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Time To Partition the ‘Fake’ Country of Libya

Three disparate regions of this cobbled together nation have nothing in common, and violent power struggles today beg for a divide.

Members of the self-styled Libyan National Army, loyal to the country's east strongman Khalifa Haftar, patrol the roads leading into the eastern city of Benghazi on February 7, 2018. (Photo credit ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP via Getty Images)

Since the United States led a NATO military intervention in 2011 to overthrow longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Libya has been wracked by violent power struggles among an assortment of armed militias. Now it might be headed for a partition.

Chaotic post-Qaddafi Libya quickly became a Mediterranean version of Somalia. Over the past few years, the struggle has coalesced into a fight between two rival factions. One is the so-called Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the country’s traditional capital, Tripoli, in western Libya. The United Nations and most countries, including the United States and its allies, recognize the GNA as Libya’s legitimate government. The other contending party is the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a onetime CIA asset who has fallen out of Washington’s favor. The LNA is based in the major eastern city of Benghazi. 

Both sides have attracted important foreign backers, especially once the LNA launched a military offensive in early 2019 aimed at capturing Tripoli and establishing control over the entire country. Turkey is the GNA’s biggest booster, providing extensive financial and military aid to the Tripoli regime. Several Arab governments, including those of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt do the same for the LNA. Russian mercenaries also assist Haftar’s forces.

Initially, the LNA offensive seemed poised for victory, but GNA forces have repeatedly repelled the insurgents from Tripoli’s environs and recently even managed to retake some towns in western Libya that the LNA had captured. Speculation has been rising for months that a hard partition of Libya is now a credible scenario. Suspicions are especially high that Haftar’s objective may have shifted from trying to unite and rule all of Libya to one of partitioning the country and consolidating his control of the east. Mohamed Amari, a member of the GNA’s Presidential Council recently accused the UAE of trying to “divide Libya.” For his part, Haftar has long accused the GNA of harboring the same objective.

Whatever the accuracy of the dueling accusations, letting Libya divide into two—or more—sovereign countries would not be a bad outcome. The reality is that Libya’s three principal regions have very little in common, ethnically or economically. The division between the eastern and western portions of the country has been especially bitter for decades. 

Libya is a classic example of an artificial country that a European colonial power created out of disparate components. Italy cobbled Libya together as a colony from three regions of the decaying Ottoman Empire, primarily between 1910 and 1920—although some portions were not securely under Italian rule until 1931. Those regions had very little common history or culture, but when the victorious World War II Allies stripped Rome of its colonial possessions, the United Nations preserved the defective handiwork. The principal centers of political and economic influence were Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east. The southern Fezzan region was more sparsely populated—largely by the Tuareg and Tebu tribes that sought to maintain an entirely independent existence. 

Qaddafi’s political power structure was centered in Tripolitania—indeed, overwhelmingly confined to that region. Tribes in the Fezzan were far less favorably inclined to support his rule. And most important, tribes in Cyrenaica (especially near Benghazi) were overwhelmingly hostile to Qaddafi. Columbia University Senior Research Scholar Rajan Menon notes that eastern Libya also “housed the political base of the Senussid monarchy that Gaddafi had overthrown in 1969 and of those elites who regarded the onetime colonel as a parvenu and usurper from society’s lower ranks.” 

Numerous rebellions erupted against his 4-decade-long rule, and all of those uprisings originated with factions in and around Benghazi. The successful rebellion that the United States and its European allies supported was no exception. Nearly a decade later, there still is no reliable foundation for Libya’s unity.

Outside powers need to accept the reality that allowing the country’s feuding regions to separate may be the only way to end the bloodshed and achieve a reasonable measure of peace and stability. An agreed upon partition of Libya is not likely to be as peaceful as Czechoslovakia’s “velvet divorce” or even the mostly peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union. It is more likely to resemble the messy secession of Sudan’s southern region, creating South Sudan. Quarrels over control of Libya’s oil production between independent eastern and western Libyan states may be enough by themselves to cause serious continuing tensions.

But trying to force antagonistic populations to remain in a single country is a worse option. The decision that the United States and the other NATO powers made to prevent Bosnia’s division into separate Serbian, Muslim, and Croatian states certainly has not turned out well. Two-and-a-half decades after the fighting ended, Bosnia is still a dysfunctional, pretend country consisting of seething ethnic groups who refuse to cooperate

The United States and the rest of the international community should avoid the temptation to engage in a new round of meddling in Libya’s affairs. Given the harm that Washington’s initial intervention has caused to that poor country, calls for the U.S. to “re-engage” are especially ill-advised. Washington has no vital or even modest interests at stake in the outcome of Libya’s internal struggles. In particular, if the country splits into separate, sovereign states, that development should be a matter of indifference to U.S. leaders.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs.

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