Emily Robinson Libya NATO and Canada The Middle East and North Africa

“Too Little, Too Late”: Violence Continues in Libya

On the October 102014, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a statement concerning the ongoing political strike in Libya. The UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards announced in Geneva, that an estimated 287, 000 people from across Libya have been displaced. Of that figure, approximately 100, 000 people have been displaced from Tripoli and the surrounding area in the last three weeks alone. Edwards reported that the high volume of displaced persons has created a situation where the communities that they have fled to are unable to support the rapid influx of refugees.

Most towns and communities do not have the capacity to support this many people, with hospitals overflowing and food shortages creating increased humanitarian need. The UN has issued a “humanitarian appeal for Libya requesting additional funding to continue helping hundreds of thousands of people affected by the ongoing crisis in the country.” The situation in Libya today is the result of a series of developments following the 2011 NATO- led intervention which led to the removal of Muammar Qaddafi from power.

This past summer, Libyans went to the polls to vote in the tumultuous state’s second election since the 2011 revolution that led to an international intervention. The elections marked a crucial point in Libya’s post-revolution affairs, as the country was plagued with worsening polarization and violence amongst government officials, state-affiliated military groups, militias, as well as civilians.

Post NATO Intervention

The cycle of violence in Libya began soon after the transitional government took power in 2011 following the NATO-led Operation Unified Protector. As a report on post-revolution Libya highlights, the July 2012 elections “were intended to provide Libya with a stronger, more legitimate government” in the General National Congress. However, very soon after the elections it was clear that the new parliament would face significant roadblocks given the number of political and security challenges to be overcome in the wake of Operation Unified Protector.

The international operation carried out by NATO and its member states in 2011 is often heralded as a success story for humanitarian intervention. Certainly, many suggest that it showcased the ability of NATO to act outside of its typical sphere of influence. For many Canadians, its eager contribution and leadership role in the operation was marked with general approval, especially given the mission’s short time frame and success.

However, given the degradation of the Libyan state following the intervention, some suggest that international assistance in Libya fell short. Lasting nine months, Operation Unified Protector certainly differs from other, longer operations abroad, NATO or otherwise. There was no stabilization force put in place following the war; the transitional government was largely left to its own devices.

The situation in Libya continues to spiral downward. Libya’s weak army battles militias armed with weapons seized from former regime warehouses in the final weeks of the revolution. Following the intervention, the United Nations called upon Libyan authorities to take “all necessary steps” to stop the proliferation of arms to other states. Efforts to disarm the militants have met little success; weapons from the former regime continue to spread.

The failure of the General National Congress to stop the flow of arms throughout the country had other consequences as well. Libya has become a safe haven for terrorist actors, who use transit routes in the southwest and northeast to spread through its porous borders to Northern Africa and the Middle East. With continued violence and terrorist activity in the Sahel and Maghreb regions in Africa, the ongoing civil war in Syria, and the developing situation in Iraq, the outflow of weapons from Libya is just one of the issues that the Middle Eastern region is facing.

The newly elected House of Representatives has had little luck quelling the violence in Libya. In a welcomed development, the country’s prolonged oil crisis was declared over by interim Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni in July, after reclaiming the Ras Lanuf and Es Sider oil ports that had been captured by rebels a year ago in order to demand more autonomy in the region. This marked a significant win for the incoming government. With these key ports back under government control, oil revenues could climb following a year of stagnation. However, the ability to maintain exports comparable to pre-revolution levels is uncertain given the rocky security environment.

Indeed, the House of Representatives had to move its government operations to Tobruk in the east from Tripoli, where continued fighting made the capital city too dangerous. Al-Thinni has since had his cabinet rejected in late September amid continued clashes. Violence has worsened, and the two competing governments in Libya are not recognising the other as legitimate.

With North Africa being the gateway for rebel fighters travelling to Syria and Iraq, Egypt has offered military training to pro-government forces. Citing threats from Islamic State affiliated Egyptian fighters based in Libya, Egypt’s President al-Sisi stated to the UN last month that countries in the region should cooperate to confront “extremist forces and the crisis of terrorism facing the region.”

With hundreds of thousands of its citizens displaced, as well as refugees pouring in from the surrounding region, the situation in Libya continues to deteriorate. Security partnerships like the ones proposed by Egypt’s al-Sisi come with their own risks, however. There is always the potential of proxy conflicts as different nations stake their claim through different factions.

NATO has been relatively silent on the issue. In mid-September, former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen admitted during a question and answer period that “seen retrospectively, the international community as such did too little, too late to help the new authorities in Libya build a new nation.” Fogh Rasmussen also noted that following up on how well a nation re-establishes itself after NATO intervenes is “beyond NATO’s capability.”

So far, promises to aid in reconstruction or security training from Western nations such as the United States have yielded little result. The situation in Libya makes this difficult, as do other factors. What is in store for Libya in the future is uncertain as the West’s attention is focused on Iraq, Syria, and the engagement with the Islamic State in those countries. What is certain is that the region itself will continue to be negatively affected by prolonged conflict and the inability to implement effective security sector reform within Libya. Such reform may be long coming with attention diverted away from Libya.

Emily Robinson
Emily Robinson is a graduate of Dalhousie University, where she completed her Master of Arts in Political Science this past year. She is also a graduate of Mount Allison University, where she completed a BA with a double major in Political Science and Canadian Studies. Her research areas include Canadian foreign policy, international relations theory, Middle Eastern security, and North African political affairs. Her MA research focused on Canada's involvement in the 2011 intervention in Libya and the way in which international relations theory can be applied in this area of study.Emily works as a research assistant as well as a teaching assistant at Dalhousie University. You can contact her at emily.robinson@dal.ca.