Newspaper article International New York Times

Don't Abandon Libya

Newspaper article International New York Times

Don't Abandon Libya

Article excerpt

To save the situation, the West must combine threats, intervention and mediation.

At a time when Libya urgently needs help from its allies, most countries, including the United States, are evacuating their embassies or drastically downsizing. Weeks of inter-militia fighting have killed hundreds in Tripoli and Benghazi while disrupting food, water and fuel supplies to civilians.

While diplomatic security is understandably a top priority, representatives of the international community must not leave the country. Instead, they must maintain contact with Libya's major political actors -- the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Forces Alliance, and the leaders of the warring militias from Misurata and Zintan -- if they wish to mediate a solution to the conflict.

The violence gripping Libya is due to a political struggle between groups that could broadly be characterized as Islamists and anti-Islamists. Since their collaboration in toppling Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, these factions have been squabbling over the spoils of victory, rendering Libya's economy and politics dysfunctional.

To break the impasse, a renegade former general, Khalifa Hifter, launched a campaign in May vowing to eradicate Islamists from eastern Libya. He militarized the political divide by lumping together all Islamists, ranging from moderate to radical, and declared them his enemies. Most non-Islamists sided with General Hifter, thus signaling to the Islamists that they are all considered radicals who might face the same fate as their fellow Islamists in Egypt -- to either be entirely marginalized from politics or exterminated. Facing this existential threat, Islamists have relied on their ongoing military advantage to ensure their survival.

A full-scale battle broke out over control of Tripoli airport in mid-July. From the Islamists' perspective it had two main objectives: to obstruct the newly elected Parliament from meeting and carrying out its responsibilities, and to control the main roads to Tripoli and divert the movement of people and goods into the Islamist-run Maitiga airport.

Both General Hifter and the Islamists believe they can win militarily. With both sides convinced of long-term victory, nothing has forced them to the negotiating table. This makes the role of the international community essential in mediating the conflict or it will drag on.

As traditional efforts at tribal mediation have failed, the Libyan government -- which is neutral, largely powerless and exercises no real control over the country -- has formally called for international involvement. The foreign minister, Mohamed Abdulaziz, has asked in particular for "trainers" to support the feeble Libyan security forces. This could be a first step but it is hardly sufficient.

A combination of threats followed by limited international intervention and mediated negotiations is far more likely to succeed. …

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