Libya on the Brink

How to Stop the Fighting

Wreckage at Tripoli International Airport, July 2014.
Wreckage at Tripoli International Airport, July 2014. (Hani Amara / Courtesy Reuters)

Tripoli is burning. Western Libya’s two biggest militias -- Islamist-leaning fighters from the coastal city of Misrata and anti-Islamist ones from the western town of Zintan -- are facing off for the first time since they collaborated to oust Muammar al-Qaddafi three years ago. The Libyan army is nowhere to be seen, while the country’s prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, has done little more than plead for UN “trainers,” presumably shorthand for peacekeepers. In retaliation, Islamist fighters have thwarted his attempts to flee Tripoli.

What began two weeks ago as localized clashes between rogue brigades for control of Tripoli International Airport has quickly morphed into an all-out battle for control of the entire capital. Since then, the violence has rippled outward, setting the stage for a countrywide showdown between the anti-Islamist and Islamist blocs. Benghazi is now suffering the worst of the violence; jihadists there are recalling seasoned fighters from Syria while the anti-Islamist paramilitary commander Khalifa Haftar is rallying his various allies to counter them. Meanwhile, behind closed doors, Western officials are beginning to contemplate a limited military intervention.

Less than a month ago, things were looking up. In June, the country elected an anti-Islamist majority to the country’s new House of Representatives -- a body that seemed likely to avoid the dysfunctional brinksmanship that had characterized its predecessor, the General National Congress. In Libya’s east, Haftar’s anti-Islamist coalition had started to make significant gains. Oil production was poised to increase, as the so-called Federalist movement -- which had been blockading the key oil ports and demanding regional autonomy in the eastern part of the country -- handed over control of the main oil terminals without a shot being fired. All these developments were tipping the balance of power toward the central government and away from the Islamists. Unsurprisingly, Misratan and Islamist militias chose to act as spoilers.

Their top target was Tripoli International Airport, which Zintani brigades have controlled since the fall of Qaddafi in 2011 and have transformed into a hub for their lucrative smuggling network. Although traffickers typically smuggle subsidized oil and illicit drugs by land, they transport the most lucrative commodities -- gold, hard currency, and former Qaddafi loyalists -- by air.

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