Libya: The hesitation two-step

Libya: The hesitation two-step

When “Prime Minister” Fayez al-Sarraj of the “Government of National Accord” (GNA) arrived in Libya a month ago, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that it was “not the time for obstructionists to hold back progress.” A noble sentiment, but it does make you want to ask Kerry: When would be the right time for obstructionists to hold back progress? Next Tuesday?

It was just one more slice of the meaningless waffle that passes for policy statements when Western statesmen discuss what to do about the Libya mess. The country has collapsed into violence and chaos since NATO bombers (with sporadic help from local militias) drove long-ruling dictator Moammar Gadhafi from power in 2011, and Kerry has no good plan for dealing with it.

Al-Sarraj’s GNA merely adds a third contender to the two rival governments that already claim to rule the country, and not one of them actually controls much territory. It is the hundreds of militias that really control Libya’s territory, and the fortunes of the contending governments rise and fall depending on how many militias will agree to back them (in return for various favors and subsidies, of course).  

Western governments are finally paying attention to Libya mainly because the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters are active there, and because refugees are flowing into Europe from Libya again now that the route through Turkey and Greece has been blocked.

The Italian, British and French governments have been talking about sending 6,000 troops into Libya to train a Libyan army that could take on ISIL and defeat it. There are already American, British, French and Italian special forces teams in the country, and there have been at least four American air strikes against ISIL camps in Libya since December 2015.

It all sounds like a full-scale Western military intervention in Libya is imminent – except that it has been sounding like that for the past six months, and the intervention still hasn’t happened. There is a curious reluctance to take the final step. 

The Western interventionists are right to hesitate. The fear that ISIL will take over most of Libya if they don’t put troops in is grossly exaggerated: lately ISIL has been losing ground in Libya, not gaining it. More importantly, ISIL can never be eliminated entirely unless there is a single, legitimate Libyan government backed by a disciplined army.

So the first priority for the Western powers is to create a government that has the legal authority to invite Western troops in to help. “The GNA [Government of National Accord] is the only entity that can unify the country,” Kerry explained. “It is the only way to generate the cohesion necessary to defeat Daesh [ISIL].”

So the Western great powers have just created such a government, using the United Nations as their vehicle. The GNA is not a Libyan initiative; its members were picked by foreigners, and that is how al-Sarraj found himself the prime minister of the Government of National Accord.

Ordinary Libyans might support the GNA, if only out of despair. They are heartily sick of the inter-militia fighting, the financial chaos, and the lack of any government services, and they might well accept a foreign-backed “government” with lots of money and troops at its disposal. But it’s not ordinary Libyans who have to be convinced to hand over power. It’s the local politicians and the militias who control them, and they won’t do it.

Maybe foreign firepower could compel them to accept the GNA’s authority, but the Western powers are not willing to commit their troops to that sort of open-ended military operation. They just want to go after ISIL and the people-smugglers, and if the GNA can give them the legal cover to do that, it will have served its purpose.

And even then they may decide in the end not to commit Western troops on the ground, because ISIL is not really such a big deal in Libya. Among the several hundred thousand members of the innumerable Libyan militia groups, ISIL has at most 5,000 fighters.

It does some spectacularly nasty things, like murdering 22 Egyptian Christian foreign workers on a beach last January, but it only controls one smallish city (Sirte) and an adjacent stretch of coastline. The hesitation two-step may continue.

* Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.