For three years, Libya has been without a functioning government, police force, or army. Since the summer of this year, Libya has been wracked by civil war with the launch of Operation Dignity—a coalition of military units. In essence, there are two separate but blurred theaters of conflict in Libya. In the east, there is an urban insurgency being waged by Islamist militias, some which have ties to al-Qa‘ida and now the Islamic State.
In Tripoli and the west, there is a struggle for political power and resources by a diverse coalition of town- and regional-based factions that, unfortunately, has aligned itself with terrorists in the east. On one side is the newly elected parliament that has been banished to the eastern city of Tobruk — supported by the fractured remains of Qaddafi soldiers who defected during the uprising, as well as regional powers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. On the other side is Libya Dawn, a self-described revolutionary coalition of militiamen and Islamist-leaning politicians that originated in the Western city of Misrata, allegedly backed by Turkey and Qatar.
The Libyan foreign minister of the Tobruk government acknowledged this distinction, arguing that a military solution was not appropriate in the west. Furthermore, more than 400,000 people are currently displaced inside Libya, which is witnessing its worst crisis since the 2011 NATO-backed revolt that toppled dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
Here is what we know so far: Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, offers us an incisive and comprehensive look at the Libya challenge today.
After the United States helped overthrow Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, Libya was put on the back burner of U.S. policy even as its problems mounted. Moments of horrific anti-U.S. violence, like the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in 2012, grabbed attention, but the myriad problems plaguing the country were often ignored even as its fires burned hotter and hotter. The challenge now for the United States is how to isolate the terrorist threat and tackle it in such a way to avoid exacerbating the civil war or further derailing the country’s democratic transition.
Indeed, for those who thought things could not get worse, Libya may now host an Islamic State presence. The costs to Libya since the start of Operation Dignity have been extraordinary. An escalating cycle of militia fighting, indiscriminate aerial bombings, and artillery duels has left more than 1,000 dead, caused nearly 400,000 external refugees and internally displaced persons, destroyed vital infrastructure like airports, caused oil exports to plummet, and spurred the exodus of foreign diplomats and businesses.
The country’s oil authorities and ministries now lie in the hands of Libyan Dawn, which claims to be the legitimate government. The Islamist coalition’s case was bolstered after a November Supreme Court decision, which it said nullified the House of Representatives and a constitutional amendment on which the June elections were based. Independent inquiries have found that both sides are guilty of using force against elected institutions, committing human rights abuses, and attacking civilian installations.
Americans rate humn rights very high in terms of their priorities for U.S foreign policy. The United Nations was supposed to have chaired a fresh round of peace talks between the warring factions this month. But so far they have been unable to set a date, let alone an agenda to resolve the crisis. Tobruk’s military forces, meanwhile, don’t seem to be in the mood for talking.