July 31, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Libya Unravels
The recent departure of Western diplomatic staff from Tripoli is both a sign the fighting is a threat to life and property and that foreign interest in mediation and intervention is ebbing. This is regrettable, though understandable, given the deep and complex forces tearing the country apart. Were it not so tragic, the security and political situation in Libya could be described as comical, with over 1,700 armed militias fighting over pieces of the whole. If current trend lines continue and no suitable nationalistic movement and leader emerge capable of reversing the tide, Libya as it is currently constructed may not continue.
Currently, there is no group or organization with a decisive edge in power and support sufficient enough to bring order to the chaos. On July 30, an umbrella group of Islamist militias under the banner of the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council overran the base of an elite Libyan army unit in Benghazi. The fighting over the last week has killed at least 60 people in the troubled eastern city. One of the groups in the Shura Council is Ansar al-Sharia, the terrorist outfit involved in the September 2012 sacking of the American Consulate in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of four Americans, including the US ambassador.
The Libyan army special operations unit in Benghazi, the Sa’iqa Brigade, which declared support for former General Khalifa Haftar—conducting his own campaign against Islamist fighters in eastern Libya—has been battling militias in the area for months. The ability of the Islamist militias to, in effect, besiege the base shows the lack of control over the countryside that Libyan military units and Haftar’s forces had, and reinforces the reality that even well-defended sites can’t hold out against determined foes armed with mortars and heavy weapons. The heavy weaponry that nearly every militia possesses combined with the lawlessness of the countryside ensures that no site in Libya, public or private, should be thought of as effectively secure.
Meanwhile, the capital is arguably in worse shape than Benghazi, a truly troubling assessment. A fire at a fuel depot at Tripoli International Airport has been burning out of control for days since hit during clashes between rival militias. The al-Zintan Revolutionaries Military Council from western Libya is technically in charge of securing the airport, but has been in running battles with groups from Misrata seeking to seize control of the lucrative and symbolic facility. In addition to the gunfire and explosions, there are severe fuel shortages within the oil-rich member of OPEC, driven by disruption in transport and by hoarding from nervous citizens.
The intense fighting between the Misrata and Zintan factions shows that whatever unity there might have been in the revolution that overthrew Qadhafi is gone and unlikely to return anytime soon. Each side has its own domestic and foreign backers but neither has the ability to dislodge the other and assert a meaningful claim to power. The divisions between the two western groups have a long history, further complicating new efforts to bridge the divide. The Misrata faction has taken on a more Islamist slant, while Zintan is seen as relatively nationalistic, which produces accusations of its being too supportive of the former and despised regime.
Fighting in Libya threatens its near neighbors and adds stress to the already stressed-out societies of Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt. Pulling further back, the conflict contributes to the regional tensions between those who support the Muslim Brotherhood, or some variation of it, and those who strongly oppose the group and its aims. Groups that support Misrata accuse Zintan and its regional supporters—which they allege includes Egypt—of seeking to install a Libyan version of Egypt’s new strongman, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, and bringing back the old oppressive military regime by another name. As if the complications weren’t enough, there’s further danger the uncontrolled spread of heavy weapons out of Libya have already proven tragically decisive in Mali and in the Sahel.
The international community is caught between the need to avoid another all-out civil war—with the resulting spread of destabilizing violent extremism and heavy weapons and tactics—and the realization that Libya’s problems are driven by deep-seated internal factors that foreigners would be unlikely to resolve. Military intervention will be considered but the question of whom to help and how much, as well as possible repercussions, make such intervention unlikely. Mediation is likely the best course of action, if the groups would stop fighting long enough to come to the table.
The departure of diplomatic and NGO personnel, along with the closure of the Tripoli and other airports, isolates the country at a delicate time. If the rival factions can’t agree and work on the notion of a Libyan nation, the country will continue to unravel.
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