The death of three French soldiers whose plane was shot down in Benghazi last week has renewed reflection on international intervention in Libya (1). In 2011, with hopes of facilitating a democratic transformation, Western powers under the patronage of NATO deposed the former Prime Minister of Libya, Moammar Gaddafi, who rebels later captured and killed. Since Gaddafi’s fall from power, civil war between rival factions has ravaged the country. The Islamic State –– the most prominent extremist group to occupy Libya –– has exploited the power vacuum that persists and established strongholds throughout the country, including one in the coastal city Sirte (2). In a recent turn of events, reports on July 25 announced that armed forces for the UN-backed Libyan government based in Tripoli seized control of security headquarters in Sirte, with the intention of finally wresting control of the city from ISIL (3).
As UN-recognized forces begin to advance upon an ISIL stronghold, members of the international community, such as France, find themselves forced to answer uncomfortable questions regarding their possible role in an advance, like the one ongoing in Sirte. For France, there are two particularly important issues the country must address: First, its clandestine support for rival factions that the UN does not recognize, and second, the growing insistence that Western powers not intervene in Libya’s affairs. News reports have revealed that the French special forces killed in Benghazi last week were embedded in an armed Libyan faction, led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar –– a rival of the Tripoli government, which the UN and, as a consequence, France exclusively endorse (4). Outraged by this support, Libya’s UN-backed government announced that France’s presence in the country was an affront to its sovereignty –– a sentiment which Islamists and African leaders have echoed (5).
On July 26, at an Arab League summit in Mauritania, Egypt’s Prime Minister Sherif Ismail expressed his frustration with foreign intervention, particularly its role in the rise of the Islamic State and the radicalization of young people. “Foreign intervention in Arab affairs is one of the major reasons for the current crisis, therefore we should work together to cement our domestic fronts in order to be able to stand up to these foreign interventions,” Ismail said (6).
In the wake of this revelation, Libya’s unity government has summoned the French ambassador, Antoine Sivan. Although Sivan has been in Tunisia for security reasons, he is expected to arrive in Libya any day in response to the summons. In the interim, Sivan has reaffirmed France’s support for the unity government and encouraged Libyan forces to come together in the fight against violent extremism (7). Despite the ambassador’s diplomatic response, this summons, which reinforces Tripoli’s insistence that France respect Libya’s sovereignty and condemns France’s support for a rival force, represents a certain contradiction from the unity government, which has willingly welcomed Western support in the fight against extremist groups.
There are an estimated 2,000 to 5,000 Islamic State fighters currently occupying Libya. From intelligence to combat, Western powers –– such as France, the United States, and the United Kingdom –– have willingly lent their support to Libya’s campaign against the Islamic State. In particular, about two dozen U.S. Special Operations have been stationed in eastern and western Libya since late 2015 (8). Even Mohamed Taher Siyala, the government’s foreign minister, has said that Libyan forces fighting the offensive to retake Sirte must rely on foreign military advisers in Libya for intelligence and logistics assistance (9). Although Siyala has declined to name the countries that have provided these foreign advisers, the Middle East Eye news site, from interviews with government militiamen, has confirmed that British soldiers have provided intelligence, logistical, and combat assistance in the ongoing battle to remove the jihadist presence from Sirte (10).
Rather than decrying foreign intervention, the Misrata Brigades, a force loyal to the Libyan government, has complained of insufficient support from the international community (11). The UN Security Council’s arms embargo against Libya is one cited example of inadequate assistance from the international community. The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Libya, Martin Kobler, has specifically stressed Libya’s need for modern weapons obtained legally, rather than the illegal ones currently smuggled into the country, and has emphasized the role the UN must take to ensure arms land in the right hands (12). The United States, among other world powers, has indicated its readiness to supply the Libyan government with the arms needed to successfully combat the Islamic State. However, given the fractured nature of control in Libya, the United States is extremely hesitant to even partially lift the arms embargo in a country of six million people with some 20 million arms (13). At a Vienna meeting in May, the permanent UN Security Council members, including the U.S., and more than 15 other states present indicated their readiness to meet the government forces’ requests for equipment and training; however, the states decided that the overall arms embargo would remain enforced (14).
Although the international community may not provide Libyan forces with modern arms, it is still focused on efforts to combat the trade of illegal arms. In June, the UN Security Council authorized Operation Sophia. Operation Sophia is an EU naval mission that patrols the Mediterranean surrounding Libya’s coast to intercept ships suspected of transporting weapons. This effort to insulate Libya’s Mediterranean border from the penetration of illegal arms is part of the international community’s larger effort to strengthen the authority of the UN-backed government (15). However well-intentioned the international community might be, Amnesty International has voiced concern that closer coordination with the Libyan government threatens to fuel the indefinite detention and abuse of thousands of refugees and migrants (16). Despite an estimated 3,000 people to have died or gone missing, this year, while crossing the Mediterranean, refugees told Doctors Without Borders, a medical charity, that they would rather “die at sea” than return to Libya, where torture and other violence would likely await (17). Before any Western power proceeds in support of the Libyan government, it must seek to ensure the protection of human rights in the country. If the international community proceeds, without such guarantees, any hope of stability and peace must be realistically dismissed.
(1) "Libya Attack: French Soldiers Die in Helicopter Crash." BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation, 20 July 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(2) Scarborough, Rowan. "CIA Caught Off Guard by Islamic State’s Rise in Post-Moammar Gadhafi Libya." Washington Times. The Washington Times, 3 July 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(3) El-Ghobashy, Tamer. "Libyan Forces Advance in Islamic State-Held City." WSJ. News Corp, 25 July 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(5) "Libya Attack: French Soldiers Die in Helicopter Crash." BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation, 20 July 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(6) "Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya Top Arab League Summit Agenda." Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera Media Network, 26 July 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(7) Press, Angela Charlton Associated. "French Ambassador to Libya Summoned Over Military Presence." ABC News. ABC News Network, 24 July 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(8) McAuley, James. "France Says 3 Soldiers Were Killed During Mission in Libya." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 20 July 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(9) Ryan, Missy. "In a Pivotal Battle, Libyan Forces Laying Siege to Islamic State in Sirte, Official Says." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 20 July 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(10) Dettmer, Jamie. "Protests Over Western Troops Threaten Libyan 'Unity' Government." VOA. Broadcasting Board of Governors, 25 July 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(11) El-Ghobashy, Tamer. "Libyan Forces Advance in Islamic State-Held City." WSJ. News Corp, 25 July 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(12) Nichols, Michelle. "U.N. Approves High Seas Crackdown on Libya Arms Smuggling." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 14 June 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(13) "UN Authorises EU Naval Operation to Enforce Libya Arms Embargo." Middle East Eye. M.E.E. Ltd., 14 June 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(14) Wintour, Patrick. "World Powers Prepared to Arm UN-Backed Libyan Government." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 16 May 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(15) "UN Authorises EU Naval Operation to Enforce Libya Arms Embargo." Middle East Eye. M.E.E. Ltd., 14 June 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(17) Ghoneim, Natasha. "Refugees: Better to 'Die at Sea' Than Return to Libya." Al Jazeera English. Al Jazeera Media Network, 18 July 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
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