Even before Qaddafi’s downfall(in Oct.2011), two trends had appeared that would ultimately turn Libya into the chaotic and violent failed state it is today.
First, cracks widened within the already uneasy alliance of radical Islamists and former regimists who banded together to overthrow Qaddafi.
Second, the rebel militias who overthrew Qaddafi did not disband. They argued that the remnants of Qaddafi’s security forces were either incompetent or untrustworthy, and would need to be supplemented or replaced. The “thuwar,” or revolutionaries, formed out of the uprising against Qaddafi or its immediate aftermath, took over much of the country. When political grievances swelled, they turned their guns on each other.
Disputed elections in June 2014 further confused matters, causing the country to split into two rival camps, with two armed forces commanders, two prime ministers, and two sets of officials laying claim to the country’s oil wealth.
One, under the banner of Libya Dawn, is based in Tripoli and includes militias from Misrata and Islamist armed groups dominating the capital.
The other, based in the eastern cities of Tobruk and Baida, includes the elected parliament and armed forces under the command of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a stone-faced, mustachioed 72-year-old army officer and former ally of Qaddafi. He had defected in 1990 to the U.S., where he lived in Virginia for more than 20 years before returning to Libya weeks after the 2011 uprising began, fashioning himself a savior as the country then descended into chaos.
Worried international powers and its neighbors are now trying to prod the warring factions and two rival governments under a single authority.
So they declared a third government. This one has the backing of the U.N., U.S., and other Western powers, but has no armed forces and is recognized by none of the major powers inside the country. It is led by Faiz Siraj, a former architectural adviser whose political career appears to have begun with the international peace process.
Into this mess, Islamist extremists started to seize territory, gathering strength and eventually coalescing to form the Libyan branch of ISIS, which declared itself in late 2015, and has since consolidated its power in Benghazi, Derna, Sirte, and Bin Jawad. Foreign fighters have joined them, swelling ISIS’s ranks to 5,000, with Libya providing an alternative destination for recruits unable to make their way to Syria or Iraq. They are drawn by Libya’s lawlessness and the world’s largest supply of loose weapons, a result of the bungled failure to secure the country after Qaddafi’s death.
Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown, was among the last strongholds of the former regime. In late 2011, militias from Misrata pounded the city with artillery for weeks, before finding and killing the former dictator and taking control. Residents bristled at these outsiders establishing a foothold there, and it was soon handed back to local militias. But those men would then themselves be overpowered by resurgent jihadis, and by the beginning of 2015, the city was firmly in the hands of ISIS.
Those who could have left the city, but many have stayed, worried they will lose their homes to ISIS, or out of fear at confronting fighters at the checkpoints to the city’s exits. “They need families as human shields,” said Mahmoud Zegal, a military leader of Misrata-based forces. “When people try to leave, they ask, ‘Why are you leaving?’ Cars are searched heavily for valuables, and drivers are harassed.”
At the same time, ISIS has managed to impose some sense of order after years of war inside the city. In contrast to the months of deprivation that followed the collapse of the regime and subsequent chaos, the staples of life are mostly available, and hospitals and clinics mostly function when there is power. Those who avoid politics, keep their heads down, abide by the rules, don’t try to leave, pay their taxes, and don’t try to prevent their sons from joining ISIS can go about their business.
Since the uprising, Libya has become a battleground for foreign powers seeking to shape events, beginning with French and Qatari supplies of weapons to the rebels fighting Qaddafi. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt have been arming and launching airstrikes in support of Haftar’s armed forces, while Turkey and Qatar have allegedly helped arm the Libya Dawn forces in Misrata.
Five years after NATO fighter jets helped Libyan ground forces defeat Qaddafi’s forces, outside powers (are) priming to intervene in the country once again. Italy, Libya’s former colonial overlord, has been hinting for months at a possible intervention to stem the tide of migrants making their way across the Mediterranean and to check the growth of ISIS. Signs of some kind of impending air offensive have been building in recent weeks, withU.S. and U.K. officials focusing on the threat of ISIS in Libya. Obama is reportedly being pressed by his national security aides to explore military options.
But others in the West and Libya say it would be a mistake to intervene. Since Western countries have ruled out the use of ground forces, any intervention, either by or air or with special forces, would entail finding local partners. And forming partnerships with local actors before the country is unified under one government could backfire. “As soon as you ally with one, the ones you didn’t ally with would view the intervening force as enemies,” said Alan Kuperman, a Libya specialist at the University of Texas in Austin. “Who might they find as allies? ISIS. By intervening we might push them toward ISIS.”
(Local) officials admit they lack the resources to take on ISIS in Sirte without completely pulverizing the city and killing thousands of innocent civilians.
Even as they contemplate airstrikes against ISIS, international powers say they won’t provide significant support for Libya until the two warring political camps come together under the U.N.-backed government.
In some cases, the threat posed by ISIS is forcing Libya’s collection of militias overseeing security to work together to prevent the group from dispatching fighters or setting up cells across the country.
Many Libyans, desperate and isolated from the outside world, welcome any increase in U.S. involvement, even though it impinges on the country’s sovereignty and national pride. “There should not have been an intervention in 2011,” Eljarh said. “But now there has to be, because Libya is no longer a Libyan problem. It’s a regional problem and an international problem.”
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