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Will Libya survive as a state?

The chances of Libya surviving as a unified state, even nominally, appear very slim indeed

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

The way things are looking at the moment, the chances of Libya surviving as a unified state, even nominally, are very slim indeed. Even as the BBC is reporting on the offensive by Libyan forces against the ISIS stronghold in Sirte, the defining conflict in the country is not the one against the foreign group.

Rather, the main conflict in the country is between two competing governments. One, the so-called Government of National Accord in Tripoli is sustained with the help of Libya Dawn, an Islamist group formed out of the uprising against Gaddafi and which includes former al-Qaeda members. This is the government backed the West, and the state authority nominally recognized by the UN.

The other, is based in the eastern town of Tobruk, where the democratically elected House of Representatives has resettled after they were pushed out of Tripoli by fighting between militias. They have become allies of the rebel General Haftar and his armed forces, successors to the Libyan army.

General Haftar controls most of the country’s oil resources and has far superior military power. He is also backed by Russia, who helped them establish a Central Bank to rival that in Tripoli, as he busily goes about building a parallel state in the East.

In this way, Libya has become a proxy battle ground in Putin’s new Cold War in a way that is much more dangerous than even Syria. In Syria, the Obama administration and their Western allies have been sufficiently hands-off to allow Putin to intervene directly with relatively little concern over direct confrontation between Russian and Western forces. The West backed non-ISIS rebel groups, but did not send fighting forces on the ground. And the air-strikes have been targeted exclusively in ISIS-held territory.

The way to minimize casualties now may well be to abandon the idea of a unified Libya altogether, and to work as quickly as possible towards a formalized division

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

By contrast, in Libya Western special forces are already on the ground working with the Government of National Accord against ISIS, and there are further plans for a few thousand regular troops from EU countries to be deployed in that fight. Any direct involvement by Russia may well result in the deaths of NATO personnel, which would be the largest international incident since the end of the old Cold War.

On the assumption that not even Putin is crazy enough to risk that scenario – and the way in which Putin managed to keep a lid on the situation in Syria when Turkey shot down one of their fighter planes suggests very strongly that he is not – the most likely scenario for Libya is that after ISIS is dealt with the major background conflict will likely stall, and we will end up with the sort of awkward frozen conflict that we have in eastern Ukraine.

The West is unlikely to push too strongly for the re-unification of the country if it means running into Putin, and neither would Putin press too hard for his side to take over. Indeed, the evidence is that Putin is more than happy to just leave situations like this unresolved and a constant thorn in the side of the West.

The best case scenario

In the best case scenario, the two sides in the conflict would find a way to negotiate a formal division of the country between them, if they managed to keep their respective backers out of the loop for long enough so that they do not intervene to scupper such a deal. What is more likely is that we will have a fragile and tense separation that will deepen over years and decades with occasional bloodshed, like we have had in Korea.

The way to minimize casualties now may well be to abandon the idea of a unified Libya altogether, and to work as quickly as possible towards a formalized division.
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Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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