As Western powers weigh up options for a possible military intervention in Libya to fight ISIS, the complexity of the challenge is laid bare by the lack of a reliable partner on the ground. Libya currently has three competing governments — one in the east, one in the west, and the other cloistered in five-star hotels in neighboring Tunisia. And none of them exerts any real authority across the country beyond their limited power bases.
This vast, oil-rich North African country is in some ways in worse shape than Somalia was during the 1990s. Three rival governments, and several armed factions, claim authority, while human rights monitors describe torture, abductions, and wanton killings rivaling any crimes perpetrated by the former regime. Amid the maelstrom, vast stretches of the country are in the hands of ISIS, which has taken over Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte.
Libya has been mired in a 21-month civil war that split the political elite and armed forces into two rival camps. In an attempt to unify both into a government to rebuild the country, tackle ISIS, and stop the flow of migrants heading to Europe, the U.N. last month declared yet another government. It has been rejected by both the others, a blow to U.S.-led efforts to find a credible local partner for any potential intervention against ISIS.
The U.S., Italy, France, and the U.K. have been hinting for weeks at possible airstrikes or deployments of special operations forces in Libya to beat back the ISIS menace. But they’ve been stymied by the country’s fragmented leadership and internecine rivalries.
The competing governments in Libya break down into three blocs:
- The first sits in the east, its institutions dispersed between the cities of Tobruk and Baida and supported by a parliament elected in 2014 and loyal to General Khalifa Haftar, a mustachioed former Qaddafi ally who spent decades in exile near Washington, D.C.
- The second is based in the capital, Tripoli, and draws the support of powerful militias in western Libya, including the city of Misrata, and is steadfastly opposed to any future role for Haftar. These militias have formed the coalition known as Libya Dawn.
- The third government, led by Faiz al-Siraj, an architect who hails from a famous Libyan political family, is backed by the U.N. and endorsed by the U.S., but has zero forces on the ground.
“It’s easier to break Humpty Dumpty than to put it back together,” said Alan Kuperman, a political scientist specializing in Libya at the University of Texas, in Austin,referring to the disastrous lack of planning and ensuing chaos that followed the NATO-backed ouster of Qaddafi in 2011.
Kuperman said it would likely take years for Libya to unify politically, and even longer for the various armed forces to come under one authority. “It’s not uncommon in civil war settings for governance to become atomized,” he said.
“After the civil war ends, political authority asserts itself. Once Libya’s central government gets control of oil again it’s going to have major carrots to offer these various areas to come back under central authority. It’s a little harder with the militias, who as a result of having security control over an area may have their own revenue streams.”