsequent beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians from the city. Despite retaliatory Egyptian airstrikes, Daesh have managed to hold Sirte and its surroundings.
Throwing together a government
Meanwhile, the international community seems to have recognised the need to implement a stable, unified government. A UN backed Presidency-council headed for Tripoli, made up of the General National Assembly (GNA) and its Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. The deal to implement this government was grudgingly accepted in a tenuous exchange by the Islamist militia government in Tripoli, but is still opposed by the rival government in eastern Tobruk. Indeed the new government had to arrive in the capital by boat, as the opposition blocked Tripoli airspace. Sarraj’s government has also still not yet gained control of all the militias it needs to sustain it. The seven-member government council is based in naval base in Tripoli harbor, secured only by more obscure Islamist militias such as Hakim Belhaj. The government is not recognised by any other governments that claim power in the country. In the south-west, the ethnic Tuareg militias of Ghat control Libya’s desert regions, clashing with the Saharan Tubu people between intermittent ceasefire agreements.
In what seems like the only good news in a long while, a couple of days ago Hafeth al-Dabaa, a spokesman for the coalition of militias in Derna resisting Daesh (known as the DMSC), reported to the BBC that Daesh had been forced out of Derna. An absence of any reliable media presence in the region makes these claims hard to corroborate, but pictures posted on social media show Libyans celebrating in the city and government jeeps entering its streets, as well as drone footage of inhabitants returning the al-Fatayeh district. The question remains how next to ensure stability in Derna, as the loose coalition of militias falls apart without a common enemy to face. Although Daesh may be nominally gone from the city, Ansar al-Sharia continue to target government troops and operate training camps there, whilst other militias, the DMSC included, openly support al-Qaeda.
What it takes to involve the West
The effort to retake Sirte from Daesh and complete their expulsion from the country will now begin. However, the question remains how best to find a force to help oust the remaining fighters, whilst then beginning to demilitarise the country’s militia groups who have so destabilised the country. Ultimately Libya is still dominated by groups whose support of the government hinges on their own self-interest. On Friday defence secretary Philip Hammond said that the U.K. can’t rule out sending troops to Libya, though whether this will be in a capacity to directly combat Daesh or help to train Libyan soldiers remains unclear.
The situation is further complicated by two highly contentious issues: the current migration crisis and the global oil market. Libyan oil production has fallen from over a million barrels a day in 2011 to less than 400,000 today, as militias attack oilfields and terminals. This fact troubles some European crude oil producers who have a presence in the country (such as German Wintershall and French Total SA), and is already affecting their share price as millions of dollars of revenue are written off. In the meantime, the discord between the rival governments is not helped by oil disputes. On Monday the Eastern government announced that a shipment of 650,000 barrels would sail for Malta, for the cargo to be sold to a company based in the UAE. This decision has been condemned by the Western government in Tripoli who regard it as illegal.
The role of Libya in the migration crisis has also seemingly contributed to stirring Western governments into action. As the media were quick to report, at its closest point Libya is just 200 miles from Europe, a relatively short boat ride across the Mediterranean. This week a meeting of the G5 countries in Hanover announced that American warships may join the EU in patrolling the waters off the coast of Libya to slow the rush of migrants from North Africa towards southern Europe. It represents an extension of the current “Operation Sophia” which involves surveillance and diversion of suspicious vessels and involves ships from the Italian, Slovenian, Spanish, Belgian, French, German and British navies. A complete blockade of Libyan sovereign waters would be illegal without the approval of the Libyan government, which seems unlikely at present given its fragile status. In return for a blockade of Libya’s waters in the future, it has been suggested that its government may seek Western help in preventing further attacks by ISIS fighters on oilfields; perhaps prompting Hammond’s comments.
Western involvement and attitudes to Libya over the last five years have been characterised by a limited amount of success, an almost complete lack of long-term strategic planning and at times complete disengagement. Indeed, having previously praised the US’s role in toppling Gaddafi without the use of a single US troop on Libyan soil, Obama has subsequently said that the failure to properly consider the likely post-intervention situation in Libya was the worst mistake of his presidency. That aside, he remains convinced that intervention was right in principle. If the country is to be stabilised and the influence of Daesh in the region finally pushed out, it is clear that a developed plan for international intervention is needed. Leaving Libya to fend for itself whilst attempting to manage an oil and migration crisis will have “enormous consequences” for the future peace, stability and prosperity of the country, as even Obama himself has said. In 2011 the assumption that rival factions would unite to achieve political stability once the common enemy (Gaddafi) was defeated proved to be a false one. It is very likely that the same assumption will prove equally untrue whenever Daesh is defeated in Libya.