Libyan Militias: The West’s Partners Against ISIS?
In a piece for the Global Observatory, Nate Mason outlines various cultural and structural variables contributing to the current strife in Libya, dating back to the nature of the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. The aversion of rival militias toward forging unified command structures arises from both a disdain of central authorities and an underlying distrust of oil revenue management. This trend has become exacerbated as attempts to forge a GNA have become more fraught with corruption and incompetence. As the UN-backed “Presidency Council” has not secured a popular mandate or an semblance of constitutional legitimacy, it is a very thin reed upon which to hang coordination against ISIS. As the Nascent Government lacks its own forces, Western powers are force into partnering with local militias against ISIS. However, despite the GNA’s arrival in Tripoli, there will likely be a delay in decisive militia action against ISIS so long as the local militias demand more training, supplies, and support which they can use against their rivals rathe than working together against ISIS. Should efforts to delegate and decentralize power fail, Mason explains that convincing militias that conflict over oil revenue is actually a positive-sum not a zero-sum game is crucial.
For the foreseeable future, with or without a unity government, the factors that have propelled civil war will continue to drive conflict. Despite the emerging ISIS threat and ongoing economic collapse, most of Libya’s rival factions remain focused on maximizing short-term profits and subjugating one another. Indeed, the militias have shown little inclination toward unity or recognition of the threat of extremists. On the contrary, they have often cynically used the threat of ISIS to advance their own agendas.
Some Libyans view ISIS’ presence in Sirte as a mere rebranding of Gaddafi loyalists and reject the notion that it has widespread appeal elsewhere. This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of ISIS strategy. The group initially participates in local politics by aligning with existing tribes. In this way, it is not perceived as an outside influence, against which Libyan culture has very strong protective instincts. Instead, ISIS is essentially treated as just another tribe to be negotiated with in traditional ways. This in large part explains the complacency of Libyans in the face of the group.
It is a high stakes gamble for all involved: the militias may underestimate ISIS, while foreign powers may install warlords not long after deposing a dictator.
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