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Divided We Stand: Libya’s Enduring Conflicts
Divided We Stand: Libya’s Enduring Conflicts
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 130 / Middle East & North Africa

Divided We Stand: Libya’s Enduring Conflicts

The violent death of the U.S. ambassador and three of his colleagues is a stark reminder of the challenges Libya still faces and should serve as a wake-up call for the authorities to urgently fill the security vacuum.

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Executive Summary

The 11 September killing of the U.S. ambassador and three of his colleagues is a stark reminder of Libya’s security challenges. It also should serve as a wake-up call. There is, of course, more than one way to look at the country today: as one of the more encouraging Arab uprisings, recovering faster than expected; or as a country of regions and localities pulling in different directions, beset by intercommunal strife and where well-armed groups freely roam. Evidence exists for both: successful elections on one hand, violent attacks on the other. In truth, the most and the least promising features of post-Qadhafi Libya stem from a single reality. Because the country lacks a fully functioning state, effective army or police, local actors – notables, civilian and military councils, revolutionary brigades – have stepped in to provide safety, mediate disputes and impose ceasefires. It will not be easy and will have to be done gingerly, but it is past time to reverse the tide, reform army and police and establish structures of a functioning state that can ensure implementation of ceasefire agreements and tackle root causes of conflict.

Colonel Qadhafi’s bloody end and the collapse of Libya’s police and armed forces left in its wake an armed population with 42 years worth of pent-up grievances. Qadhafi’s longstanding divide-and-rule strategy set communities against one other, each vying for a share of resources and the regime’s favour. Some towns grew wealthy thanks to connections with the ruling elite; others suffered badly. Meanwhile, the security apparatus at once fomented, manipulated and managed intra-communal conflicts. Once the lid was removed, there was every reason to fear a free-for-all, as the myriad of armed groups that proliferated during the rebellion sought material advantage, political influence or, more simply, revenge. This was all the more so given the security vacuum produced by the regime’s precipitous fall.

A measure of chaos ensued, but up to a point only. Communal clashes erupted across the nation both during and after the 2011 conflict. Tensions that had long been left simmering on the back burner came to a boil, aggravated by the diverging positions various communities took vis-à-vis Qadhafi’s regime. That most of the fighting ended relatively quickly owes in no small measure to the efforts of local leaders, revolutionary brigades and the variety of civilian and military councils that took it upon themselves to keep the country whole. The ad hoc security patchwork registered significant and even surprising success. But it is no model; even as it manages to contain conflicts, it simultaneously fuels them. Some armed groups cannot resist the temptation to target foes and settle scores; battle for political and economic influence; evade accountability; and entrench geographic and community rivalries.

Until now, central authorities have acted chiefly as bystanders, in effect subcontracting security to largely autonomous armed groups. They had a reason: the army and police were in disarray, suffering from a deficit in personnel and equipment; officers and soldiers had either defected, fled, been killed or jailed. The rebels who rose up against Qadhafi were much better armed and – both suspicious of remnants of the old regime and pleased with their newfound power – unwilling to either surrender their autonomy or come under state control. Yet, it would be wrong to see the parallel military and police forces that emerged as having done so against the central authorities’ wishes. Rather, and although they were set up by revolutionary brigades themselves, the Libyan Shield Forces and Supreme Security Committee – the former operating parallel to the army, the latter to the police – were authorised and encouraged to take action by the ruling National Transitional Council, which viewed them as auxiliary forces without which the state simply could not secure the country.

Just as armed groups physically have kept warring parties apart, so have local notables led negotiations designed to achieve longer-lasting ceasefires. Appealing to the higher ideals of Libyan identity and Islam and resorting to social pressure as well as customary law, they have proved remarkably effective mediators.

However, none of this offers a sustainable solution. Truces are fragile, local conflicts frozen rather than durably resolved. In stepping into the breach, local notables and armed groups have done what the government could not. But effective implementation of ceasefire agreements depends in large part on an impartial authority capable of providing services and enforcing decisions. The involvement of revolutionary brigades and local armed groups in efforts to end hostilities blurs the line separating neutral mediation from partisan meddling. In some instances, their attempts to simultaneously play the role of army, police, mediator, judge and jury have helped revive old communal hostilities or competition for control over smuggling routes. The hope is that the central state can set up truly national forces equipped to deal with local disputes, notably a gendarmerie and elite auxiliary corps within the army. Until then, reliance on revolutionary brigades and local armed forces will continue to be an uncertain wager.

Perhaps most serious is the fact that, in the absence of a strong state, agreements mostly have remained dead letters. Disputes are rooted in competing claims over land, property and power that pre-existed Qadhafi and were first exacerbated by his regime’s clientelism and patronage networks, next by communities’ varying positions during the uprising, and finally by acts of revenge in its aftermath. To resolve them requires clear, written understandings, government follow-up, genuine enforcement and accountability. Too, it necessitates proper policing of borders; fair determination of land ownership where the old regime resorted to confiscation; and some form of transitional justice. All are sorely lacking. Although local notables negotiate agreements, these are seldom unambiguous, committed to paper or coordinated with central authorities. Without an effective government, strong state institutions or police force, follow-through is implausible. The judicial system is overwhelmed and the establishment of a justice and reconciliation process awaits. Hard-earned reconciliation agreements founder.

