The Libyan Presidential Council (P.C.), representing a rough consensus of Libyan political forces, is making slow but promising gains in several key areas. There will probably be setbacks on the road to the kind of progress that will generate wider support from both key Libyan factions and the general populace. Signs are encouraging, however, in areas such as security and legitimacy. It is too early to say that the Government of National Accord (G.N.A.) appointed by the P.C. is truly governing, but it is taking steps that provide more confidence to the international community. The latter has taken a major gamble on this process and appears ready to do much more if it believes it has an effective Libyan partner on the ground.
The international media has been largely focused on the fight underway against the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. After gaining footholds in the eastern port cities of Benghazi and Derna, ISIS succeeded in grabbing the central coastal city of Sirte. In all three cases, the initial successes of ISIS were drawn from the chaos of loyalties and the lack of effective governance stemming from intra-Libyan power struggles between rival militias and localities. Benghazi is still locked in such a struggle, despite claims by General Khalifa Hifter of more than a year ago that Libyan National Army units under his leadership were on the verge of pacifying the city. While the situation in Benghazi remains unstable, ISIS has not found it a very congenial environment and is lying low, if it indeed continues to control a significant part of the city. In Derna, long a hotbed of radical jihadist sentiment, local Islamist militias rather quickly gained the upper hand and drove ISIS out.
The most dramatic success for ISIS had come when it managed during the past year to gain control of the city of Sirte, including long portions of the coastal areas east and west of the city. While most Libyans were resistant to the attractions of ISIS, Sirte was the home region of Muammar Qaddafi and received the brunt of anti-Qaddafi retribution, particularly from militias based in nearby Misrata. Without any support from an effective central government and facing what appeared to be long-term dominance by Misrata, the native inhabitants of Sirte were more receptive to the influx of ISIS non-Libyan fighters and administrators. Although outsiders, they were viewed, for a time, as less likely to be oppressive than the Misratans. These sentiments cooled rapidly as the reality of harsh ISIS rule became apparent.
The newly formed G.N.A. in Tripoli, allying itself with militias from Misrata and elsewhere, established operation rooms on both sides of Sirte to coordinate military offensives against ISIS strongholds. So far, they have succeeded in clawing back much of the territory in both the western and eastern approaches to the city. In the east, this has included elements of the Petroleum Facilities Guard, assigned to protect the key oil terminals that lie between Benghazi and Sirte. Removing the ISIS threat to seize those oil terminals and to interrupt Libyan oil exports, still at a very low level, bodes well for the Libyan economy. It is prudent to be skeptical about the depth of loyalty to the G.N.A. that these various armed elements have been expressing, but success in such operations could be the prelude to the eventual establishment of more unified armed forces.
The reality is that Libyans of nearly every political complexion have a strong distrust of foreigners. The non-Libyans who have leadership positions in ISIS, and the influx of large numbers of fighters from Tunisia and elsewhere, have undercut much of the initial attraction that was based on disgruntlement with the disorderly experiments of national governance that emerged after 2011. This continues to express itself in the reluctance of the G.N.A., as well as powerful elements still contending for influence over the new political order, to invite foreign military forces, even if they were to operate under the flag of the United Nations. NATO countries that have significant military capabilities and great national interests at stake, particularly Italy, are also waiting for Libyan requests for help in policing the coastal waters of Libya. This assistance is critical to reducing the flow of contraband weapons into Libya and desperate migrants trying to make the crossing to Europe. The G.N.A. wants to show that it is in charge, that Libyans can fight their own battles against the forces of disorder and that Libyan sovereignty, so often violated throughout the 20th century, can be secured in the 21st century. Although the special forces of several NATO governments, including the United States, are involved on the ground in Libya in advice and support functions of various kinds, the likelihood of any welcome for foreign combat forces remains remote.
In combination with several militia groups and with the discreet support of NATO governments and Arab neighbors, the G.N.A. has made security advances against ISIS a priority. If successful, this will bolster its claim to sovereign legitimacy and lay the foundation for governance. The Obama administration wants this process to succeed and has pledged various kinds of assistance. In addition to the covert military help, the State Department has announced a reprogramming for Libya of $36 million in 2016 assistance funds for building the G.N.A.’s capacity to govern and has sought over $25 million in 2017 funds. A major diplomatic effort has focused on strengthening the international coalition in support of the G.N.A., along with urging various Libyan factions to work with the new government. Security advances remain fragile, however, and could collapse if the G.N.A. does not resume broad and effective governance soon.
Assistance to the nascent Libyan security forces depends on what the G.N.A. is prepared to request, and it has said it does not want to see any foreign combat forces on the ground. Following the precedents in Iraq and Syria, there are a wide range of other means to provide help. Some could be unilateral, such as the provision of tactical intelligence and advice to Libyan commanders on how to use it. By all accounts, the Libyan forces, both those under G.N.A. command and allied militias, already have plenty of arms. The problem arises from lack of training, discipline, logistics and organization— all elements of effective military forces that require time and patience. Read more dramatic support for the Libyan units doing the fighting, especially air-to-ground fire, would best come about as a result of coordination with a few of our most capable and willing NATO allies. Since it is extremely unlikely that Russia would agree to a strong United Nations Security Council resolution, as it did in 2011, any such use of air combat forces would almost certainly require an unambiguous request from the G.N.A.
President Barack Obama has shown great reluctance to step into what he views as a Libyan swamp. He views U.S. national interests in stabilizing Libya as secondary to other theaters in the region and of tertiary importance to U.S. global interests. He is correct that chaos in Libya presents a greater threat to its neighbors in the Arab world and Africa and to its near neighbors in Europe. Nonetheless, he is aware of the potential damage that would flow from a further breakdown of Libya into vast ungoverned spaces, providing havens for terrorists and passage for new flows of uncontrolled migration. Further degeneration would put close allies and friends of the United States at immediate risk.