By Will O’Brien
As the civil war in Libya approaches the decade mark, many in the international community and certain segments of Libyan society have started to look for seemingly simple solutions to end the conflict.
One of the solutions that has started to gain traction is the potential partitioning of Libya into two separate nation-states. This is a bad idea.
For international bodies, western alliances, and separatist powers, partitioning states was a hallmark of twentieth century statecraft. This relic of a bygone age ostensibly “fixed” a handful of global conflicts—such as Ireland, Israel, and India—which contain some of the most militarily and politically contested borders in the world today.
There are three primary arguments against partitioning Libya:
(a) the historical outcomes of partitioned countries,
(b) the potential for exacerbating the ongoing proxy war in Libya, and
(c) the risk of degrading international institutions.
History is against partitioning
The historical case against partitioning is twofold. First, partitioning remains a divisive relic of the colonial era. Second, the timeline to achieve peace and stability after partitioning cannot be known.
Partitioning was a standard practice to sow division and make it easier to govern divided territories and countries. Proponents of partition argue that it brings peace and stability to the region quickly; the historical examples below would suggest otherwise.
Three key examples of partition illustrate its utility for twentieth century colonial powers seeking to divide and conquer, thereby debunking the claim that it is a quick solution to conflict.
The first historical example to consider is Ireland.
At the end of the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), Ireland was partitioned by the United Kingdom in 1921 following the passage of the Government of Ireland Act of 1920.
This sparked the Irish Civil War and led to the three decades of insurgency known widely as “the Troubles.” The political and military upheavals that stem directly from the partitioning of Ireland have remained contentious for a century.
As recent as September of this year, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was revisited as a source of tension during Brexit negotiations.
The most well-known example of partition—and the closest to Libya geographically—is the partitioning of the British Mandate of Palestine in 1947 along ethnic-religious lines and the subsequent creation of the state of Israel a year later.
The recent establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the opposition by the Palestinian authority, and ongoing conflict demonstrate that partitioning successfully divided the region’s population, but did not manage to bring peace.
The final historical case against partition is the division of colonial India and the creation of the dominions of India and Pakistan. Britain partitioned India—again, along ethnic-religious lines—the same year it partitioned British Mandate Palestine.
The partitioning led to the Kashmir conflict, decades of skirmishes, nuclear buildup in the region, and the continued contestation of nearly 120,000 square miles of territory.
In September, the army chiefs of both India and Pakistan engaged in a rhetorical standoff over military capabilities and threatened conflict.
In brief, these historical case studies demonstrate that partitioning is not a tool to end division and conflict. Rather, partition has heightened divisive forces, prolonged armed conflicts, and intensified political rivalries.
Proxy war by a different name
Partitioning Libya would prolong the violent conflict that the country has been experiencing for nearly a decade. The conflict in Libya has devolved from a revolution in 2011 to oust Gaddafi into a proxy war with two different Libyan governments claiming legitimacy on the basis of differing international support.
The Government of National Accord led by Prime Minster Fayez Al-Sarraj was established by the United Nations (UN) in 2015 and is nominally supported by a broad group of Western democracies and NATO allies, including the United States and the United Kingdom (however, Turkey has emerged as the GNA’s primary backer).
The Tobruk-based government of General Khalifa Haftar is supported by Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.
The partitioning of Libya alone is not enough to discourage all international actors from supporting the armed conflict. More importantly, partition cannot meet the people’s desires for increased democratization and improved governance in Libya.
This proxy war allows self-interested governments with authoritarian tendencies—including the government of General Haftar—to undermine the democratic desires of the Libyan people that sparked the 2011 revolution during the Arab Spring.
Furthermore, a partitioned Libya would not stop international actors from injecting the military armaments that are fueling the war.
Consider the aforementioned historical examples; partitioning Ireland led to financial and political support for violence from Irish Americans.
Similarly, the Arab league has provided financial support for the Palestinian Authority. While the foreign actors’ faith in General Haftar may waver, some—notably Egypt—remain committed to opposing GNA allies in Eastern Libya.
An attempt to draw a partition between these two sides will merely change the rhetoric of political scientists, who will rebrand the civil war as a war between bordering nation-states.
This will not increase the accountability of Libyan government(s) to the citizens of Libya, nor will it change the daily lives of millions of Libyans who have lived in a country divided by conflict for nearly a decade.
The 2011 Arab Uprising was a missed opportunity to build strong, democratic institutions in North Africa. The partitioning of Libya draws a line in the sand that will be impossible to reverse; the hope for a united, democratic government will be all but extinguished.
The proxy war—be it civil or between two newly formed states—will continue until unity-focused diplomatic solutions can be implemented. Partition cannot inherently end armed conflict—it can only complicate a potential reunification.
Leaning into international institutions
Partitioning Libya would further undermine the international institutions that could support democracy and stability in Libya and North Africa.
We are at a moment that requires greater support for international institutions and their ability to convene decision-makers to build political consensus.
The power and legitimacy of international institutions are degraded when they appear to set up pathways for democratic growth and then stand by as violent conflicts fester.
The United Nations’ assistance in establishing the GNA in Libya five years ago was critical to supporting peace, unity, and democracy in Libya.
The subsequent creation of a parallel government in Tobruk sabotaged this step, increased division, and prolonged the violence in Libya. This divisive response cannot be repaired through the even more divisive act of partitioning.
Partitioning Libya moves the goalposts a decade into the conflict. What began as a movement to build a democratic government in Libya cannot be seen as successful if there are two states, potentially at war, with differing levels of adherence to democratic values and practices.
This will reaffirm to separatists that the UN and other international bodies will abandon half a nation if they can draw out conflict for a decade.
The UN, Arab League, African Union, and international governments must use their platforms to facilitate diplomatic communications that build political consensus around supporting fledgling democracies.
Furthermore, they must support the hard work of establishing domestic and international coalitions to build democratic systems in the first place.
The dangerous precedent set by failing to support a UN-backed government coupled with the lack of diplomatic options to reverse partitioning demonstrates the need for Libya to forgo partitioning and lean into the strength of international institutions to support a unified state.
The path ahead
The path forward for a united Libya hinges on Libyans’ aspirations for peace, the political will of Libya’s two governments, and the support of the international community to find a peaceful solution that can lay the groundwork for stability in Libya.
This will require three difficult, yet, essential steps: rebuilding political consensus for a united Libya, which has dissipated since 2015, negotiating a ceasefire that is respected by all parties, and creating a long-term, diplomatic pathway forward.
The seeds have been planted in each of these areas, but partition would prevent these seeds from ever taking root and bearing fruit.
The international community must continue to show a vested interest in long-term peace and stability in Libya and the broader Mediterranean region. Constructive engagement with Libya and regional partners must follow the Hippocratic principle of “first, do no harm.”
Partitioning Libya is a diplomatic band-aid that merely substitutes a border war for a civil war, degrades the legitimacy of international institutions, and prolongs the political and military conflict in Libya. It is time to throw out the twentieth century playbook.
The twenty-first century answer will require greater focus on diplomacy, stronger international institutions, and a renewed commitment to building a stable, peaceful Libya.
Will O’Brien is the special assistant to the Atlantic Council’s executive vice president. He has a master’s degree in religion in global politics from SOAS, University of London with a focus on North Africa and the Middle East.