Libya's Weapons Problem

Fighters of Libya's Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn) hold a position their group took from a rival militia, south of the town of Wershfana on Oct. 13, 2014, some 30 km west of the Libyan capital Tripoli. Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty

Libya's ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, finds himself in the middle of a diplomatic pickle, and not for the first time.

Dabbashi won a degree of fame in early 2011 when, as deputy ambassador, he publicly turned against Muammar el-Qaddafi and urged world leaders to intervene in his country. With tacit support from Western countries, which were inspired by a popular Libyan uprising, Dabbashi convened a U.N. Security Council session in which he passionately decried the situation on the ground; said that Qaddafi, Libya's long-ruling tyrant, must stand trial; and called for military action to force him from power.

Dabbashi's initiative pushed the big powers to action, paving the way for a military intervention by NATO, which led to the ouster of Qaddafi —a feat almost unimaginable just a few months earlier. Libya became a source of hope. The Arab Spring was in bloom.

No longer. There are two factions claiming to be the legitimate government of Libya, and only one of them recognizes Dabbashi as its ambassador.

The Libya mess is emblematic of the hope-turned-despair of the recent Pan-Arab turmoil. Worse: Libya is awash in weapons, and its disintegration could reignite the region.

This month, the major warring factions, each with its own armed militia and outside supporters, are taking the first small steps toward national reconciliation, but many factors are conspiring against success. One of the factions, chosen back in June in a parliamentary election, is composed mostly of civic-minded and nationalist politicians. Another, an Islamist group known as Libya Dawn, is shunned by most of the world.

Libya Dawn has taken control of most of the capital, Tripoli, by force. In August it returned the Islamist legislators who had controlled the house before the election to the parliament building, forming a government headed by Omar al-Hasi. The elected members of parliament fled east, to Tobruk. An internationally recognized government headed by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni relocated to Bayda.

Unless contained, Libya's internal fighting could push the vast oil-producing country into the arms of the ever-opportunistic Islamist State, or ISIS, which according to American officials is already setting up camp there.

Weapons from Libya's vast military stocks are being smuggled out of the country for huge profits. It is fast becoming what many call the arms depot of the Middle East.

In early December in Brussels, NATO expressed "grave concern over the deteriorating situation in Libya." It asked Bernardino Leon, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative in the country, to try to help Libyans resolve the political stalemate. NATO also made clear that if he fails, it would consider unspecified "additional measures to protect Libya's unity, stability and prosperity, and to counter expanding terrorist threats to Libya and the region."

But as Leon said in a phone interview from Tunisia, "There is a little chance of success, and a lot is working against a solution." He noted that factions representing 80 percent of the country's citizens were due to convene this month for negotiations, looking for a political "road map" to resolve their differences. Tribal leaders and members of both parliaments are invited, but the unrecognized Libya Dawn government is not.

Neither of the major factions can muster enough support to control the country, Leon said. While tribal and factionalized, Libya is more homogenous than countries like Syria or Iraq, where religious and ethnic divisions hamper national unity. So all in all, "it's a start," Leon said, then added, "Optimistic? I can't say that I am."

Once NATO left, the slow process of establishing democratic institutions to replace Qaddafi's decades-long one-man show fizzled. In October, much to the chagrin of a handful of international players left in Libya, the country's supreme court invalidated the June parliamentary election.

And Dabbashi, the man who in 2011 helped convince even the war-averse administration of President Barack Obama to join in a military operation against Qaddafi, has now been declared illegitimate by al-Hasi's government in Tripoli. Last month Dabbashi told the U.N. Security Council that the Islamists are "taking cover under the cloak of religion, are paying young people to die in the fighting against their brothers, and the destruction of their property and the property of the state." But since then, even though no official challenge to his diplomatic credentials has arrived at U.N. headquarters, he has adopted a low profile. Dabbashi declined numerous interview requests.

Other Libyan diplomats in world capitals are suffering from similar uncertainty. "Sooner or later we will start to see similar problems," with even bigger implications for Libya, said Leon. If an American telecom company, for example, wants to sign a contract to operate in the country, which of the two governments would it sign with? (It doesn't help that two central bank governors are now competing for recognition.) "It's going to be a mess," Leon said. "Most companies will say, We're just not going to deal with you."

Members of OPEC, who met in Vienna in late November, were forced to make such a choice: The competing Libyan governments tried to send representatives to the gathering. OPEC decided to invite the Bayda envoy only, creating a rift with the Tripoli government.

Such skirmishes go far beyond turf battles over diplomatic or business representation. The Tripoli airport frequently comes under attack, including by airpower, which is now available to both governments. In early November, gunmen struck the El Sharara oilfields, leading to a reduction in Libya's oil output, which at the time stood at 800,000 barrels per day, to 600,000. Any slowdown in oil production depletes the country's coffers.

Libya's neighbors are increasingly alarmed. "We are all aware of the seriousness of the situation," said Mahamat Zene, Chad's U.N. ambassador, who assumed the Security Council's rotating presidency in December. The council issued a nonbinding statement of concern about Libya recently, but as Zene told Newsweek, "I do understand your pessimism when you say [it was nothing but] another press statement."

Meanwhile, in Washington the head of the U.S. Army Africa Command, General David Rodriguez, told reporters on December 4 that the Islamic State, or ISIS, "has begun its efforts over in the east [of Libya] to introduce some people over there." While ISIS's presence is still "small and very nascent," counting around 200 fighters, Rodriguez said, "we'll have to just continue to monitor and watch that carefully in the future to see what happens or whether it grows on unabated."

Another menace is arms smuggling. The lucrative business not only fuels wars in northern Africa and the rest of the Arab Middle East but also complicates hopes for Libya's own national reconciliation. As Leon acknowledges, small tribes with their militias are more invested in furthering their arms smuggling profits than in a political process.

The U.N. estimates that more than 20 million weapons have been exported illicitly since Qaddafi's ouster, according to Leon. These arms include everything from rifles to missiles, as well as small amounts of chemical agents and unaccounted-for yellowcake (a type of concentrated raw uranium), which remained even after Qaddafi abolished Libya's illicit nuclear and chemical weapons program.

Assuring more control over loose weapons, as well as tightening the monitoring of seaports and airports, will be high on the agenda in the talks between the factions, said Leon. Unlike some critics, he remains convinced that NATO's action against Qaddafi was necessary. "I never thought that there was an alternative to the intervention," Leon said. "[But] the international community left too early." Now it would be difficult for outsiders to intervene again. "You have a huge country, one of the biggest in Africa; the population is dispersed, with lots of places to hide," he said. "If you ask any military expert if you can quickly control the country, well, yes, you can. But then what? Will you stay? Will you go?"

Which leaves diplomacy, because, as the Dabbashi case proves, "we cannot have a situation that any diplomat will be approved by one side, but not the other," Leon said.