Libya needs the West’s help

In 2011, swept by the revolutionary tide of the Arab Spring, Libyans vowed to rid themselves of Muammar Gaddafi, the country’s long-standing brutal dictator. Soon, protests would degenerate into gunfights, and then outright civil war.

With the Gaddafi regime threatening indiscriminate reprisals against its own people, the international community decided to act to protect civilians. Under United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973, an international coalition was forged to implement the resolution through military intervention. Led by NATO, and by the United Kingdom and France in particular, the intervention would last for seven months and would ultimately spell the end of the Gaddafi regime with opposition forces on the ground able to defeat regime forces and set in motion a transition to democracy.

Since the conclusion of the civil war and the beginning of the democratic transition, successive Libyan governments have struggled to establish the authority of the state. The principal impediment in establishing state authority has been the continued existence of numerous militias which had fought together against Gaddafi during the civil war. Rather than disband after having achieved the downfall of Gaddafi’s regime, many militias simply remained in their positions. They have often posited that their continued existence is necessary to ensure the success of the revolution.

The Libyan government has attempted to establish its authority by co-opting some of the militias, paying them salaries in exchange for their service in support of the state. Probably the most notable manifestation of this effort is the Libyan Shield Force, an organisation comprising a collection of militias, established by the government in 2012. However, this effort has also failed to establish state authority. The organisation’s constituent militias have pursued their own agendas, separate and contrary to that of the government, and many are now considered terrorists by the Council of Deputies, Libya’s parliament.

The lack of state authority in Libya has produced something resembling a slow motion descent into anarchy. In 2012, the United States’ ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed alongside three of his colleagues in an attack on an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi by Islamist militants. In 2013, militants seized control of several major ports connected to the country’s oil industry, producing an oil crisis that only recently saw some relief. Later in that same year, the then Libyan prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was abducted by a militia, and held for several hours before being released. In 2014, the beginnings of outright conflict emerged between militias primarily aligning themselves with one of two factions, either a nationalist alliance, or an Islamist one. Thus far, fighting has focused principally upon Tripoli and Benghazi. As fighting has intensified, most Western embassies have been closed and diplomats evacuated from the country. The parliament has been forced to leave Tripoli owing to security concerns. It now convenes in the eastern city of Tobruk.

Libya is not without hope, however. Following the conclusion of the civil war, the country’s wartime decision-making body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), passed power to the newly-elected General National Congress (GNC). Over time, the GNC became characterised by infighting and for various reasons was for much of its time unwilling to challenge the power of the militias. The GNC’s mandate expired in June, leading to fresh elections to a new parliament, the Council of Deputies. While turnout dropped compared with previous elections, likely in connection with recent instability, Islamists, who had held sway in the GNC, suffered a significant defeat. In their place, more liberal representatives now hold sway in the new legislature, and they are not afraid to be bold. The new parliament recently voted to disband the militias and called for the United Nations to protect civilians from the violence perpetrated by the militias. This is in marked contrast to the GNC, which was unwilling to take such a bold stand against the power of the militias.

Western nations have, for a considerable length of time now, pursued diplomacy as the sole means to ease tensions and return the democratic transition to a stable trajectory. It is clear now, though, that following the bold stance taken by the new parliament, there is no absence of political leadership pursuing the moderate and democratic path. Rather, Libya is being held hostage by competing forces which prefer the rule of the gun to the rule of law. Democratic politics and the rule of law cannot prevail in Libya unless state authority is established. The new parliament, and the Libyan government, are in no position to establish state authority so long as the militias continue to hold all the cards when it comes to the use of force. Therefore, it falls upon the West to help Libya in the manner only it is able to.

Backed by Western air power, ideally under the auspices of NATO, the new parliament would be able to forge a political strategy to disband the militias. The threat of force alone would act as a strong incentive for the militias to lay down their weapons and pursue their interests through political, rather than violent, means. It is probable that some militias would, at least initially, ignore the threat of force, and in these cases force would need to be employed, so as to ensure that state authority not be undermined.

As these efforts progress, the state would be able to begin to establish its authority throughout the country. With militias dispersing, police forces would be able to return to duty, upholding the rule of law and protecting civilians. Similarly, the military would benefit, enabling it to develop its capability to a point where it would eventually become sufficiently able to challenge the militias itself.

One could envisage that sufficient support could be achieved such that a resolution could be passed in the United Nations (UN) Security Council, thereby broadening the multilateral nature of this effort. Ideally, such a resolution would mandate the presence of UN observers throughout the country to monitor and facilitate peace. Observers could also potentially be joined by peacekeepers if it is deemed necessary in particularly unstable areas of the country.

If the West continues to employ diplomacy as the sole means to resolve the growing instability in Libya, the country’s democratic transition will remain significantly imperilled, with the potential for its complete collapse. There is no doubt that a political solution to the instability in the country is integral to its future, but in this situation political and diplomatic efforts must be supported by efforts to address the lack of state authority. The West and the wider international community must pursue a holistic effort to establish democracy, the rule of law, and state authority in Libya. It is simply not enough to watch from the sidelines – the West must be active and engaged in helping Libya in every way it can. The alternative would be disastrous for Libya.

As an aside, for those who wish to follow events in Libya more closely, I recommend Foreign Policy’s Mohamed Eljarh as a great source for news and analysis on recent events in the country.

