- By Siddhartha MahantaSiddhartha Mahanta is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. In recent years, he has written on everything from national politics to the telecommunications industry, big agriculture, foreign lobbying, corporate welfare, and film, for publications including The New Republic, The Atlantic, The Washington Monthly, and Washington City Paper, among others. A Texas native and graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, he has also worked for Mother Jones, National Journal, and the PBS Newshour.
Amid renewed fighting in Gaza, a militant land grab in Iraq, a pseudo-war between Russia and Ukraine, an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, Libya is coming apart at the seams too. Not that many seem to notice.
The militias who deposed Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011 are now battling for control of the country and its plentiful oil reserves. Some groups, like the militias in Zintan, are more moderate, while those in Misrata are reportedly aligned with the Islamists.
The government has no army with which to suppress them, and is relying on its own militias. The United States has proposed several plans to train Libyan security forces. But those efforts have collapsed due to the country’s inability to pay for such training and develop the bureaucracy necessary to manage it. Other countries, including Morocco, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Italy, are also reportedly training Libyan forces.
Amid all this, fighting has only grown more intense over the summer, raising questions about whether Libya is on the fast track to civil war — or already in one.
On Monday, planes of initially unknown origin conducted airstrikes on Islamist targets in Tripoli. Then, in the early hours of Tuesday, unidentified militants shelled an affluent section of Tripoli with Grad rockets, killing three. And, yes, that’s the same kind of artillery Russia has been accused of firing across the Ukrainian border.
Who fired the Grad rockets remains a mystery, but eventually Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a onetime Qaddafi loyalist turned revolutionary and now a hardened anti-Islamist fighter, took credit for the airstrikes. Haftar said it’s part of his broader campaign for control of the city and airport, though there’s still some question as to whether Libyan planes could have been in any shape to conduct the strikes.
In May, Haftar’s forces launched what they dubbed "Operation Dignity," a concentrated campaign against Islamist militias in Benghazi. Soon after, Haftar also dissolved the Libyan General National Congress, ousting the government’s many Islamist lawmakers. His campaign against the militias has experienced mixed success, and has also contributed to instability and violence.
In response, Islamist forces embarked on "Operation Dawn," an attempt to secure control of Tripoli’s airport.
The Libyan government has little to no control of the capital city of Tripoli, and is currently working out of the eastern city of Tobruk. Libya held an election on June 25 for a new body called the Council of Representatives, which is charged with drafting a permanent constitution and holding presidential elections within 18 months. In the election, secular politicians secured a decisive majority over Islamists.
On Wednesday, there was a rare spot of good news. Libyan officials said they will again export oil, something that hasn’t happened since July 2013, when militants tried to take over the country’s oil-shipping infrastructure. U.S. forces managed to quash any oil sale by stopping a tanker, and the rebels agreed last month to reopen the terminal along with another port at Ras Lanuf.
The plan was for an Italian oil tanker to depart from the Es Sider terminal, its belly full of some 600,000 barrels of oil headed for the Italian port of Trieste, the Wall Street Journal reported. Drilling has also resumed at Sharara, Libya’s biggest oil field. That resumption, along with the reopened ports, would boost Libyan oil production to some 560,000 barrels a day, about four times the level in May, according to the newspaper. The good news could hearten foreign buyers skittish about doing business with Libya.
Then, on Thursday, Tunisia and Egypt canceled most flights into and out of Libya. Tunisian authorities didn’t say why, but Egyptian officials said it was for security reasons, especially given the extant uncertainty over who conducted the complex airstrikes on Tripoli earlier this week. As Reuters reported, flights from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya had been operating on an almost daily basis.
In public statements, the U.S. government has encouraged the Libyan government’s democracy-building efforts. Just last week, the United States, France, Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement commending the Libyan Council of Representatives for taking an "important step towards putting Libya’s democratic transition back on track and helping restore law and order to the country," and called on the council to be "inclusive and fully representative in its work going forward."
Meanwhile, the United States has also been careful not to draw conclusions or premature comparisons between the situation in Libya and other theaters of conflict. When asked in a press briefing last week what lessons the Obama administration has learned from Libya that it is applying to Iraq, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that the situations are not analogous, emphasizing that Iraqis asked for U.S. assistance in their fight against Islamic State forces, as opposed to the situation in Libya, where the United States provided assistance through NATO in the 2011 ouster of Qaddafi.
When pressed on the scale of U.S. involvement in Libya, Harf said that the United States "took a pretty lead role in NATO in the Libya operation, and I think Colonel Qadhafi would certainly agree that we took a pretty lead role there, considering how he ended up."