The outlook for Libya remains troubled, but recent events offer hope

The outlook for Libya remains troubled, but recent events offer hope

While hardly a panacea for the myriad problems Libya faces, the US strikes in support of Libya’s government offer a glimmer of hope for gradual improvement in the war-torn country.

On August 1st, the United States Air Force carried out a series of strikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Libya at the request of the internationally-recognized Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). These strikes all focused on the coastal town of Sirte – the birthplace of the deposed dictator Muammar Gaddafi – which was taken over by the Islamic State in February last year.

After seizing control of Sirte, ISIS enjoyed a brief surge in power, taking control of several other border towns and launching raids against Libya’s interior oil fields. Since then, it has gradually been repulsed by the GNA, which took over the areas previously governed by the Islamist General National Council in April 2016. However, due to strong public sentiment against intervention by foreign powers, the GNA has been reluctant to call on outside help until now.

ISIS is only the most acute of Libya’s many persistent problems

While the ultimate defeat of ISIS in Libya can only be considered a triumph for human dignity, it is important to recognize that its destruction is not a silver bullet to solve all of the country’s problems. Libya is divided between two governments, with the GNA based in Tripoli in the West while the Council of Deputies is based in eastern Tobruk. Both governments are also extremely fluid, and their troops are closer to a coalition of loosely organized militias than proper armies.

At the same time, there is a near-total lack of centralized control and institutions throughout the country – the legacy of Gaddafi’s dismantling of these institutions in order to make himself indispensable to Libya’s stability. This makes it much more difficult for either government to have reliable data about the territory they nominally control, and makes both even more dependent upon regional militias.

There is hope for a better future for Libya

Despite these endemic problems, there are reasons to cautiously hope for future improvement. It is significant that after months of conducting this war on its own, the GNA has finally called for outside help. This is a clear indication that the new government feels confident enough in its own position to take potentially unpopular actions, an incredible accomplishment when one considers that the GNA only took power a few months ago.

There are also signs that the civil war could be coming to an end. The Tobruk-based Council of Deputies played an integral role in creating the Skhirat Agreement, which established the GNA, and the political framework laid out in that agreement includes a role for the Council of Deputies. There is thus a very real possibility that the Council will accept the GNA’s authority and unify Libya politically, just as the country’s competing oil companies unified last month. However, the odds of this unification depend on finding some way to accommodate Khalifa Haftar, the powerful general who leads the Council’s military and who stands to lose power and prestige if the country reunites.

Finally, it is significant that when he justified the current bombing campaign in Libya, President Obama spoke of the need to ensure stability in Libya as a way of helping solve Europe’s refugee crisis. While the military campaign against ISIS cannot end the anarchy in Libya alone, this statement clearly indicates that Libya is once again the object of top-level interest by the United States. This in turn opens the door for further international aid – both from the United States as well as from European countries such as Italy which have been most affected by Libyan refugees.

Libya’s path forward is littered with obstacles ranging from the mundane to the philosophical – competing governments, lack of infrastructure, disagreement about the role of Islam in society to name but a few. However, there is nevertheless a glimmer of hope that the future might actually be better than the present. While this hope may prove illusory, it is a welcome relief after years, which have offered only the promise of further fighting and chaos throughout the country.

About Author

Jacob Purcell

Jacob Purcell is a Middle East expert. He holds a Master's graduate from the University of Chicago Committee on International Relations Program, where he focused on International Security and International Economics. He received his BA from the University of Arkansas, where he graduated Magna cum Laude with majors in International Relations, Political Science, and Economics, as well as minors in French, History, and Classical Studies.