Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Another Failed StateLibya at a Crossroads

By Karim FarhatPublished April 28, 2019

Cornell Roosevelt
Libya is burning. A recent outbreak of violence threatens to permanently destroy any hope of a united Libya. A UN-backed multilateral response is required to both stem the bleeding and set the nation on the path to stability.

            International intervention broke Libya apart and only international intervention can put it back together. Rogue General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) have launched a new offensive on the city of Tripoli, one of the last major cities to oppose his strongman rule. This outbreak of violence only serves to prolong the humanitarian crises that have plagued the nation since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011. From human trafficking to radical Islamic terrorism, the horrors taking place within Libya’s borders are a threat to the rest of Europe and, if no multilateral action is taken to stem the bleeding, the situation will only continue to deteriorate.  

            The Arab Springs brought down a multitude of dictators in the Middle East, but the vacuum left behind has allowed once stable nations to descend into chaos. Libya is no exception, and the country is now serving as a hub for international criminal activity. In late 2017, CNN released a damning report on the slave trade in Libya: African immigrants attempting to reach Europe through the Libya-Italy pathway are being trafficked and sold into slavery. Europe’s only response to these flagrant abuses of international law has been to stem the flow of immigrants into their own countries, ignoring the root cause of the crisis.

            The lack of a central authority has allowed anarchic practices to flourish. Libya’s ports are serving every variant of questionable character in the Middle East from drug smugglers to gun-runners. In December of 2018, Libyan Customs seized more than 52,000 kilograms of cannabis as well as 100 million tablets of narcotic drugs. Furthermore, online forums and social media have streamlined the sale of weapons to the point where heat-seeking missiles and machine guns can be found through Facebook.

            Possibly the most dangerous ramifications of an unstable Libya stem from the proliferation of extremists and their ideology. ISIS has already been defeated once in Libya, but the prolonged state of instability serves as the ideal breeding ground for future extremist uprisings.  The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) stands only as a coalition of militias united by fierce tribalism and a shared hatred for General Haftar who already controls more territory than all other forces combined. This government framework is neither effective nor sustainable and cannot serve as the basis of a successful nation. So long as Libya remains divided politically with General Haftar unwilling to negotiate with the already weak GNA, the nation’s problems stand no chance of improving and will likely continue to plague Libya, and of North Africa generally, for decades to come.

            If the anarchy is to be put to rest, the UN must make a coordinated effort. Libya’s problems are very much interconnected and a wholesale response is the only way to forge permanent solutions. First and foremost, immediate action is required to stop the ongoing bloodshed. This entails militarily-backed political pressure from the UN Security Council on General Haftar to stop his ongoing offensive. Once a ceasefire has been enacted, a return to the negotiating table is the only logical step; however, unlike previous negotiations, both General Haftar and the representatives of the GNA must be made to see that a political option is their only option. Haftar must accept the fact that he will never be allowed rule Libya single-handedly while the GNA must acknowledge his role in a future government coalition. Pressure must be applied economically, and even militarily, to prevent either side from returning to the battlefield. Arms embargoes force warlords to count their bullets while economic incentives brings pressure from the people to end the conflict. UN military action should also considered, similar to the UN Operation in the Congo in 1960, where peacekeepers upheld peace deals and supervised elections.

            It may be objected that foreign intervention would be counter-intuitive as the crisis was only brought about through foreign intervention. However, unlike in Syria where Russia and the US are continuously at odds, Libya’s standing is of much less significance to the butting-heads of the Middle East. The US only intervened in 2011 because the Arab Springs provided an internationally backed opportunity to settle an old score while Russia let it happen unopposed in an attempt at improving relations with the US. As it stands, neither Washington nor Moscow have vested interests in the nation’s leadership or in the nation itself thus removing a great roadblock to multilateral international action. Libya’s strategic importance is also limited by its location and sectarian makeup. The country lies at a distance from the notorious Palestine-Israel conflict, and its lack of a Sunni-Shia split removes it from the Iran-Saudi rivalry. The problems that plague Libya have a more direct effect on Europe as a result of the immigrant and refugee pathway, making conflicts of interests both less likely and more negotiable. Moreover, foreign nations seem to be playing both sides instead of throwing their weight behind one faction or other. France and Russia, for example, reportedly communicate with both Khalifa Haftar as well as the UN-recognized Tripoli-based government, another indication of a lack of true vested interests.

            Libya has the chance to avoid becoming a perpetual failed state since the absence of gross foreign intervention and sectarian conflict remove a great deal of roadblocks on the path to a prosperous nation. However, the potential dangers of descent into another failed Middle Eastern state and a prolonged civil war are apparent. Fifteen years of Lebanese civil war crippled the nation for decades to come while the instability of Afghanistan led to the birth of international terrorist groups. A multilateral response to the situation is essential in preventing further bloodshed as well as future humanitarian crises.





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