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Libya: Is Political Vacuum Allowing ISIS To Regroup?

By Charles Bybelezer | The Media Line

October 8, 2017

Libyans wave their national flag during a demonstration in Tripoli's Martyrs' Square against French military intervention in Libya and General Khalifa Haftar, who is aligned with the Tobruk-based authorities, on August 5, 2016
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Some experts believe that Libya’s political stalemate may be irreconcilable in the short-term, a reality that has already negatively impacted global security

Delegations from Libya’s competing political blocs renewed power-sharing talks this month in Tunis, focusing on a prospective deal that calls for drafting a new constitution, to be put before a referendum, with the goal of paving the way for elections within a year.

Libya descended into chaos following the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that deposed longtime dictator Moammar Qaddafi. An ensuing civil war has left the country divided between two main rival bodies, the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord, which is located in the capital Tripoli and led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, which has the backing of military strongman Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army.

“There is a very stark contrast in the interests of the parties which date back to Libya’s independence,” according to Yehudit Ronen, a Professor at Israel’s Bar Ilan University and an expert in the Middle East, with an emphasis on Libya. “This applies to the political, economic and military spheres as well as in terms of ideology and historical interpretation,” she conveyed to The Media Line.

The balance of power in Libya used to reside in the east—in the form of a monarchy—until Qaddafi’s coup in 1969. This caused “a serious blow” in Prof. Ronen’s words, “and there remains strong grievances and a wish by many to restore the former conditions [and power structure].”

Since 2011, the path towards political reconciliation has thus been marred by setback after setback, exacerbated by an ongoing conflict between the Islamist-dominated Libya Dawn militia, which holds the capital, and Khalifa’s forces in the east; this, on the backdrop of a contested Supreme Court ruling which nullified the authority of the democratically- elected parliament in Tobruk.

The resulting fighting has killed some 5,000 people and left a half million more homeless.

Today, Prof. Ronen believes that the major player in Libya is Hafter, who more than anyone else has shaped events since the revolution with the support of Russia and other regional powers such as neighboring Egypt. “Therefore, he cannot be ignored,” she explained, “and every strategic move needs to be coordinated with him; this, despite the fact that the international community recognizes the Tripoli government, which has been less effective [at projecting its influence].”

Prof. Ronen stressed repeatedly the volatility of the situation and attributed the inability to bridge the two sides to an interplay of complex multiple factors.

One of them is competition over Libya’s vast oil fields—essentially the country’s singular source of income—which mainly reside in the east. Qaddafi failure to reform the economy and to develop new industries during his rule, a reality that is fueling the ongoing east-west divide.

There is also the chaotic south of the country, which for the most part is lawless, a scenario which has contributed to the mass migration of Libyans from the area to Europe. This, in turn, has created a crisis of monumental proportions across the EU, evidencing the direct connection between Libya’s disintegration and global instability.

Additionally, Libya’s south has become a breeding ground for numerous militia and terrorist groups, which themselves control swaths of land and whose loyalties are split between the main factions. In this respect, the political vacuum risks allowing the Islamic State to regain a foothold in the country, amid heavy losses in Iraq and Syria.

Last week, the head of Libya’s Public Prosecutor’s Office, Siddiq al-Soor, revealed that ISIS was operating through “a desert army” located southeast of its former stronghold of Sirte. U.S. forces have conducted multiple airstrikes in the region over the past week, according to AFRICOM, which oversees American military operations on the continent, which have killed dozens of ISIS fighters.

According to Dr. Oded Eran, a Senior Research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, “if one looks for territories that are weakly controlled, Libya is a prime example.

“The ability of ISIS to regroup,” he explained to The Media Line, “depends on the strength—or lack thereof—of the central government there, and the current weakness is being exploited.

“But one must also remember,” Dr. Eran continued, “that even in Iraq and Syria, where there used to exist relatively stable central governments, ISIS nevertheless was able to make inroads in remote areas.”

Lastly, he highlighted Libya’s proximity to Europe as a reason ISIS would eye the country, “as this facilitates coordination between any central body and cells abroad.” On the flip side, Dr. Eran noted, “this also allows western counter-forces to more easily take action against the group.”

The crisis in Libya shows no signs of abating. “Not one of the agreements to end the conflict has so far been implemented,” Prof. Ronen concluded, “so it appears as though the nation will remain mired in a very difficult period, even if some form of understandings are reached.”

It is a reality that bodes poorly for the overall future of the country and its citizens, the ramifications of which having already produced worldwide security repercussions.

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