Libya: Transition and U.S. Policy

Libya: Transition and U.S. Policy

Christopher M. Blanchard Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs, March 29, 2017


Libya’s political transition has been disrupted by armed nonstate groups and threatened by the indecision and infighting of interim leaders. After an armed uprising ended the 40-plus-year rule of Muammar al Qadhafi in late 2011, interim authorities proved unable to form a stable government, address pressing security issues, reshape the country’s public finances, or create a viable framework for post-conflict justice and reconciliation. Elections for legislative bodies and a constitutional drafting assembly were held and transparently administered in 2012 and 2014, but were marred by declining rates of participation, threats to candidates and voters, and zero-sum political competition. Insecurity remained prevalent in Libya following the 2011 conflict and deepened in 2014, driven by overlapping ideological, personal, financial, and transnational rivalries. Resulting conflicts involving Libyans in different parts of the country drove the political transition off course. At present, armed militia groups and locally organized political leaders remain the most powerful arbiters of public affairs. Criminals and violent Islamist extremists have exploited these conditions, and the latter have strengthened their military capabilities and advanced their agendas inside Libya and beyond its borders. U.S. officials and other international actors have worked since August 2014 to convince Libyan factions and their regional supporters that inclusive, representative government and negotiation are preferable to competing attempts to achieve dominance through force of arms. In August 2014, the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council adopted Resolution 2174, authorizing the placement of financial and travel sanctions on individuals and entities found to be “engaging in or providing support for other acts that threaten the peace, stability or security of Libya, or obstruct or undermine the successful completion of its political transition.” In December 2015, some Libyan leaders endorsed a U.N.-brokered political agreement to create a Government of National Accord (GNA) to oversee the completion of the transition. GNA Prime Minister-designate Fayez al Sarraj and members of a GNA Presidency Council are seeking to implement the agreement with the backing of the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. government, and the European Union. Some authorities and military forces based in eastern Libya, including General Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” movement, describe GNA leaders as foreignimposed interlopers. Competition persists between the GNA and its critics over political leadership, military command, national finances, and control of oil infrastructure. The U.S. State Department describes Libya as a permissive environment for terrorists, and the U.S. government suspended operations at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and relocated U.S. personnel out of the country in July 2014. From August to December 2016, U.S. military forces supported a successful campaign by GNA-aligned forces to expel Islamic State supporters from the central coastal city of Sirte. The Islamic State’s rise in parts of Libya from 2014 through mid- 2016 became a matter of deep concern among Libyans and the international community, and shared concerns persist regarding remaining extremists, the weakness of state institutions, and flows of migrants, refugees, and contraband across Libya’s unpoliced borders. Congress has conditionally appropriated funding for limited U.S. transition assistance and security assistance programs for Libya since 2011. In parallel with more robust counterterrorism measures in 2016, the Obama Administration notified Congress of plans to support the GNA. The Trump Administration has yet to articulate a detailed Libya policy. Libya is among the countries identified in a 2017 Executive Order restricting the entry of nationals of certain countries to the United States, with some exceptions. Political consensus among Libyans remains elusive, and insecurity may continue to preclude the return to Libya of U.S. diplomats and the development of U.S.-Libyan relations.

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