Talks between major international powers in Vienna on May 16 saw Libya’s new Government of National Accord (GNA) officially request that the United Nations exempt it from an arms embargo to allow the government’s forces to receive weapons and training. The United States and other countries support the proposal and view the stabilization of Libya and eradication of the Islamic State (ISIS) there as a critical short-term goal. There are, however, a number of obstacles for the GNA. Most critically, Russia has hinted it will not support the exemption until a rival Libyan government, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), votes to recognize the GNA. Persistent disagreements between these alternative leaderships and an array of armed groups point to a long road ahead to stability.
The impact of Libya’s fragility on the wider region continues to be a major concern. Attendees at the Vienna meeting focused on migration, with Libya being a key transit point for Europe-bound migrants, in addition to the persistent and growing threat of ISIS. While political conversations continue on the continent and abroad, Libya’s security and political environment appears to be no closer to improving, with ISIS growing in strength while the bickering and fragmentation continue.
An arms deal is seen as critical to efforts to stabilize Libya. The GNA’s resources are limited; while it has the support of some of the country’s many armed groups, it requires foreign support to provide a strategic advantage in the fight against ISIS. The Russian motivation for holding up the deal remains balancing against the power of the West, specifically the US, in Libya. Russia has formed close relations with Egypt, which supports General Khalifa Haftar, the powerful head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) directed by the HoR. Absent some other concession to its interests, Moscow is unlikely to agree to change its opinion while these parties remain at odds.
If the arms exemption does not proceed, there is a strong possibility that the US and other Western powers may seek to transfer weapons to Libya unilaterally. A number of countries are already involved in special forces operations in Libya, including the US, UK, and Italy, and could consider supporting the GNA without UN oversight. Should this transpire, tensions would naturally increase. Russia would likely seek to prop up the HoR in the east with the support of Egypt. This would exacerbate conflict between armed groups and produce new spaces for ISIS to exploit. The US military has indicated it is carefully weighing its options given concerns that new arms could destabilize the country further or fall into the hands of ISIS. This concern has been echoed by Libyan politicians and diplomats.
Nonetheless, building broad-based support behind the GNA will not be easy. As of writing, there are three rival governments in Libya. In addition to the GNA and HoR is the Muslim Brotherhood-backed General National Congress (GNC). It has lost much of its domestic support with the ascension of the GNA, but remains in play. There are also other powerful city-based and ethnic groups that are well-armed and have remained only partially loyal to one government or the other.
The HoR, which, prior to the GNA’s arrival in Tripoli in early 2016, had been the internationally recognized government, remains split along various tribal and political lines in its position towards the new administration. A primary point of contention remains the position of Haftar. The December 2015 Skhirat Agreement, which ushered in the GNA, provides for the military forces of the new government to fall under the control of a Libyan presidency council, with Haftar essentially seconded to the new institution.
Meanwhile, hundreds of ISIS fighters from Iraq and Syria have traveled to the Sirte region since 2015 to bolster defenses and prepare for what is seen as an inevitable campaign against the extremist group, whether by Libyan forces alone or with the support of international partners.
In recent months, ISIS has continued to harass rival armed militia in central Libya. In early 2016, it has launched large assaults along the coast and east towards critical oil export and processing centers. More recently, the group has attacked west toward Misrata, and captured the town of Abu Grein in early May, before being pushed out again in recent days.
ISIS leadership has likely calculated that forcing rival armed groups into confrontations could bring them closer to conflict with one another—as they have in Syria—which would be an ideal scenario as far as it is concerned. It appears this tactic may already be working. In light of recent attacks and the GNA’s ascension, the three governments have created independent “operations rooms” that have all announced plans to launch uncoordinated assaults on Sirte. These operation rooms have coincided with confirmed and alleged military buildups east and west of Sirte.
In the east, Haftar has reportedly called on Sudanese and Chadian militias to support his primary force in preparing for an assault on ISIS in Sirte. However, the resources and position available to him seem inadequate. Haftar’s LNA remains focused on securing Benghazi and laying siege to Derna further east. It is also unclear if the Petroleum Facilities Guard led by Ibrahim Jadhran, a vocal anti-Haftar figure, is willing to allow LNA forces access to areas in the oil processing crescent around Ajdabiya.
LNA forces moving further inland have been met by rival forces. In early May, they reportedly clashed with Misrata-based militias, at least nominally loyal to the GNA, in the Zillah region. In the west, these Misrata militias have launched counterattacks against ISIS operations around Abu Grein. The campaign against ISIS here appears to be better prepared than others, but, with disunity between the GNA and GNC and a split in support for the GNA among the militias, the outcome is not clear cut.
It is obvious that Libya is still far from much-needed unity, particularly among its two primary rival governments, the GNA and HoR. Haftar’s buy-in is also critical for the success of any stabilizing mission. Without it, unified international support and the partial lifting of the arms embargo is less likely. The strong backing of a single political goal is critical if ISIS is to be eliminated and progress towards unifying and stabilizing Libya can be realized.
[Ed. note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the GNA seeking the lifting of the arms embargo, rather than an exemption from it].