Libya’s chaotic, many-sided conflict keeps getting more complicated. The country’s security forces has fragmented into hundreds of rival militias, the territory has broken apart into dozens of influence zones — which militias actively fight over — and there are two rival parliaments and governments.
Now Libya’s politicians are supporting two different power-sharing deals, neither of which is likely to be implemented in their current forms. Even worse, one of the culprits behind this situation is the Islamic State, which is steadily growing into a threat that Libya’s other armed factions fear could provoke another foreign intervention.
It’s an intervention the militias would rather avoid.
To explain why, we first need to describe some complex and — occasionally quite bizarre — international diplomacy behind the mess.
In February 2011, riding on the wings of the Arab Spring, protests against the totalitarian rule of Muammar Gaddafi escalated into a full-fledged civil war. An ad-hoc coalition of Western and Middle Eastern states supported the rebels on the basis of a slightly over-interpreted U.N. resolution calling for a no-fly zone and protecting civilian areas.
Gaddafi was killed. Libya then imploded under the weight of out-of-control militias, political infighting between Islamists and secular politicians, conflicts over oil revenues and competing visions of whether Libya should be a unified or federal state.
The United Nations’ response to the ongoing crisis is the U.N. Support Mission in Libya, a diplomatic endeavor that has recently focused on the Libyan Political Agreement, a would-be framework to bring the the divided governments and parliaments back together under a single roof.
But the LPA — and by extension UNSMIL — has a big problem. Few people inside Libya like the agreement in its current form. The interests and agendas of Libya’s many actors are too diverse, and many have no interest at all in changing the status quo. Instead, the militias benefit from it.
Any political power sharing and unification deal would, for example, lead to an integration of the dozens of militias into a national army, a process that will have many losers. Consequently, despite massive pressure from the United Nations, neither of Libya’s two governments or parliaments have signed the LPA.
So in this context, along comes the news that a parallel Libyan political dialogue conducted in neighboring Tunisia achieved a signed agreement on Dec. 5. This is an obvious slap in the face to the United Nations, especially considering that the deal sets some very ambitious timelines — two weeks for national elections and the formation of a new government.
But appropriate for Libya’s messy politics, the institutions which signed the deal almost instantly decried it. While both rival governments had high-ranking emissaries present at the signing — and prominent members of both parliaments came out in favor of it — many have voiced their opposition and instead support the LPA or neither of the two agreements.
The United Nations threw shade on the deal. U.N. Special Representative Martin Kobler called the agreement “a good basis for going forward,” while also putting out a press release “emphasiz[ing] that the Libyan Political Agreement is the basis to end the conflict in the country.”
Go figure. But this raises the question — if the delegates in Tunisia didn’t have backing from their own supporters nor the international community, why go forward with a deal on their own? Simple. It’s because of the Islamic State.
Above — Islamic State fighters burn musical instruments in Libya. Propaganda video capture. At top — derelict tanks outside Misrata. Joepyrek/Wikimedia photo
Today, the Islamic State controls considerable territory in Syria and Iraq. Less well known is that it holds sway over parts of Libya, and that has people from all sides of the religious-political spectrum extremely worried.
In 2014, Libyan Islamists claiming allegiance to the Islamic State captured the coastal town of Sirte. These local fighters, many of whom fought in the Libyan civil war, have received reinforcements from Iraq and Syria.
Islamic State’s Libyan “province” now controls several hundred kilometers of coastline, and contests several important towns, among them Derna and Benghazi. With the Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria and Iraq coming under increased pressure, some politicians and strategists already see Libya as the terror group’s natural sanctuary.
While several NATO member states, including France and Italy, have ruled out any “boots on the ground” to fight the Islamic State in Libya, demands for some form of intervention will increase. Especially if the Islamic State continues to strengthen.
With the recent appointment of Martin Kobler as Special Representative, the U.N. has made direct intervention in Libya more likely. Kobler prior job was Special Representative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he spearheaded a robust approach to peacekeeping that saw U.N. peacekeepers engage in heavy fighting with rebels and militias.
Hardliners from all sides in Libya are rightly afraid of another foreign intervention. Currently, Libya is essentially a free-for-all. Anyone with enough money and fighters can bully his way to the negotiating table and profit accordingly. Egypt, Turkey and Qatar meddle intensively, a factor largely ignored by Western diplomats.
Many of Libya’s warlords would still profit from increased Western interest, but many fear that they will not. The agreement signed in Tunisia could therefore be an attempt to preemptively de-legitimize efforts by the international community to engage with Libya. After all, why would you need pressure and mediation from the outside, if there is already a dialogue underway within?
As Libya expert Jason Pack points out, the United Nations now faces the hard choice of either throwing its weight behind the new accord, reconciling the new agreement with the LPA, or just ignoring the Libyan-Libyan dialogue altogether. None of these options will likely result in a swift solution to Libya’s political turmoil.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State could continue to gain strength in Libya, at least in the short term, increasing the pressure on all parties to do something about the abysmal status quo.