Stefano Marcuzzi

Libya’s decade of crisis

In March 2011, a coalition of countries under the United Nations (UN) umbrella led militarily by NATO launched an air campaign in support of a series of revolts against the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, ostensibly to stop Qaddafi’s reprisals on civilians. By the end of October, Qaddafi was dead and his regime had collapsed.

A number of NATO countries, as well as the European Union (EU), committed themselves to supporting Libya’s stabilization and democratization. But, in fact, the intervention’s aftermath saw the disintegration of the country.

The following decade was punctuated by military escalations, culminating in two further wars in 2014-15 and 2019-20, which were at the same time intra-Libyan wars and proxy wars waged by regional and global powers such as Russia, Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, France, and Saudi Arabia, each supporting a local party in the conflict with weapons, mercenaries, and occasionally some regular forces.

Furthermore, the collapse of a central authority in Libya favored the expansion of jihadist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, and the establishment of lucrative illicit activities, including arms, drugs, and people smuggling.

Currently, Libya is still a divided country, with two competing governments based in Tripoli and Sirte. Over eight hundred thousand people out of some seven million living in the country are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, and an unknown number of migrants, possibly up to six hundred thousand, are stuck in inhuman detention centers along Libya’s coast, where they suffer well-documented abuses.

Unable to prevent large-scale human suffering on the ground, the Western promoters of the 2011 intervention, as well as the EU—which supported it politically and attempted to play a key role in Libya’s reconstruction—have also failed to protect vital Western interests in the region.

As a consequence of the Libyan crisis, Europe was exposed to a number of challenges and threats, including the spread of jihadism a mere 180 miles from EU territory, an unprecedented migration crisis via the central Mediterranean, and the decrease in hydrocarbon imports from Libya due to sporadic drops in Libyan production.

Additionally, NATO and EU countries have progressively lost influence in the region to the benefit of external players largely hostile to them.

NATO, the Afghanistan syndrome, and the limits of half measures

The irony of the 2011 intervention is that, although it became associated with NATO and was even considered a manifestation of NATO’s imperialism, the anti-Qaddafi campaign was not planned and executed as a proper NATO operation.

By the time NATO intervened with Operation Unified Protector (OUP) on March 31, four operations were already ongoing against Qaddafi (one French, one British, one American, and one Canadian).

The Alliance, heavily committed in Afghanistan, was unhappy to be involved in Libya, and was divided. Some member states, such as Britain and Italy, were willing to use NATO assets; many more, including France (the most active promoter of the anti-Qaddafi intervention), Germany, Turkey, and the Eastern European members were either unconvinced or totally uninterested, each for its own reason.

The United States, for its part, supported the intervention but wanted to take a backseat—what President Barack Obama famously termed “leading from behind.” The final decision to involve NATO in the conflict was dictated by military considerations, namely the need for better coordination, clearer command and control, and stronger assets as the war lasted for longer than anticipated.

Accordingly, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen promised that the Alliance would protect the Libyan people and ensure a “smooth and inclusive transition” to a united state “founded on reconciliation and respect of human rights.” Despite that rhetoric, however, the Alliance continued to show limited interest in a serious and prolonged commitment and was self-restrained in several aspects, which hampered its overall ability to properly manage the crisis.

At the political level, and in contrast to previous NATO operations, the direction of the war was not given to the North Atlantic Council, the political body of the Alliance, but to a Libya Contact Group made of delegates of the countries participating in the coalition. NATO was tasked only with the military operations.

That meant that NATO could not exercise political oversight of non-NATO members of the coalition, some of which—especially the Qataris and the Emiratis—played a critical role in arming and training some Libyan rebel factions bilaterally. But this strengthened peripheral forces in Libya at the expense of the authority of the newly constituted National Transitional Council (NTC)—the political forum that gathered representatives of the various anti-Qaddafi groups.

This situation exacerbated intra-Libyan rivalries and tied specific rebel militias to foreign patrons that would later use that leverage to wage a proxy war in Libya.

At the strategic level, the Libya Contact Group opted for the stricter possible interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973 authorizing “all necessary means,” short of “occupation forces,” to protect Libyan civilians and adopted the “no boots on the ground” rule for NATO.

This served to meet anxieties in NATO countries that they would not be dragged into a prolonged nation-building endeavor, and to foster greater international support for the operation. But without ground support, NATO’s air assets experienced growing difficulty in distinguishing between rebel forces and Qaddafi loyalists, which slowed down operations and led to increasing (perhaps avoidable) collateral damage.

This also spurred individual member states, in particular France and Britain, to pursue several initiatives parallel to OUP, including the deployment of Special Forces, which was seen internationally as a violation of the no boots on the ground rule, and which alienated important players, including the African Union and Russia.

NATO was also handicapped operationally by the limited assets available. At its peak, OUP involved about 260 aircraft—approximately one-quarter of the force dedicated to the 1998 Kosovo operation at its height. This was a consequence of the “coalition formula” for the intervention itself, which allowed half the allies—including all the Eastern European members—to decline their participation.

Such a decision, which broke the traditional NATO motto “all for one, one for all,” was another consequence of the lack of a political commitment of the Alliance as a whole.

When OUP ended, NATO military authorities made a strong case that, without a stabilization force to ensure a peaceful post-conflict transition, and without prolonged support to the fragile Libyan leadership that had emerged from the revolution, the risk of chaos and state failure was serious.

Secretary General Rasmussen agreed. Some plans were drafted, in coordination with the UN and the EU, which included a three-layer scheme for the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of Libyan militiamen. However, virtually all NATO member states were anxious to avoid “anything remotely resembling an Afghanistan scenario.”

The new Libyan authorities themselves were uninterested in a foreign presence in their country, possibly without fully realizing the challenges that lay ahead. Thus, what NATO offered to Libya in the intervention’s aftermath was technical support in defense capacity building, an option that remained in the air to date, while individual member states attempted limited DDR schemes for Libyan militiamen outside Libya.

These were characterized by common problems: lack of coordination, differing training and selection standards, and a lack of a monitoring mechanism for the reintegration of the trained personnel into Libya. The Libyan trainees were “flown back, and then they disappeared into the background.” By 2015, all programs were shut down in frustration.

This left Libyan authorities alone in dealing with the multitude of armed groups, which spurred the fateful decision of the NTC to appease them with a salary. This not only legitimized the militias but attracted more and more militiamen (from some 40,000 in 2012 to 250,000 two years later), and with less appetite for disarmament.

They came to dominate Libya’s political landscape, kidnapping politicians, imposing legislation at gunpoint, and extracting funds from Libya’s economic institutions. Libya was set on a path of warlordism, sectarianism, and incumbent political violence.


Stefano marcuzzi – University College Dublin, Libya Analysis Llc, Nato Defense College Foundation


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