Last year, Libyan militias supported by U.S. special forces fought to oust the local Islamic State affiliate from the city of Sirte. After a grinding battle, the group was expelled from its primary stronghold in December. Success in Sirte never guaranteed long-term success. Competing governments and militias continue to battle for control, leaving gaping holes that will be inevitably exploited by the Islamic State to re-establish an operational presence in the country.
After the United States bombed a camp of displaced fighters, it announced an end to the Libyan mission. The underlying conditions for the rise of the Islamic State remain and may already be regrouping. As I wrote last year, the Islamic State was able to develop a stronghold based on a security vacuum caused by militias competing for power. While a coalition was developed for the Islamic State fight, it notably did not include perhaps the most powerful militia in the country, led by Khalifa Haftar, and instead featured militias originating from Misrata.
Groups continue to battle. They also clash with myriad other militias across Libya, including groups that are Islamist in nature. The dueling militias compete in an environment where three governments nominally hold power. Haftar’s army backs a government that won elections in 2014 based in Tobruk. But, pro-Islamist groups, including parts of the powerful Libya Dawn militia, refused to accept the results and established a competing government in Tripoli. There is a third government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), that is backed by the United Nations, United States, and other western powers. It is unelected and has questionable public support.
The competing factions make it nearly impossible to create a stable security environment. Already, reports indicate the Islamic State militants are regrouping in the vast southern areas of Libya. Without a coordinated and effective policy to counter the group, it will not take long for the Islamic State to reassert itself.
Unfortunately, the immediate future looks grim for any type of reconciliation. Peace negotiations broke down between Haftar and the head of the GNA, Fayez Al-Sarraj, earlier this year. The only progress made was an agreement to hold parliamentary elections in 2018. Furthermore, given that other powerful factions were not included in the negotiations, it remains to be seen if they would accept election results.
Writing for War on the Rocks, S.M. Carlson argues that outside powers must cooperate to unify support of a single government in Libya. The United States backs the GNA; Russia is intensifying its support of Haftar; and multiple other governments support a variety of militias in the country. Unifying behind a single Libyan entity would certainly provide stability to a nascent government.
The likelihood that external powers will cooperate on the Libya issues is marginal. Russia considers counterterrorism a top priority. As I wrote regarding Russia’s conduct in Syria, it is much more interested in countering U.S. influence in the Middle East. Anything that looks like a pro-West stronghold will be a non-starter in negotiations with Russia.
As for the United States, barring a shocking swing in popularity, the GNA is likely to fare poorly in elections. Will the United States be willing to forego support for a government that it worked hard to establish and support another victor? Countries that are often aligned with the United States are on opposing sides in Libya. Egypt, a U.S. ally in many cases, has chosen to back Haftar. While Italy, at least verbally, supported a competing militia in clashes against his forces.
More importantly, internal power dynamics will determine the fate of Libya. That future appears equally grim. Haftar is vehemently anti-Islamist, making it unlikely that there can be any cooperation between his factions and those like Libya Dawn. Many groups chose to ignore the election results in 2014 and that may be the case again. These militias have fought for years and could find giving up power to other groups now unacceptable.
Given the power dynamics, both inside the country and among international powers, the situation in Libya is unlikely to improve in the immediate future. Clashes and instability place the country in a perilous situation. The Islamic State will exploit it where possible. With no grand solution in sight, the United States and other countries must work with all factions inside Libya to pinpoint possible Islamic State advances and eliminate them at their nascent stages, while simultaneously supporting an inclusive and locally sensitive political process when possible.