Arming Libya: A Calculated Risk
By: Anthony Bell
Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States and other international powers would ease the United Nations arms embargo on Libya as part of an effort to strengthen the country’s fragile unity government in its fight against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. Secretary Kerry’s announcement has since been greeted by skepticism by members of Congress and in the media, critical that the United States would allow arms to flow into a warzone beset by rival governments, armed factions and extremist groups vying for power. While Libya continues to be awash with weapons five years after the revolution that overthrew Muammar Qaddafi, subsequent years of fighting have left many sides short of ammunition and other supplies. There is a need to allow the forces fighting the Islamic State’s expansion in Libya to have access to the means to prosecute the fight. The move is, however, a calculated risk that may inflame the civil war tearing the country apart.
The easing of the UN arms embargo will allow the Government of National Accord (GNA), the newly established unity government backed by the United States and other powers, to legally transfer arms into the country (likely by purchases on the international market) pending a review and affirmative decision by the UN Sanctions Committee. Despite concerns about U.S. arms sales to Libya, direct U.S. sales are a remote prospect. The GNA will likely seek to purchase Soviet-bloc weaponry, largely crew-served heavy weapons and small arms which are commonly wielded by Libyan militias and widely available on the international arms market, rather than the sophisticated weapons systems sold by the United States. Rather than a supplier, the U.S. role will be limited to approving arms sales as a member of the UN Sanctions Committee.
While the United States is likely to take an indirect role in easing the embargo, allowing arms transfers to Libya does entail significant risks. The distribution of miniature arsenals among dozens of militias and other armed groups after the fall of Qaddafi only served to further fragment the country’s already shattered political landscape. Since the civil war began in 2014, many factions have undoubtedly received war materiel surreptitiously from friendly states and through black market dealers in violation of the arms embargo. Yet the prospect of allowing Libyans to leverage their country’s vast cash reserves in the international arms marketplace risks reigniting a conflict that is still barely squelched. The GNA was only formed in December 2015 after more than a year of UN-led negotiations to end the civil war. It is incredibly weak, disorganized, and has yet to gain the full support of the other two rival governments it was intended to absorb. A number of key factions remain outside of the GNA, notably the armed forces in eastern Libya under General Khalifa Haftar, who has said he and the eastern-based parliament that backs him will not join the GNA until it disbands the militias fighting on its behalf.
Moreover, the prospect of gaining support from the United States and Europe has sparked a bandwagon among rival groups seeking to lead the fight the Islamic State. These groups recently launched an offensive against the Islamic State-controlled city of Sirte in early June which has made decent progress. Over the long-term, however, rooting out the groups’ entrenched networks in Sirte and across the country will pose a serious challenge. While most Libyan factions are vehemently opposed to the Islamic State, they largely view one another as their primary threat and the terrorist group as a peripheral threat—a dynamic that allowed the Islamic State to expand in the first place.
U.S. officials must be cautious when estimating the capabilities of the GNA and not be fooled into thinking they can somehow keep close track of weapons once they arrive in Libya. The GNA barely has offices in Tripoli; putting a complex inventory monitoring program into place is simply unrealistic. The same can be said about demanding the militias fighting on the GNA’s behalf will somehow overnight—if even ever—be held accountable to same standards of civilian control over the military. The most practical approach to mitigating the risks of easing the embargo is limiting the quantity and capabilities of arms to reasonable levels needed for the fight against the Islamic State and monitoring for intelligence indicators that arms are not reaching the forces on the frontline, or are otherwise being diverted or hoarded. Furthermore, steps should be taken to clampdown the illicit flows of weapons into Libya. The decision by the United Nations Security Council in mid-June to expand the mandate of the European Union naval mission off Libya’s shores from interdicting human trafficking vessels to illegal arms shipments is a welcome step. More can be done including pressuring Libya’s neighbors and other international actors to halt the support they channel to various factions.
Given the weakness of Libya’s new government and the simmering rivalries that exist between the different armed factions, loosening the UN arms embargo on Libya is a calculated risk, but it is a risk worth taking. Recognizing the Islamic State in Libya must be defeated, the best way to accomplish this short of deploying U.S. and European combat troops on the ground is to enable Libyans to tackle the group themselves.