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Let’s be rational: Syria is not Iraq

Following further evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria and the ratcheting  up of involvement in the crisis by the US, there has developed a trend to refer back to and in some cases draw parallels with Iraq when discussing the crisis in Syria. Drawing such a conclusion is deeply simplistic, and jeopardous for the people of Syria and the surrounding region.

Principal among the very distinct characteristics of the Syrian crisis is the clear and hugely widespread humanitarian crisis which has left thousands of innocents killed, millions internally displaced, and an increasingly large diaspora of refugees leaving the country, many of whom are living without adequate sustenance or shelter. The UN has made unprecedented calls for humanitarian relief funding, appealing for $5 billion to support UNHCR operations in Syria’s neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. Due to the conflict’s absence of any prospect of conclusion, and the long-term post-conflict humanitarian implications of the situation, this cost will inevitably rise in the future, while at the same time current appeals are failing to be met by the international community.

Alongside the humanitarian crisis is the origin and spirit of the conflict. The dawn of the revolution was not marked by Islamist militant attacks, but instead by peaceful protests hot on the heels of the Arab Spring. The protests varied in objective, but were invariably concerned with the desire for greater government transparency and electoral democracy. Dumbstruck, the regime defaulted to the hard handed approach of its previous leader, Hafez al-Assad, crushing protests with excessive force, resulting in many deaths. As tensions between the regime and protesters flared further, protesters began arming themselves, at first to protect demonstrations from deadly police action, but rapidly transitioning to infantry-based small arms skirmishes, gradually burgeoning into the conflict we are witnessing today. While protesters having to resort to armed conflict is a disheartening process to observe, the regime’s severe and utterly disproportionate response to protests was inexcusable and betrayed fundamental human rights, anchoring the foundations of the rebellion firmly in the aspiration of liberal democracy and human rights.

Significantly, the Syrian conflict is multifarious. It is all too easy, especially in the world of relentless headlines, to harbour a one-dimensional facile perspective of the situation in Syria. There is no single aspect of the conflict from which it is possible to extrapolate an accurate and succinct generalisation. There are genuine freedom fighters, the preponderant group of which is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with a real, albeit weak, command structure and a severe lack of supplies. The absence of steady supply lines for the FSA both in terms of food as well as weaponry and ammunition has made it possible for the better-resourced anti-regime foreign and domestic jihadists to amass themselves a higher and more prolific profile than secular freedom fighters, as well as de facto governmental control over areas such as Ar-Raqqah. Extreme groups such as these purportedly receive funding from regional actors such as Iran, with the recent entrance of the militant Lebanese-based Hezbollah into the conflict in support of the regime being a visible product of Iranian funding. Additionally, the north of Syria has fallen under some form of Kurdish control, seemingly seeking to establish a Syrian Kurdistan similar to the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region. Other regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided meager assistance to opposition forces. It could even be said that there is a lack of clarity when it comes to the motives behind the regime’s staunch opposition to change – while it is true that the regime is mostly made up of a minority, the Alawites, and that there is a fear of reprisals against the Alawites if the regime were to fall,  it could be argued that Bashar Al-Assad’s determination to cling to power stems from an unwillingness to release dictatorial power first and foremost before any concerns for the minority group to which he belongs.

With these things taken into account, it would be wrong to bind cases of notoriety (such as the cruel implementation of Sharia law, or the cannibalistic rebel) to the reticent majority of the population, or take such notorious cases to be a perfect reflection of all armed rebels. Equally, these things do not justify any single automatic course of action by the West. What is evident however is that for any argument to be levelled either for or against intervention of any sort there must be substantial deliberation within the context of the circumstances on the ground in Syria, and also be approached with the persistent undercurrent of the desire to relieve humanitarian strife.

Ultimately, there is an imperative for any Western solution to the Syrian crisis to be strategically multi-pronged, involving both regional players as well as the Syrian people. Relying purely on diplomacy, or purely on varying degrees of intervention such as arming the rebels, will not produce rounded results encompassing broad interests and concerns, crucial for long-term stability. Sadly, the last two years of pure diplomacy have been ineffectual, failing the millions of Syrians on the ground who are suffering every day in direct violation of both the spirit and text of the United Nations Charter. Undoubtedly, diplomacy is a pivotal facet of any solution, and we must continue to pursue it as one channel of resolution, but it must not be pursued in a vacuum. The crisis in Syria is set to continue to intensify, further plunging not just the country but the wider Middle East and North Africa region into a huge schism from which relief is uncertain. The fragile conditions of nearby states such as Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, as well as the more quiescent Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan could, in the escalating climate, very easily erupt into varying degrees of violence as a result of spillovers from the Syrian conflict. Lebanon and Iraq are already experiencing an insidious growth in violence.

There is no denying that the Iraq war has cast a lengthy and justified shadow over Western intervention, something which David Cameron has explicitly recognised. However, rather than be blinded by intransigence, we should look back at the failures of Iraq and identify the many areas in which we can improve our handling of delicate situations such as that presented to us in Syria. What we must recognise is that there is a principled obligation for states to look after one another – for the international community to safeguard human rights and build a more stable world. Isolationism, as some Western commentators appear to advocate following Iraq, serves the interests of precious few. Instability, anywhere in the world, assists few and harms many.

In conclusion, with situations like Syria, rather than sit on the sidelines and hope that the situation resolves itself, we have a responsibility to be active in a proportional, pragmatic and bespoke manner.