There is much to celebrate in post-Qadhafi Libya but also reason to worry. The battle between central government and armed groups is not yet won, yet of late the latter have been acting as if they enjoyed the upper hand. If steps are not swiftly taken, reversing this trend is only going to get harder – and what has been a relatively good news story could turn depressingly sour.

Tripoli/Brussels, 14 September 2012

A member of the Libyan army's special forces holds a RPG during clashes with Islamist militants in their last stronghold in Benghazi, Libya, on 6 July 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts

How can the dizzying changes, intersecting crises and multiplying conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa since the 2011 Arab uprisings be best understood, let alone responded to? This long-form commentary by MENA Program Director Joost Hiltermann and our team steps back for a better look and proposes new approaches.

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Principal Findings

What's new?  Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, conflicts of divergent origins across the Middle East have intersected and metastasised. This has drawn in regional and international powers, poisoning relations between them, creating more local conflict actors and greatly complicating the task of policymakers to respond effectively.

Why does it matter?  Policy responses that treat conflicts in isolation and ignore their root causes may end up doing more harm than good. Stabilising war-torn states or de-escalating crises requires an understanding of the interconnectedness and the deeper drivers of regional conflicts.

What should be done?  A new methodology is required to effectively address the Middle East’s post-2011 conflicts. Two analytical concepts – conflict clusters and concentric circles – can help policymakers disentangle the region’s conflicts, provide greater clarity in diagnosis and accompany a simple principle that should underpin all approaches: first, do no harm.

Overview: A New Way of Looking at MENA Conflicts

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) does not lend itself to quick analysis. Post-2011 events, occurring at dizzying speed and full of apparent contradictions, compound the problem. Widening and increasingly intersecting conflicts are having a deleterious impact on the region’s social fabric and its people. As a result, what happens in the region is no longer confined to it: radiating crises have started to infect relations between regional and global powers, forcing policymakers in world capitals to respond in pursuit of their nations’ strategic interests. The challenge is to untangle the knot of conflicts analytically: to understand how various historical strands have interacted to create the bewildering composite of conflict drivers and actors that pose myriad threats to local, regional and even global stability and then to articulate policy responses that chart paths toward de-escalation and, eventually, more sustainable arrangements for states’ and communities’ peaceful coexistence. Most importantly, they should not make matters worse.

Grasping the roots and primary characteristics of the region’s swift-changing complexion requires a new way of looking at it. We can no longer simply study conflicts in isolation, such as the Israeli-Arab conflict. This remains important, but we need to add new dimensions: how a single conflict has yielded secondary conflicts to form conflict “clusters”; how conflicts within a cluster have started to bleed into conflicts in another cluster; and how individual conflicts in the MENA region have broadened to suck in, first, regional powers and, then, global actors as a result of power and security vacuums created in the chaos of war.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, which dates from Western powers’ decision a century ago to support the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East (first enunciated in the Balfour Declaration), has sprung the confines of the territory known as Israel and Palestine to cover new terrain, in particular Lebanon, and sprout new conflict actors, such as Hizbollah. Today, Hizbollah participates in the Syrian civil war, which has roots outside the Israel-Arab conflict, and is allied with Iran, whose ascendancy in the region following the failed 2011 popular uprisings has provoked destabilising responses from Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, especially in Yemen. Meanwhile, these same states are projecting influence in North Africa to prevail in what was originally a separate struggle between competing political expressions of Sunni Islamism, involving the Muslim Brotherhood. To make matters worse, the suppurating Syrian and Yemeni wars have infected global powers such as Russia and the U.S., who are deploying their tremendous weight on behalf of one side but are so far unable to do so decisively and forge durable settlements.

Policy responses directed toward individual events in individual conflicts – say, the Libyan migrant crisis, or the rise of jihadists in Syria –may end up doing more harm than good. Not only because such policies tend to be rushed and overly securitised, but also because they ignore the deeper drivers behind these individual events, thereby aggravating them. External military support of certain Kurdish parties in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a good example: it boosted Kurdish hopes of outside support for their longstanding aspiration for greater autonomy, even independence. They chose to become outside powers’ willing proxies to advance their own agendas. This, in turn, gave rise to new and additional crises instead of lowering regional tensions.

A new methodology is needed to address these post-2011 conflicts through both analysis and policy. The risk of pursuing policies that do further harm has increased, especially as conflicts of different origins metastasise and intersect, creating a new generation of non-state conflict actors and drawing in both regional and global powers. I propose two analytical concepts to help bring greater clarity, one new, the other old: conflict clusters and concentric circles. I then explore how these interact with external interventions of various sorts.

Instead of policy prescriptions for individual conflicts, I place the perplexing array of intersecting MENA conflicts and conflict actors in a framework that elucidates what motivates these actors and what drives their conflicts. And I will suggest a set of principles that should undergird any approach by global and regional powers toward these conflicts, based on the need to contain the current situation without making matters worse. This study is based on years of field research in the MENA region by me and my colleagues at the International Crisis Group.[fn]All references to “interviews” concern interviews done by either me or my Crisis Group colleagues.Hide Footnote

Joost Hiltermann, the lead contributor to this paper, would like to thank the following for providing essential background research: Crisis Group consultants Dimitar Bechev, Ali Fathollah-Nejad and Sebastian Sons, and Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Israel/Palestine Ofer Zalzberg; also, many thanks are due to Crisis Group’s entire MENA team for providing insights and data, and for reviewing the results, for which the lead contributor remains wholly and solely responsible.

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