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.

“Everybody knows all the main borders in the west are controlled by Zintanis -- the smuggling doesn't even have to be hidden, as the Zintanis also control all the relevant ministries,” a wealthy smuggler, who operates out of Libya’s southern border, told me last week. The Misratans have grown tired of this state of affairs. They far outnumber the Zintanis, and have long sought to usurp the latter group’s control over the black market. After their Islamist allies’ poor showing in the parliamentary elections, the Misratans demanded that the Zintanis cede the airport; in exchange, they offered to recognize the election results.

On July 12, the two groups forged an agreement for a peaceful handoff of the airport to a neutral body. Yet the next morning, Salahuddin Badi, a Misratan militia leader and congressman, violated the agreement, seeking to retake Tripoli airport by force. According to Mohamed Eljarh, a fellow of the Rafiq Hariri Center, “Badi hoped to capitalize on a leadership vacuum in Misratan local politics to establish himself as a leader of the warmongering faction.” Presumably, he also hoped to enrich himself. And although he failed militarily, he managed to drag the Misratans’ biggest militias, the Central Libya Shield Force and the Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Room, into the morass. So far, the better-organized Zintanis have held their positions. The Misratans, however, are regrouping. 

The bulk of the fighting has remained confined to the airport and its main access roads. If the Misratans win these assets, they will be able to control Tripoli. The Zintanis’ stranglehold on the so-called airport road currently allows their brigades to travel from their mountain bases to downtown Tripoli without having to pass through Misratan checkpoints. Losing control of that route would thus deny the Zintainis unfettered access to central Tripoli, forcing them to retreat back to their distant mountain redoubts. Misratan and Islamist forces could then dominate Tripoli and take over crucial government ministries currently under Zintani control. The al-Thinni government would most likely collapse or seek refuge in Libya’s east.

Yet such an outcome still seems far off, as neither side appears strong enough to score a decisive victory. And the longer the war drags on, the greater the collateral damage will be. Tripoli Airport has already sustained billions of dollars’ worth of devastation and will not be functional in the foreseeable future. That suits the Misratans just fine, as Islamist-aligned brigades have cornered western Libya’s two other operational airports -- Misrata International and Maitiga, a former U.S. airbase.

What might appear to be an ideological struggle, then, is largely an economic competition between two rival criminal networks. The political implications are byproducts. According to Hassan, a bureaucrat and Tripoli resident I spoke to recently, “both the Zintanis and the Misratans are an illegitimate presence in the city. The populace just wanted to enjoy Ramadan with their families. This current conflict is about wealth and power -- nothing more. It has no real ideological backdrop, and the only people who pick sides are those who will benefit financially from the success of one of the groups.”

In Libya, as in so many other parts of the world, oil wealth drives conflict. And with so much money sloshing around, there are no good guys and bad guys -- no such thing as corrupt politicians and clean ones. The anti-Islamist groups are just as involved in illicit trafficking as Islamist groups. And the Zintanis have shelled as many civilian neighborhoods as the Misratans.

Due to this complicated reality, it will be difficult for any kind of foreign intervention to avoid the appearance of helping one bloc gain the upper hand over another. But given that Libya is facing the prospect of complete state collapse and a full-scale militia war -- and that unlike in 2011, most Libyans do not fully support a single camp -- foreign powers must take pains to present themselves as impartial mediators. 

The United Kingdom’s special envoy to Libya, Jonathan Powell, a former aide to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, should work with the United Nations to take the lead in coordinating the international response. Although many of the key players have appointed envoys, only London’s is a professional mediator with the requisite political backing to facilitate a grand bargain between the country’s competing factions. Libya remains a top foreign policy issue for British Prime Minister David Cameron, and the United Kingdom’s overt policy of talking with the Federalist, Islamist, and anti-Islamist factions gives them the requisite credibility to serve as a neutral mediator.

The United States, by contrast, has been too close to the anti-Islamist faction and remains hampered by domestic political concerns at home, particularly the political fallout from the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. special mission in Benghazi. On Saturday, Washington executed a disgraceful Saigon-style evacuation of its embassy personnel in Tripoli, marking an unambiguous victory for Libya’s jihadists. The more resolute British pulled out only nonessential personnel, and despite an attack on their withdrawing convoy, have remained committed to keeping their presence on the ground. London has thus become Washington’s eyes and ears in Libya. The United States should back British mediation efforts to the hilt.

Both the United States and the United Kingdom have critical roles to play in bringing an end to the violence. In the near term, they should combine their diplomatic clout to focus international attention on saving the country by pulling together an international summit that includes all of Libya’s key militia leaders and political factions. Domestic Libyan attempts at making peace, whether through tribal elders or local councils, have failed to bridge the gaps between the adversaries. A concerted international mediation effort -- similar to the Northern Ireland peace process during the 1990s -- thus represents Libya’s best hope. Such a negotiation might conceivably benefit from UN peacekeepers to enforce a cease-fire between the Zintanis and the Misratans. But for any grand bargain to hold, it must address the core drivers of conflict inside Libya, rather than simply imposing a new political order from the outside.

No one faction can achieve victory in Libya. Blindly backing the anti-Islamist side and losing touch with developments on the ground would be a colossal mistake -- something recent events in Egypt and Iraq have made all too clear.

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  • JASON PACK is president of and a co-author of Libya’s Faustian Bargains: Breaking the Appeasement Cycle.
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