Headlines: Libya’s quiet failure

Since the 2011 NATO intervention, Libya has suffered due to political dysfunction and battling militias.

In February 2011, a violent response to Arab Spring protests by security forces loyal to Muammar Gadhafi in Benghazi, Libya prompted the outbreak of rebellion and civil war. Rebel groups formed an interim governing body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), and in partnership with foreign governments, were able to oust Gadhafi’s government and declare liberation for the North African state on Oct. 23, 2011. Gadhafi himself had been captured and killed by NTC  forces in his hometown of Surt three days prior.

This civil war was marked by the military intervention of a largely Western multi-state coalition in support of the NTC. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which was proposed by France, Lebanon, and the United Kingdom, and adopted in March 2011, called for the immediate establishment of a ceasefire and a no-fly zone over Libya. This document legally authorized member-states to use all necessary force, to prevent violence against civilians and barred foreign occupation. A coalition of 18 states, made largely of NATO members, was created in order to enforce both the no-fly zone over Libya’s coastal cities and as the naval arms blockade. From the beginning, foreign intervention was purposefully limited; US President Barack Obama in a March 2011 address called the US military mission “clear and focused.” President Obama also said that “the US is enforcing the mandate of the United Nations Security Council” with the purpose of preventing atrocities and the destabilization of the region. Reaffirming the absence of US ground troops, claiming that Congressional support was unneeded. NATO forces, including France, Italy, Canada, US and the UK, launched airstrikes against Libyan air defenses and ground troops, quickly turning the tide of conflict against the Gadhafi regime. This allowed NTC forces to capture the capital of Tripoli and quickly root out resistance throughout the country. This foreign intervention was widely lauded as an unqualified success; foreign forces quietly withdrew as Libya faded from the regular news cycle. Meanwhile, away from international eyes, the conflict in Libya was far from over.

Libya is currently teetering on the brink of becoming a failed state. The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on  Sept. 11, 2012.and the death of US ambassador J. Christopher Stevens rocked confidence in US security protections. The central government cannot control its capital in Tripoli, much less the entire country. On Aug.23,2014, the Islamist rebel group Libya Shield Force seized Tripoli International Airport, and rival Islamist militias and tribal forces continue to trade fire and weapons throughout the countryside. Abandoned by the international community, Libya has collapsed into anarchy.

This crisis can be explained domestically. The NTC, lacking a standing army, relied upon militias to exercise control throughout the country, allowing for the build up of arms in the hands of Islamist militants. While the NTC was eventually dissolved peacefully and replaced by a General National Congress (GNC), domestic disputes led to the ousting of Libya’s first Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, in November 2012.  2014 sparked a new round of domestic political conflict; having been legally replaced in August 2014 by the Council of Deputies, the former GNC reconvened and unilaterally declared the election of Prime Minister Omar al-Hassi, leaving Libya with two rival governments. While Tripoli is paralyzed politically, the rest of the country has been left to rival militias and tribal groups, backed by both Islamist ideology and foreign aid, competing for control over the country and the massive oil reserves. Peace appears unreachable, and stability all but impossible.

The more troubling issue, however, deals with a pattern of foreign interventionism in the Middle East, from both Western nations and Arab states. While the US specifically, and the West generally, has often been criticized for its interventionist policy, its new policy of avoiding a dreaded “boots on the ground” situation by targeted airstrikes and the support of local ground troops has proved quite successful at accomplishing military objectives, but poor at affecting the political and social changes needed to achieve true peace. The coalition of NATO and Arab states fighting ISIS in Iraq should take note. Moreover, true peace in Libya, and by extension, the Arab region, will not be achieved unless it is championed by Arab states. Libya’s rival and sectarian militias are funded by states such as Qatar and the UAE, while Saudi Arabia provides financial and ideological support to Islamist groups both in Libya and throughout the Middle East.  The interference of these states means that Libya’s trial is likely far from over, and its neighbors far from peace.

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