The news that Libya’s parliament dismissed Prime Minister Ali Zeidan from office on Wednesday after the government failed to stop armed groups in eastern Libya from exporting oil independently should not surprise anyone — over the past year, the country has slipped deeper into chaos. Zeidan was run out of office and fled the country just a few days short of the third anniversary of U.N. Resolution 1973 that imposed a no-fly zone and sanctions and opened the door to NATO’s intervention. What we see today in Libya is certainly not the result that the United States and its partners hoped for when it intervened to stop the Qadhafi regime from massacring its people. I just finished nine months serving on the United Nations Panel of Experts on Libya — a group charged with monitoring and reporting on the implementation of sanctions imposed by a series of U.N. resolutions since 2011. The panel is an independent body that analyzes what is happening on unauthorized arms flows into and out of the country and efforts to freeze assets associated with the former Qadhafi regime, and it offers recommendations on what can be done to enhance measures on those fronts. The full report, available here, paints a troubling picture of the insecurity inside of Libya and the widespread spillover effects it is having, particularly on weapons flows coming out of the country. Some of the report’s key findings:
- A number of actors have trafficked shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles from Libya to Mali, Chad, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and the Gaza Strip, among other places during the past year.
- Libya’s government lacks a strong centralized oversight over weapons it receives, and non-state armed groups control most of the weapons in the country. Weak government controls over land borders and ports are a large part of the problem of regional weapons proliferation and insecurity spillover.
- Regional terrorist and criminal networks have exploited the insecurity and lack of control over weapons and materiel in Libya.
- Libya’s insecurity and political divisions are interlinked, as a number of groups used actual and threatened force to advance their agendas.
The Middle East and North Africa has long been a region flooded with large amounts of weapons and military assistance, usually state-to-state transfers. The difference now in Libya and the regional spillover effects is that fragmentation inside of the country is reflected in disorganized weapons outflows driven largely by non-state actors. In a very real sense, Libya is exporting its insecurity to surrounding countries. Meanwhile in Washington, many conservatives continue to harp on conspiracy theories about the 2012 attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, all the while mostly sleepwalking through the current trends in Libya and the region. As my colleague Peter Juul and I argued last year, the mindless political debate over Obama administration talking points from the fall of 2012 harms efforts to come to grips with the deterioration of the overall situation in Libya and the longer-term challenge the United States faces of managing security risks when conducting diplomacy in insecure locations. Some leading analysts on Libya like Karim Mezran of the Atlantic Council and Fred Wehrey at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have sounded the alarm bell on Libya with sharp recommendations for U.S. and international policy, and Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice outlined a framework for supporting Libya in a speech to the Middle East Institute last fall. But despite these ideas, and an international conference on Libya held in Rome earlier this month, the country continues to slide into chaos. With so much going on in the Middle East these days — attempts to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, Syria’s civil war, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and incomplete political transitions in places like Egypt — it is hard to find time on the crowded agenda for Libya.
But as I learned over the past nine months, what happens in Libya isn’t staying in Libya — and it is time to redouble international efforts on Libya before the country and the broader region slips into further turmoil.