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Op-Ed: UK and US want unity government before lifting Libya arms embargo

The UN has been holding peace talks and a dialogue between the competing governments and main competing militias in Libya.The internationally recognized government is located in the eastern city of Tobruk and is supported by the militia of Khalifa Haftar and his allies the Zintan brigades. The prime minister is Abdullah al-Thinni, the same prime minister who presided over the transitional government of the General National Council when Haftar’s allies burned down the parliament as part of his Operation Dignity. A warrant was issued for his arrest at the time. Al-Thinni condemned Haftar’s actions then. Now he applauds Operation Dignity and pledges government support for his actions.The alternative government is in Tripoli with the main umbrella group of militias Libya Dawn providing the main support. The prime minister of the Tripoli government is Omar al-Hassi, appointed by the reconvened General National Council.
Neither government recognizes the other and there have been numerous clashes between the competing militias.On November 6th last year, the Libyan Supreme Court declared the elections in June of last year that chose the representatives for the House of Representatives of the Tobruk government were unconstitutional and that parliament should be dissolved. The international community virtually ignored the decision and the Tobruk government claimed the decision was made under threat and was not valid. Al Thinni the Tobruk prime minister praised the same court when it invalidated the election of a pro-Islamist as prime minister of an earlier government and left Al Thinni as the prime minister.

The UN has brokered a series of talks in an attempt to find a political solution through setting up a unity government. After the first talks, which neither representatives of the Tripoli government nor Libya Dawn attended, the Libya Dawn militia nevertheless declared a ceasefire. Later, the Tobruk government also declared a ceasefire but Haftar still continued his offensive to take Benghazi. He said that the ceasefire did not include pursuing attacks against terrorists. Haftar typically considers all his enemies as Islamist terrorists. While the ceasefire has been broken by both sides, the level of conflict appears much less. However, the Islamic State has stepped up its activities.
The Islamic State is a master at perpetrating gruesome deeds such as beheadings that it then publicizes gaining world wide publicity for what are minor events especially considering the larger picture of what is happening in Libya. Nevertheless they capture world-wide press attention and are able to create a situation where most discussion of Libya is framed in terms of them and the threat they pose to Libya and even to Italy and other parts of Europe. In Libya there have been several key actions. The beheading of 21 captured Coptic Christians provoking air attacks by Egypt on bases in Derna but killing civilians at the same time. In retaliation for the bombings IS carried out several suicide bombings in Qubbah a small town near Derna. The attacks killed over 40 people. Earlier the group attacked the luxury Corinthian hotel in Tripoli.
These attacks have encouraged Egypt and Libya to ask the UN to remove the embargo on supplying arms to Libya. The foreign minister of Libya Mohammed al Dairi said: “If we fail to have arms provided to us, this can only play into the hands of extremists”. Press reports describe the situation as if there is just one government. Al Dairi is from the Tobruk government. The US and UK know full well that any arms provided to the Tobruk government would be used by Khalifa Haftar, whose militia are now merged with the Libyan armed forces, against the rival militias of the Tripoli government..

The US and UK no doubt have two concerns. The weapons would encourage the Tobruk government and Haftar to try to take over areas controlled by the Tripoli government using their superior forces rather than continuing to try to find a political solution through the UN-brokered peace talks. Both also fear no doubt that weapons could be seized by the Islamic State. The UK and the US both have veto power in the UN Security Council. As British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, put the issue: “The problem is that there isn’t a government in Libya that is effective and in control of its territory. There isn’t a Libyan military which the international community can effectively support.But simply pouring weapons into one faction or the other, which is essentially what has been proposed, is not to bring us to a resolution to the crisis in Libya, and is not going to make Europe safer, is going to make it more at risk.”

The embargo has been in place since 2011 when Gadaffi was overthrown. Arms still flow into the country arming both sides. Egypt has been a strong supporter of the Tobruk government and Haftar even facilitating, if not carrying out, earlier bombing raids on Tripoli. The US and UK may be wary of supporting Haftar or Egypt fearing that to do so would spark an even wider civil war within Libya.

Areas under the control of both sides have been subject to IS action. Aside from the attack on the luxury hotel in Tripoli, the Tripoli government has seen IS virtually take control of the city of Sirte, the home town of Gadaffi. Derna in the area controlled by the Tobruk government has long been a hotbed of radicalism since the time of Gadaffi. It now receives attention because some jihadists there have declared allegiance to the Islamic State and launched dramatic actions that have caused western media to take note. Instead of analysis the western media is an entertainment medium reacting to events in the real world that imitate violent action movies. Usually the media falls to sleep when it comes to Libya. Only scattered coverage is given of the peace talks that could be vital to any political solution to Libya’s conflict. If a unity government were formed the Islamic State could be brought under control much more effectively.

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