Libya sinking into chaos

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Article Summary
As the conflict in Libya expands, the need for a political solution becomes all the more pressing.

The constant eruption that Libya has faced since the fall of the regime of former President Moammar Gadhafi appears like an inevitable chain, interspersed with periods of violent acceleration in this eruption. The fighting between rival militias for control of the main airport in the capital could contribute to pushing diplomatic missions to leave the country in a hurry. No central authority remains in Libya, and the state of generalized and extremely violent chaos between rival groups inside the country could transform the country into a center for regional instability.

The current stage of the crisis is characterized by the emergence of regional bases on the ground that are joined around tribal and clan affiliations, which — at times — are jihadist affiliations as well. The warring militias are not seeking to gain control of the central authority as occurs in every political process; rather, they seek to acquire infrastructure so that they can "secure" it in exchange for financial gain. This is in addition to the goal of establishing their presence as effective political parties. The rebels and "revolutionaries" have transformed into militiamen who only owe allegiance to local leaders, whether tribal, religious or both. Thus, the control of seaports, airports, oil fields and export sites has become a locus of bloody confrontations that have led to the deaths of dozens of civilians.

No winners or losers

The formation of these militia fiefdoms had begun to prevent the formation of the National Transitional Council (NTC). NTC President Mustafa Abdul Jalil entrusted the task of overseeing Mitiga Airport and Tripoli Naval Base to the former jihadist leader, Gen. Abdelkarim Belhadj. By virtue of this "sharing of legacy," we saw militias from the cities of Zintan and Misrata — before they were divided by hostilities — take responsibility for the second Tripoli airport, ministries' headquarters and other administrative centers, in addition to the barracks of the army and police forces, which had been fragmented.

Until 2013, this fragile compromise between the heavily armed factions had persisted, despite frequent skirmishes between them. Yet during the summer of 2013, the continual confrontations between the armed groups had transformed into an open conflict: those led by Abdelkarim Belhadj (allied with the Libya Shield Force belonging to the city of Misrata) on the one hand, and the al-Qaqaa and al-Suwaiq brigades from Zintan on the other. This conflict — in which there were neither winners nor losers — resulted in nothing but a fragile truce. The latter involved the breakup of the alliance of Abdelkarim Belhadj and the Zintan militia, which tried to take the Tripoli naval base from the hands of Belhadj's forces. This militia had no qualms about firing on unarmed protesters while they were calling for the departure of armed gangs from the Libyan capital (and these demonstrations did in fact lead to their accelerated withdrawal to the outskirts of the city).

In May, the temporary settlement between the various armed factions ended, following the offensive begun in Benghazi on Islamic groups — in particular Ansar al-Sharia — by the forces of Gen. Khalifa Hifter. The latter was a US-backed officer who defected from the Gadhafi regime. Despite what appears to be an extreme political disparity between the country's east and west, militia battles are raging in both regions at the same time. This may be a harbinger of the division of Libya into two parts: the Tripoli Region (in the west) and the Cyrenaica Region (in the east). Furthermore, the division of Libya facilitates the implantation of jihadist groups — expelled from northern Mali by the French Army — on Libyan soil. These groups are concluding solid alliances with local parties and enjoy [control of] effective focal points in regional smuggling networks.

Military intervention

Naturally, this situation raises the concern of neighboring countries, such as Tunisia — preoccupied with the flow of refugees fleeing from the battlefields to its territories — and Egypt and Algeria — which fear the spread of "jihadist confusion" in the disturbed regional political context and in areas difficult to monitor. The Algerian authorities, which continue to live under the shock caused by the attack on the Tigantourine gas facility in January 2013, deployed the army along the Algerian-Libyan border that has been closed for three months. Reliable sources report that the Algerian armed forces have carried out several military operations on Libyan soil against jihadist groups. These operations, which were done in coordination with French and American forces — targeted groups loyal to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who split from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Belmokhtar is portrayed as one of the architects of the Islamist attack on the coastal-desert region.

After a long silence, the Algerian authorities denied that the Algerian army had intervened outside the country's borders. However, at the same time, it did not object to the publication of reports about its joint operations with the Tunisian army to eliminate jihadist groups in Jabal el-Chaambi (near the Algerian border). This denial was well received by many Algerian observers who are familiar with the American and French pressure to push Algeria to "directly contribute to the stabilization of Libya," i.e., militarily contribute, in other words.

These observers realize that any "adventure" by the Algerian armed forces in Libya will not contribute to calming the situation in that country, as much as it will complicate the political reality there. This poses a threat that the danger will reverberate in Algeria and the disruption will spread to its desert regions, which for years have experienced serious social tensions. It could be argued that joint Algerian-Egyptian military intervention on Libyan soil (something that was touched upon during President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's lightning visit to Algeria this past June) would only ensure the division of Libya. This is because it would give rise to two different regions of influence — one in the east and one in the west — without any guarantees to prevent the catastrophic spread of the conflict.

On Aug. 12 of this year, the new Libyan parliament (elected this June in elections that only saw a 10% voter turnout and which meets in Tobruk because it is incapable of meeting in the capital, which says a lot about its fragility, especially in light of the current scene) overwhelmingly voted in support of calling the international community to intervene in Libya. However, its call for help was met with nothing but silence. Moreover, many believe that the Algerian regime will not reap any notable political gain from implementing dirty tasks for the benefit of NATO.

On the other hand, the Algerian authorities can play the role of political mediator between the Libyan parties, taking advantage of its relations inside Libyan society. These relations date back to the period of the War of Liberation, and the first operational center for the National Liberation Front's (FLN) intelligence services was established in Tripoli. These ties included, naturally, relations with cadres from the defunct Gadhafi regime.

Aside from the substantial cross-border operations being carried out against jihadist groups, it seems clear that given the current circumstances Algeria has no intention of intervening in Libya. The Libyan civil war is an internal matter that should be resolved politically, to avoid tearing the country apart and to keep it from falling under the control of groups such as the Islamic State (IS). This possibility is taken seriously, and is fueled by confirmed reports about the return of Libyan jihadists to the country after taking part in the fighting in Syria. Regional countries not only worry about the prospect of the "Somalization" of Libya alone, they also fear the possibility of the emergence of an entity such as IS on their own land. Precisely for this reason, it is urgent and vital to participate in attempts to launch a political dialogue in Libya, where western military intervention not only caused the destruction of the Gadhafi regime, but demolished Libyan society as well.

 

The above article was translated from As-Safir Al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.

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Found in: national transitional council, military intervention, libya, failed state, civil war
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