As unpalatable as it may be, the United States should become more involved in one of the world’s most destabilizing conflicts.
We are talking about Libya. The North African country remains in turmoil with the effects of the conflict rippling through three continents, and no realistic prospect of a resolution soon. What is needed is a level of diplomatic engagement the U.S. alone can muster, and soon. Libya’s dysfunction will likely deepen the longer the conflict grinds on, and pose a serious threat to American interests in a critical, fragile region of the world.
Since an Arab Spring uprising-turned-rebellion topped dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, a dizzying number of fractures in Libya have opened. There are two primary competing political factions. The U.N.-backed and Tripoli-based Government of National Accord holds some authority in the west, while a government affiliated with the Tobruk-based House of Representatives resides in the east.
A host of armed groups operates in the country. General Khalifa Haftar leads the so-called Libyan National Army, which aligns with the House of Representatives. The Misrata Brigades support the Government of National Accord, though they, as well as the Libyan National Army, are loose coalitions with variable loyalty to the political factions.
Other independent militias — some of which are essentially organized crime syndicates smuggling weapons, people, and oil — festoon the landscape. Al Qaeda affiliates are active, and the so-called Islamic State, damaged after losing its stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte in 2016, is resurgent.
The international response to the turmoil has been fractured and ineffective. This has left space for foreign powers to pursue their own interests inside Libya, sometimes at cross-purposes -- many of them counterproductive to achieving a lasting political solution.
Haftar primarily receives support from Egypt and the UAE, largely because they see him as a bulwark against Libya’s Islamist groups, some of which have received aid from Qatar. The United Nations only recognizes the Government of National Accord, however, and not the transitional government in al-Bayda established by the Haftar-aligned House of Representatives. Some of the European countries are taking contradictory approaches on the timing of elections (scheduled, optimistically, for December this year), and are backing different political factions as well.
This terrible muddle highlights the need for American leadership. The U.S. is likely the only country with the heft and relationships with the many concerned parties to get them to act in concert in Libya. It should work to persuade the different actors to pressure their Libyan clients to seek a genuine political agreement, and then to hold them accountable to it. It should also lead an effort to limit the damaging effect of the crisis on neighboring states such as Tunisia.
Such an investment of U.S. energy and attention would be worthwhile. Libya’s turmoil makes it difficult to more than temporarily degrade the various terror groups operating in the country. On good days, Libya also supplies around 1 million barrels of oil a day to the world market. If any of the armed groups that frequently try to seize the oil fields succeed, it will make it harder to pacify them, eat into the funds available for the reconstruction of the country, and tighten the global oil supply.
Before Italy struck a series of deals in Libya ameliorating the problem, the flow of migrants through Libya added to the strain mass migration was placing on Europe. Yet the Italian effort is probably not indefinitely sustainable, and whoever controls the smuggling and migrant routes that have proliferated in Libya has significant advantage over the Europeans.
The vacuum in Libya has attracted Russian attention as well. Libya’s close proximity to Europe and the Middle East, its oil, and its position as a migrant hub make it the type of place in which Russia could cause mischief on the cheap if it gains sufficient influence.
Finally, Libyan instability is straining a fragile region. Tunisia in particular has suffered, but so too have countries farther afield such as Mali and Syria, two of the possibly more than dozen countries into which Libyan weapons have flowed since 2011.
The U.S. cannot solve such a complex and opaque conflict, but it is the only country with enough standing to pressure effectively all players to reach some agreement on how to engage with Libya. Time is short, as the lack of a unified approach is exacerbating the many problems Libyan turmoil presents to its people, the region, and beyond.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 10/19/18