ISIS Is the Real Winner in Libya

ISIS Sabratha Libya Middle East
Members of a brigade loyal to the Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn), an alliance of Islamist-backed fighters, drive pick up trucks mounted with machine guns during a military parade following battles against the Islamic State (IS) group, in the city of Sabratha, west of the capital Tripoli, on February 28, 2016. Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images

In a recent interview with The Atlantic 's Jeffrey Goldberg, U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged the failures in Libya and pinpointed the (in)action of other involved parties, namely the British and French, as a reason why efforts to rejuvenate the country's political structure failed following the 2011 intervention in the North African state.

Indeed, Obama indicated that the "very cheap" and "well executed" 2011 U.N.-mandated plan seemed to work as he noted: "We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict," he continues in the interview "...and despite all that, Libya is a mess."

The U.S. President also acknowledged how "the degree of tribal division in Libya was greater than our analysts had expected," and contributed to the mess. Both of these points characterize a grander misunderstanding of the Libyan quagmire.

It is no secret that, since the foundation of the state of Libya as we know it today (and even before that), divisions in the country have existed. Indeed, the tribal, regional and strategic alliances which exist in the country have always rejected being ruled under a homogenized structure, whether it be manufactured from within or without the country. This was the case during the Ottoman Empire, the Italian Occupation, the Italian Colony of Libya, the Allied Mandate rule (British and French), under King Idris al-Senussi and the former Muammar al-Gaddafi regime's presence and rule over the country.

Indeed, during these different 'eras of rule,' the country has seen continued unrest, both violent and otherwise, as the different facets of Libyan society conveyed their opposing stances to one another. Gaddafi, for his part, managed these differences by ruling with an iron fist under his revolutionary Jamahiriya and attempts at reform 'regimes.' His downfall, however, came when the disparities between the different actors in Libya became too great as they rode the so-called 'Arab Spring' wave which hit the country in early 2011. His removal therefore simply removed the lid of the chaos which ensued.

The Obama Administration's role in this, and the invested international community, is explicitly implicated as an enabler to the current unrest. Obama noted how the coalition's "ability to have any kind of structure there that we could interact with and start training and start providing resources broke down very quickly."

The problem was, the structure which was assumed to be there did not exist. Certainly not in the guise of a conventional state system. It is at this point that Obama seems to distance himself from the reconstruction efforts noting how the U.K.'s Prime Minister, David Cameron, was "distracted," and the then French Prime Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, was more concerned with blowing the "trumpet" of the air campaign. But this, yet again, shows how the American leader's focus is far away from the underlying cause of the Libyan failure. That is, the continued lack of importance given to the fundamental differing interests among groups in Libya's society.

Obama is not alone in this misunderstanding. The international community, in the guise of the U.N. 'unity government' epitomizes this point further. Indeed, whilst the U.N. had been formulating, proposing and effectively establishing the 'unity government' (now located in Tunisia), power brokers in Libya had and have continued to reject the 'externally implemented government,' including the existing two rivaling governments in the country (the GNC and HoR).

The result is, effectively three Libyan governments, each with differing and conflicting aims. It would be almost foolish to think that such an environment would not have been attractive to the likes of Daesh (ISIS) to establish a foothold in the country.

Indeed, Libya today is epitomized as having internal divisions and conflicts within the country between the GNC, HoR as well as other parties, militias and actors, with the presence of the terrorist Daesh organization added to the mix, and to pressurize the situation even more so, an externally implemented third U.N.-mandated unity government. The conceptual drivers of the ongoing unrest are no different to when Obama took the decision in 2011 to work with the coalition and remove Gaddafi.

But what is clear is that the lack of misunderstanding is still present. Therefore, if not enough credence is given to the complexity of Libyan society, and accounted for when attempting to end the conflict, then it may ultimately continue to be a hindrance rather than assistance to any form of peace in the country. What's more, it is extremist organizations like Daesh that come out on top in all this.

Dr Amir M. Kamel is a Lecturer in Defense, Security and International Studies at King's College London. His research and interests lie in impact of the economy on politics, with a focus on foreign policies towards the Middle East.