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Between 250 to 300 armed militias, two governments – one in Tobruk and one in Tripoli –, two Parliaments/Congresses, a caliphate in Derna and one in-the-making in Sirte, islamic radical groups scattered across the country, tribal wars like the one between Misrata and Zintan, the south of the country in the hands of the Tebou or the Tuareg, Al Qaeda roaming along the southern borders with Niger and Algeria, oil production having been brought to a halt, armed conflicts everywhere, arms and human trafficking that have become one of the main sources of income. This is the picture of Libya today. A lawless nation where the strongest prevail over the weak and where no authority is capable of enforcing any rule of law. The boundaries between criminals, terrorists or clan militias have progressively faded into an all-out conflict in a “somalized” and disintegrated country.

Amid this chaos, the United Nations' attempt, lead by Spaniard Bernardino Leon, doesn't have the slightest chance of success. The parties have been summoned in Geneva, Morocco has tried to mediate and so has the African Union, with the creation of an International Contact Group for Libya, but it is virtually impossible to put around the same table all of the actors that can have an impact on what happens on the ground. The armed souls of the Libyan disaster are at war against each other. This implies that any deal that could potentially be brokered by the UN would have a hard time being applied. And this would happen regardless of the vetoes that still block the start of any constructive dialogue between the parties.

The “legitimate” government

As a matter of fact, there are two armies on the field today in Libya, The first one is the “legitimate” one lead by the internationally recognized government based in Tobruk. It comprises those militias – who label themselves as the Libyan National Army – whose allegiance goes to the executive lead by PM Abdullah al Thani. These troops are under the command of General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, a man with a shady past who first worked for Muammar Gaddafi and then fled into exile abroad. The legitimate Parliament in Tobruk has appointed Haftar the Supreme Commander of their army. Among his most efficient units is the Al Saiqa (Lightning) Brigade, made up of elite troops. The LNA can also count on the use of the Benina airport near Benghazi, where his aviation is based following an agreement with a local powerful tribal leader.

Khalifa Belqasim Haftar appeared on the Libyan military scene in June 2014 during the so-called “Operation Dignity”, an offensive aimed at ousting islamic militias from Benghazi. Since then his political and military role has grown. Haftar can now count on the Egyptian military support, Saudi funding and the more or less occult aerial support of the United Arab Emirates. And since the institutions in Tobruk are considered immune from radical islamic infiltrations, Haftar and his Parliament also benefit from international support, with the United States in the forefront – the Libyan general has lived in exile in the US for years before resurfacing, well-armed, in Libya with the likely support of the CIA – followed by Russia.

On Libyan soil, the Tobruk government is helped by the Military Revolutionary Council in Zintan, that can count on around 20 tribal militias in the area of the Nafusa mountains. The support from Zintan is inversely proportional to the in-fighting between Zintan and Misrata. Other units supporting Haftar used to be the Al-Qaqa and Al-Sawaq Brigades whom, before being defeated, used to control Tripoli's international airport on behalf of Zintan.

khalifa belqasim haftar
Khalifa Belqasim Haftar

And the one in Tripoli

On the opposite front there is another government in Tripoli, another Prime Minister, Omar al Hassi, another Parliament, called General National Congress, and another army lead by the Revolutionary Brigades from Misrata – estimated in around 40 thousand men and with over 800 tanks seized following Gaddafi's downfall – and other local islamic militias. Behind this fundamentally islamic-centered coalition that in August 2014 took over Tripoli and most of Tripolitania stand Turkey and Qatar.

If the entire Libyan conflict revolved around these two factions a negotiated solution to the crisis would be possible. Even though, please take note, none of these two groups has a real control over its territories, nor over the militias it is allied with.

The islamist drift

Furthermore, there are also a number of supporting actors in this conflict: they are the clan-based tribal militias, but foremost the radical factions with ties to the ISIS and, hence, to international terrorism.

A caliphate run by a Shura Council was founded in Derna in 2014 and has declared its allegiance to the ISIS lead by al-Baghdadi. ISIS affiliated armed groups also surfaced in Sirte for the first time in February 2015. There are also the militants from Ansar al Sharia – those responsible for the September 2012 attack against the US Consulate in Benghazi during which Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed – and the ones from the Martyrs February 17 Brigade, a group that was originally funded by the Libyan government, then officially dissolved, before joining the ranks of the ISIS in Derna. The Martyrs of Abu Salim Brigade, whose name refers to the 1200 detainees killed during the Gaddafi era following an uprising in the prison bearing the same name, followed a similar path, even though they are closely linked to Al Qaeda.

