Just as the United Nations was preparing to host a national conference in Libya this month to arrange for national elections to unify the country’s fractured governance, the faction that dominates the country’s east, the Libyan National Army, launched a military offensive last week on the capital, Tripoli. With the past week’s fighting, “the likelihood is greater than at any point since 2014 for destructive and bloody conflict” of an uncertain duration and outcome, according to Nate Wilson, who manages USIP programs in Libya. Wilson monitors Libya from neighboring Tunisia while working with Libyan officials, researchers on projects to inform international policymakers, and with local Libyan groups that work to reconcile disputes and build a foundation for national peacemaking. In response to questions, he discussed what’s at stake in the new fighting, and how the international community might respond.

An armed resident of Tripoli, surveys damage from fighting in 2011. This month’s offensive has displaced thousands and risks a new battle for the capital city. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
An armed resident of Tripoli, surveys damage from fighting in 2011. This month’s offensive has displaced thousands and risks a new battle for the capital city. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

What risks does this new battle raise in Libya?

Well, first, this situation is highly unpredictable. The Libyan National Army, based in the east and led by Khalifa Haftar, launched this offensive as the U.N. Secretary General visited Libya last week to promote a political solution to Libya’s years of divided government. Haftar’s forces are fighting militias under the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli. The capital has been the target of the conflict for years, notably because who controls Tripoli controls the money and the powerful Libya Central Bank.

The Libyan National Army has been reported as being significantly larger than the forces of the Tripoli-based government, but in truth, its fighting ability is not well known. It did not face much resistance in January when it took over the largely desert region of Fezzan in the south. Its supply lines are long and vulnerable.

That is not to say that the Tripoli government’s force is unified. Its strategy was to coopt and absorb militias operating in the capital without dissolving their chains of command. This leaves their loyalty to the government suspect. They likely will protect their strategic positions in the capital because they benefit from the status quo and a government dominated by the eastern-based forces may or may not allow them the same privileges.

The wild cards include regional militias. Forces from Misrata, a militarily strong city 120 miles east of Tripoli have mobilized but so far have left Tripoli’s militias to fight on the front lines. Other opportunistic groups, like militias in Zintan, about 90 miles south of Tripoli, are watching to see which side is winning, or has funding, before choosing sides.

And the two main sides have had external allies—France, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Russia for the Libyan National Army faction, and Italy, Qatar, and Turkey for the Tripoli administration. It is not clear to what extent the two factions are getting external help right now in this conflict, but formal diplomacy among countries with influence in Libya has appeared reluctant to call out the Libyan National Army attack or to demand a halt to fighting. Some countries may be holding out the possibility of active involvement.

You’re close by, in Tunisia. What does this flareup mean for the region?

Actually, not just one region, but several. Of course, Tunisia is struggling to maintain the relative stability it has managed since the 2011 uprisings in both countries—and Libya’s turmoil, and the problem of Libyan refugees streaming in, is a risk for the struggling economy here and a constant fear for Tunisian officials. Tunisia also has to watch the instability in the massively larger Algeria to its west, where recent mass protests and demands for democracy have just forced the resignation of a 20-year president and left a military-dominated administration to hold national elections in just 12 weeks.

More broadly, the lack of governance in Libya has enabled flows of weapons and extremist forces into the neighboring conflicts to the south, in the Sahel region—and flows of refugees and migrants to Europe. We are right now watching a coup in Sudan, turmoil continues in Niger and Mali, and violence has spiked recently in Burkina Faso. Armed groups from all of these countries have found refuge in Libya. So if Libya slides into full-on war rather than a stabilizing political process, that’s worrisome for the entire Sahel and the Mediterranean.

One specific concern is ISIS, which can exploit this new violence to reassert itself in Libya. Even amid Libya’s divisions, the social fabric and internal realities such as tribal identities have prevented ISIS’ easy penetration. But greater chaos and any battle for Tripoli increases the likelihood that ISIS operations will increase. In fact, there was an attack last Thursday in southern Libya which had ISIS hallmarks.

What might the international community do to reduce the risks and stabilize the situation?

An immediate step could be to threaten and impose sanctions against actors who refuse to stop fighting. So far, even the U.N. appeals for temporary cease-fires for humanitarian aid have gone unheeded.

As urged by the International Crisis Group and others, governments should ensure no additional support for Libya’s factions from outside powers, notably in Europe or the Middle East. And they should press the factions to resume the political dialogue that was meant to be accelerating this very month. Still, getting to, or near, international consensus on these may be difficult, given the wide range of countries that have asserted roles or established relationships with one or another faction, so diplomacy will need heavyweight leadership and focus. The United States can call upon its wide network of allies, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, to press the factions to stop the fighting. It can also take this as an opportunity to reassert itself diplomatically in Libya to bring the different sides to the table.

Alongside emergency assistance, the international community needs to plan post-conflict support to avoid a humanitarian disaster. This will include help as basic as repairs to the nation’s water-supply system—the long pipelines from the Saharan aquifers to Tripoli.

And longer-term stabilization work needs to include work at local levels, for example supporting and developing the civil society leaders, many of them from the younger generation, who are demanding peace and good governance. These energetic groups are a real asset that can be built upon as a foundation for national peacemaking. It would be a mistake to see Libya just through the prism of faction leaders. People forget that there was a major crisis of leadership for the Libyan National Army last year when rumors spread that Khalifa Haftar was dead or in a coma. There is no doubt that the leaders need to be at the table for decisions about finances, military, and politics. But without social cohesion and social reconciliation between regions, cities, neighborhoods, and locals, any national decisions will be fragile.

Amid everything else, it needs to be emphasized that this was not a necessary conflict. With the planned, U.N.-backed national conference postponed, there is still a case to make, which should be made by all lovers of freedom, that we should not give up on democracy in Libya.

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