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Do Not Lift the Arms Embargo on Libya

The conflict in Libya is intensifying. Battles between rival militias are unceasing and deadly. As I wrote last month, the conflict is unlikely to resolve quickly. Amid this chaos, Egypt recently called for an end to a United Nations-supported arms embargo on Libya. Government officials in Libya previously floated the idea of a lift. Lifting the ban would not only fail to alleviate any of the afflictions currently tearing Libya apart, it would most likely intensify the violence.

Image Courtesy of UN Development Program, © 2013

There are legitimate arguments for lifting the ban. Egypt, most forcefully, claims that the arms embargo needs to be lifted in order to support the right against extremism. Arming credible anti-Islamist factions would strengthen those militias against Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and other fundamentalist groups that operate in Libya. A second argument is that lifting the ban, at least partially, would allow countries to bolster the U.N.-backed government, which has struggled to gain control.

Neither argument withstands scrutiny. There is no one “anti-Islamist” faction that outside nations would agree to collectively support. Egypt has steadfastly supported Khalifa Haftar, whose army controls a significant portion of the country and has well-known anti-Islamist stances. Of course, Haftar took no part in the battle to oust the Islamic State from Sirte in 2016, which was backed by the United States and other western countries. The Misrata-based militias that fought the Sirte battle have since clashed with Haftar’s forces.

The facts on the ground also fail to support the claim that lifting the ban would bolster a central Libyan government. The current U.N.-backed government does not have a dedicated army. Its military support is primarily a coalition of militias that chose to support it. There is no guarantee that this arrangement will last. Arms sent to the central government may simply end up in the hands of militias that eventually turn against it. Haftar also has yet to support the U.N. government, providing an opposing power center that is more likely to conflict with the current government than support it.

Libya already has more than 20 million circulating throughout the country. Some are part of Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenal, others have been smuggled in despite the embargo. There is not a compelling case to be made that adding more weapons to this scenario will significantly alter the balance, as no side appears close to establishing a dominant hold on the country.

Moreover, outside support could actually worsen the situation. Writing for the New York Times, Max Fisher argues that in Syria, “government and rebel forces are supplied from abroad, which means their arms never run out. They both draw political support from foreign governments who do not feel the war’s costs firsthand, rather than from locals who might otherwise push for peace to end their pain.” He notes how the academic literature has found that “’if you have outside intervention on both sides, duration is significantly greater.’” It is likely that a similar pattern would play out in Libya.

Past experience with arms deliveries in similar circumstances do not provide a compelling history to support a move here. Arms delivered to chosen militias risk being diverted to hostile entities, either through deliberate transfer or in the case of militias losing arms in battle. This happened recently in Syria, with militias armed and trained by the United States surrendering to al-Qaeda-linked groups. Furthermore, during the debate over providing arms to Syrian rebels, an internal U.S. government report found that providing arms to rebel groups is rarely effective.

Despite apparent good intentions to combat extremism and support a fledgling government within Libya, ending the arms embargo will not have the effect that outside parties expect. The inability to control weapons, agree on groups to sponsor, and the lack of a political plan for the weapons to support all make it likely that ending the embargo will serve only to escalate the conflict. There may not be an easy way to end the Libyan conflict, but outside powers should not recklessly take action that will further degrade security. Fortunately, for now, most nations appear to support enforcing the embargo.


Michael Dworman

Michael is an international affairs/national security professional working in Washington, D.C. He focuses on international conflict, terrorism, and crime, along with a regional focus on Russian affairs, where he has spent time living and working. Michael graduated with an MA in Security Studies from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a BA in Political Science from the University of Washington. You can connect with him on Twitter @mikedworman.
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