The Al Battar Brigade, the Shura Council's main operational arm, has just returned from Syria and is obviously affiliated with the ISIS. Such a listing could go on forever: the Libya Shield N.1 and the Rafallah al Sahati Brigade, based in Benghazi and Derna, the Omar Mokhtar Brigade located in the oasis of Kufra and so on. As already mentioned above, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) is also present in the south of Libya. In this specific case we're dealing with a splinter faction lead by Mokhtar Benmokhtar and that calls itself Muwaqiin bi Dam, those who sign with blood.

Currently, islamic radical factions, regardless of their allegiance to the ISIS or Al Qaeda, are scattered across the whole of Libya even though the attention of the media is focusing solely on Sirte and Derna.

Pre-conditions for negotiations

In such a deteriorated context, there are basically two questions those nations menaced by islamic terrorism should pose themselves: how to pacify Libya and who should be tasked with doing it.

At this time, to think that the United Nations would be capable of convincing the parties to adopt a series of so-called “confidence build up” measures and to then deploy a peace-enforcement force on the ground is very unlikely. As things stand, there isn't much room for diplomacy, be it international or regional, at least until all those terrorist groups against peace and in favor of chaos are either marginalized or eliminated tout court.

The aim should be that of putting around a table only the two main actors of the conflict: the governments in Tobruk and Tripoli. Reaching such a target requires that someone, possibly with the blessing or the mandate of the international community, carry out the “dirty work”. That is, fight the terrorist militias and reduce or eliminate their influence.

omar al hassi
Omar al Hassi

The dirty work

Let's move on to the second question: if the UN fails to broker a negotiated solution and diplomacy makes way for war, who would be interested in going down this path and capable of going all the way?

The spread of islamic terrorism in a no-man's land has become a source of concern for most of Libya's neighboring countries like Egypt, worried about the potential synergies between Libyan extremists and its internal opposition following the repression against the Muslim Brotherhood, Algeria, who has been facing islamic terrorists for decades, and Tunisia, statistically the most represented country amidst the volunteers filling the ranks of the ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The worries of those next to Libya are similar to those of the European countries across the Mediterranean from Tripoli. Italy is, with respect to other countries, geographically in the front line and suffers from the flow of illegal migrants departing from Libyan coasts. In the year 2014 about 171.000 migrants left Libya to go ashore in Italy. This was a 277% increase if compared to the year before that and there are good chances 2015 might be just as bad. Despite the historical ties between Rome and Tripoli, any Italian role in Libyan affairs could be played solely within the framework of a UN lead initiative or resolution.

This means that the issue of dealing with islamic terrorism in Libya will have to be dealt with by Arab countries, both for religious and practical reasons. The leadership of such an initiative should be with those nations that fear Libyan spill-over effects the most.

A friend in Cairo

In such a framework, Egypt appears as the natural candidate to intervene in Libya: it has the military strength to carry out the task, it has to deal with the potential islamist contagion on the domestic front and because any military intervention would help legitimize the new ruler in town, General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. The killing by the ISIS of 21 Christian copts on January 8, 2015 paved the way for the first Egyptian air strikes against the jihadists. Egypt also hosts on its soil a number of former Libyan regime elements and could therefore, if need be, open up a line of dialogue with Libyan clans as well. There is also an economic side to this issue: during the days of Muammar Gaddafi there were about 2 million Egyptians working in Libya. In a country of 85 million people restoring such an opportunity would mean a lot in economic terms.

The chances of a direct or indirect Egyptian military intervention in Libya taking place in the short term have recently lead the ISIS's forces in Derna to leave the city for the mountainous area of Jebel Akhdar. Overall, an indirect role by Cairo would definitely be less dangerous. All Egypt will have to do is increase its military support to Khalifa Belqasim Haftar in terms of weapons, ammo, aerial support, elite units and military advisors. Haftar, in turn, will carry out the dirty work.

The Libyan general will definitely work with al Sisi to eliminate the islamic terrorists from Libyan soil and to re-unite the country, but will also follow his own personal agenda. Libya, like several other Arab nations, is not mature for democracy and power will end in the hands of the strongest, regardless of how popular he is. And if this is going to happen, the southern shores of the Mediterranean will witness again the historical axis between a general at the helm in Egypt, one in Libya and the immutable “pouvoir” of the army ruling over Algeria for the past 50 years. Tunisia is the exception that proves the rule. In this part of the world democracy can still wait.

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