In a show of unity that is rare these days, on May 16, UN Security Council members agreed to help Libya’s fledgling Government of National Accord (GNA) to build up its firepower against the so-called Islamic State (IS) and other militant factions gaining ground in the country. In a move designed to strengthen the internationally recognized — but still fragile — government, and prevent Islamic State fighters and rival militias from making further gains, world powers stated that they would support Libya in seeking exemptions from the UN arms embargo. The US and other members of the Security Council have signalled their readiness to supply the GNA with specific weapons to combat IS, as well as to train the government’s Presidential Guard.
Given that this plan enjoys support from all five permanent members of the UN Security Council, it is unlikely to face significant opposition from any quarter. Its implementation should facilitate the government’s efforts to consolidate power. This matters because the Libyan government that emerged from UN-sponsored negotiations in December has yet to establish authority over much of the state and its institutions. The challenges facing the new Libyan government are immense. Following Gaddafi’s overthrow in 2011, the country’s substantial arsenal was looted and distributed widely both within Libya and across the region, exacerbating the threat posed by jihadist and other rebel groups north and south of the Sahara. A divide between the east and west of Libya generated political paralysis and allowed IS forces to gain a firm foothold. Today, Libya’s new prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, is still trying to cope with currency shortages, power blackouts, and political distrust — to mention but a few problems.
The UN plan, however, brings its own risks. In particular, there is a real danger that a new influx of weapons may fall into the hands of IS, and/or accentuate persisting rivalries in Libya, thus fuelling further instability. After all, the record of outside powers arming proxies in Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq is anything but encouraging.
Still, the international community — and particularly the West — is very keen to find ways to strengthen the political authority of the Tripoli-based government, hoping that this will help create a single Libyan military force able not only to defeat IS but also to limit the flow of refugees leaving the lawless coastland for Italy. The chaos in Libya is — understandably — of growing concern to Western countries. Unlike Syria or Iraq, Libya is alarmingly close to Europe: Tripoli is less than 500 kilometres from Sicily. The combination of geographic proximity and absence of a stable government has translated into a massive influx of refugees, compounding Europe’s already serious migration crisis. In fact, a recent parliamentary report published in the UK shows that current efforts to stem the flow of migrants from Libya are failing.
To make matters worse, there are growing concerns that IS might try to send terrorists into Europe from Libyan soil, mixing them in with refugees. Furthermore, Libya sits at the crossroads between southern Europe and Africa, so an IS presence there could further destabilize already fragile countries like Tunisia, Egypt, or Algeria. In this context, special forces from the US, UK, France, and Italy are already engaged in efforts to combat IS in various parts of Libya, sometimes backing different military forces.
The hope in many Western capitals is that Libya’s new government will provide the support needed to root out human smuggling and combat IS. Under these circumstances, the Security Council’s decision to strengthen the GNA is justified. Without a more significant arsenal, the GNA is unlikely to be effective in the fight against IS.
But the international community’s response to the multi-faceted Libyan crisis should not end there. To begin with, even if the GNA succeeds in consolidating its power, Libya will need longer-term international support in (re)building its institutions. In this area, Canada — with its renewed emphasis on helping fragile states with a comprehensive approach that includes good governance, development, and humanitarian aid — could play a significant role. However, this would have to be managed very carefully. In particular, any international effort to rebuild Libya would need to involve multiple local actors. Otherwise, the new government in Tripoli could come to be seen by Libyans as nothing more than a puppet of the West, which would seriously undermine its legitimacy.
More broadly, there needs to be recognition that addressing Libya’s problems cannot be limited to policies that stop at that country’s borders. Take, for instance, the question of refugees. It is worth recalling that the people who leave Libya’s coast heading for Europe are not just Syrians, Afghans, or Iraqis seeking to escape conflict. Rather, many are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. As long as the situation in their countries remains desperate, those people will continue to attempt the perilous journey to Europe — regardless of any risks or obstacles they might face. Consequently, even assuming that the violence in Syria and Iraq could be stopped in the near future — a very bold assumption — the flow of refugees would not vanish. What is needed is an ambitious set of aid and development policies targeting the countries from which these refugees originate. Here, again, Canada could play a significant role.
In parallel, the international community needs much stronger policies aimed at combating the organized criminal networks that smuggle refugees into Europe. This is an increasingly complex security challenge, as highly organized and mobile networks of criminals operate with growing effectiveness across state boundaries, making billions of dollars from various forms of illicit trade — and using some of those revenues to finance terrorist groups. Fighting this type of organized crime will require far more co-operation among law enforcement agencies from different countries than we see at present.
In the absence of a comprehensive approach that combines local, regional, and global policies and actors, the international community can expect Libya to remain a cause for concern — and a potential source of regional instability — for many years to come.