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Understanding Libya’s complex web of conflict

July 28, 2014 at 6:32 PM EDT
Stability in Libya has continued to deteriorate due to regional rivalries and the lacking of strong governance since the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Jeffrey Brown talks to Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about the risk of Libya becoming a failed state, spillover effects for the region and whether the United States and other allies can play a role in easing the chaos.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And with me now is Frederic Wehrey. He’s a former U.S. Air Force officer who served as a military attack in Libya. He’s been to the country often since the overthrow of Gadhafi, and is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Why this violence? I mean, there are many different players involved, but give us a sense of who the key ones are. What is going on?

FREDERIC WEHREY, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Well, at a very basic sense, there are these two rival factions from rival towns, Misrata and Zintan.

The Zintanis have controlled the airport. The Misratans are allied with an Islamist militia that enjoyed support in the previous parliament. That parliament is no longer in power. And I think these Islamist militias felt like the window was closing, that they had to act now to seize the airport from these Zintanis that were holding the airport there.

There is also some factional politics that relate to what is going on in the east. You had a renegade general, General Khalifa Haftar, who launched an operation in the east against the Islamists. He’s partnered with those Zintani militias that are controlling the airport.

So in this very complex web of dynamics, of alliances, it’s finally arrived to Tripoli, and these Misratans felt like they had to act.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is it right to see this all within this larger context of post-Gadhafi Libya about what happened? We talked about it as it was happening, I recall.

FREDERIC WEHREY: Right.

It is. I mean, this is a country that under Gadhafi really had no state institutions. It didn’t have an army. It didn’t have a police. It’s only gotten worse since the revolution. What has happened really is that the provisional government, the transitional government put these militias on its payroll.

The militias are getting funding from Libya’s oil wealth. And they have really mushroomed. They have become their own entities. They have grabbed the oil ports. They have grabbed the airports. They control armories. There is no mediator, there’s no referee to keep them apart. And this is what we’re seeing right now with the fighting.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you refer to a provisional government, is there an actual functioning government right now?

FREDERIC WEHREY: There is, but it’s incredibly weak.

There’s a parliament, a new parliament that is supposed to meet in Benghazi. There are questions about its security. The last parliament was really rife with militia pressure. It was subjected to militia pressure. The prime minister is caught in the middle between these various factions.

So the real story of Libya is that there is no one faction that can really compel or coerce the others, really.

JEFFREY BROWN: And to what extent is oil a factor? Is that what they are fighting over, one of the things they are certainly fighting over?

FREDERIC WEHREY: It is.

Several months ago, you had the blockade of oil, facilities of oil, production facilities by a militia in the east that was seeking greater autonomy for that region. And that sent the Libyan economy into a tailspin and the country is still recovering from that. That is why you have these long lines for gasoline.

I mean, the country, given its oil wealth, shouldn’t be in such a state right now. But it is because of this factional fighting among the militias.

JEFFREY BROWN: An important aspect to this, clearly, is the degree to which Libya becomes a kind of failed state, where militant groups are operating freely and affecting the rest of the region.

FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, that’s a huge concern.

And we have already seen Libyan weapons from the armories, Gadhafi’s armories, showing up in conflicts in Syria, in Gaza.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Africa.

FREDERIC WEHREY: In Africa, of course. It has destabilized Mali.

And we know that there are Libyan jihadists training there and going to fight in other theaters of conflict. So from a regional perspective, you are absolutely right. This is a huge concern that there are these terrorist actors, al-Qaida, that will exploit this ungovernance. And they will set up shop in these ungoverned territories of Libya.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the role of the U.S. and allies. Is there a role? How much sway does the U.S. have at this point?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, again, I think you have to go back to the overthrow of Gadhafi.

But the U.S. policy from that point was really to put a Libyan face on this revolution, and that — obviously, the real sensitivity to another nation-building exercise, the light footprint approach.

The U.S. is involved in training Libyan society and helping Libyan political actors. There is a planned effort to help train the Libyan army. The United Nations is also involved, and so are the British. The problem really is one of security and access. I mean, after, of course, the tragic attack in Benghazi, there was a real I think sensitivity that this is a dangerous place. And we need to protect our people and our diplomats.

And that hindered movement around the country and it hindered access to Libyans.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and then the State Department pulled out embassy personnel now. Is there a level of frustration on the part in Washington about our inability to influence things and in fact having to leave?

FREDERIC WEHREY: Well, I think there is.

And I think the sense I get is that there’s — in Washington — is that they feel there is just no partner on the other side. They want to help the Libyans, but the Libyans first have to help themselves. This is a government that’s in disarray, that is weak. And I think there was just a red line that was crossed where the embassy was caught in the middle of the shelling and they pulled out.

And so I do think the Libyans themselves need to step up to the plate before the outside community can help.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so very briefly, is that the potential way out? Has anybody got ideas about how some — some end to this?

FREDERIC WEHREY: When I visited Libya, I mean, I was really struck by the level of pragmatism among certain politicians. And Libyans do have this tendency to walk things back from the brink. It’s a small country.

There are divides, but it’s not the sort of deep ethnic sectarian divide that’s tearing Iraq or Syria apart. So, I think the Libyans as we speak are trying to negotiate some sort of climb-down from this crisis and a cease-fire.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Frederic Wehrey, thanks so much.

FREDERIC WEHREY: A pleasure. Thanks.