The United Nations is walking a tightrope in Libya. Last week, the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the latest non-state actor to emerge in the current chaos. Because of this threat, pressure is mounting on the UN to relax a four-year-old international arms embargo to allow weapons to be delivered to the Libyan military to fight the group.
This would be a terrible move: It almost certainly would scuttle ongoing talks brokered by Bernardino Leon, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Libya; dash any hope of a peaceful solution; and create fertile ground for jihadi groups to flourish.
Libya is fragmented between a parliament elected in June 2014, based in the eastern coastal town of Tobruk, and the previous one in Tripoli, each with its associated government and militia forces. There is no Libyan military worthy of the name.
What calls itself the Libyan National Army, loyal to the Tobruk parliament and headed by Khalifa Haftar, a former army general who in early 2014 announced his ambition to stage a coup against the then-unified government, is little more than a coalition of militias just as one finds on the other side.
In this chaos, Islamist militant groups have thrived. Some, like Ansar al-Sharia, were born from the revolutionary groups that took up arms in 2011, received NATO backing and have further radicalised since.
Others, like ISIL’s three Libyan branches, are a newer and partly imported phenomenon that in recent months have drawn recruits in towns such as Sirte and Nawfiliya from pre-existing groups like Ansar al-Sharia and former Gaddafi loyalists. Fighting over the past year has fed them. A confusing fog of war and wilful disinformation by Libya’s two main adversaries have not helped either.
On the Tobruk side, leaders like Haftar make no distinction between Libya Dawn, the coalition of militias associated with the Tripoli-based government, and ISIL. Conversely, on the Tripoli side some paint both the Tobruk government and ISIL as Gaddafi loyalists, and see ISIL as a convenient invention.
As these two sides fight each other, they largely ignore ISIL, which considers all factions as apostates and has called for their destruction. An ISIL operative told Crisis Group by telephone, referring to the fighting between pro-Tobruk and pro-Tripoli forces in Benghazi, that “as long as the fight in Benghazi continues, we will flourish”.
The problem with arming Haftar in particular is that he demonstrated his broad definition of extremism last month by bombing Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport, which is used for civilian flights, as part of his so-called counterterrorism campaign.
That attack, which occurred just as UN-brokered talks were taking place in Morocco, was resolutely condemned by the UN as a violation of a UN-negotiated ceasefire, and it underscored Haftar’s destructive spoiler role.
The UN talks offer the best hope of ending the country’s strife. Inclusively based on the full range of Libya’s political spectrum – Islamists, yes; hardliners, yes; but violent jihadis, no – they envision the creation of a national unity government capable of restoring stability.
Pouring more weapons into this conflict won’t help end it. Not only would the UN be unable to control where or against whom, the arms whose transfer it approves will be used, it will equally fail in determining in whose hands they end up.
There is already evidence to suggest that weapons previously provided (illegally) to the Libyan National Army by its foreign sponsors have ended up on the open market, where anyone, including jihadis, can purchase them.
It is true that the arms embargo has not stopped the flow of weapons. A UN Panel of Experts has found that large quantities of weapons have flowed into Libya from the region and beyond; allegations of substantial deliveries over the last year for the Tobruk camp from Egypt and the UAE, and for the Tripoli camp from Qatar, Sudan and Turkey, are frequently made. But the embargo is not irrelevant.
Fanning the flames
First, it probably reduces weapons flows by making the supply of some types of heavy weaponry more difficult. More importantly, it signals that the international community supports a negotiated peace, not just one side in the conflict.
In sum, a shift in the Security Council’s position would encourage the proliferation of weapons across Libya and beyond, aid the advance of ISIL and other radical groups that feed on chaos and violence, and thus fan the flames of a conflict the UN is trying to douse.
Once a national unity government is formed, that broadly representative body should make it clear that those who show no interest in peace, including ISIL and like-minded groups, will face a serious and concerted Libyan response, fully supported by the international community.
Until then, Security Council members should keep the arms embargo in place, do everything possible to prevent the supply of weapons to either side and encourage a political solution to the conflict.
Claudia Gazzini is senior Libya analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Issandr El Amrani is North Africa project director at the International Crisis Group.