Among the many crises now facing the new Trump administration, Libya poses a growing challenge. The shattered Mediterranean state is close to open civil war, which could have profoundly negative consequences for U.S. interests and allies.
Although the Islamic State (ISIS) was driven from its main areas of control in Libya last year and oil production has rebounded to a three-year high, Libya is more polarized and fragmented than ever. The United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli is failing in its basic functions and confronts an existential challenge from an eastern faction led by General Khalifa Hifter and backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and, increasingly, Russia. In addition, the economy is veering toward collapse, and jihadist militancy could still find purchase in the country’s chaos.
Now is the time for careful and robust American diplomatic leadership. The Trump administration must first school itself in the complexities of Libyan politics, shunning the easy and incorrect categorizations of “Islamist” and “secular” or “nationalist.” It must avoid viewing the country solely through a counterterrorism lens and sub-contracting its Libya policy to regional states, especially Egypt, whose partisan and securitized approach will produce more division and radicalization. Punting the Libya issue to Europe is also a non-starter; without American backing, a European role will lack credibility, inviting Russia to be the key power broker. Backing one side in Libya’s conflicts, as some regional leaders are seeking to persuade the United States to do, would trigger a major escalation and a long civil war.
Their operations might have been overshadowed by campaigns in Mosul and eastern Syria, but over the past year, Libyan forces, backed by American airpower and Western special operations, scored a hard-won victory against the ISIS stronghold in the central city of Sirte. Elsewhere across the country, Libyans ejected ISIS cells and fighters from Derna and Benghazi in the east, from Tripoli, and from the town of Sabratha near the Tunisian border. Today,