In a decision representative both of the growing threat of terror groups and progress in local political reconciliation, world powers have affirmed their commitment to providing support, including arms, for the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya as it combats terror groups.
The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, as well as a number of other regional and European parties, issued a joint communique on May 16 that commended the efforts of the GNA and its prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj. In particular, the joint communique focused on the security situation in Libya, noting that the parties “fully support” the GNA’s efforts to procure lethal arms with which to fight the Islamic State group and other U.N.-designated terror groups in the country.[i]
Notably, the joint communique states that the parties will continue to uphold the arms embargo on Libya, which has been in place since 2011, and later strengthened following the outbreak of civil war in 2014. At the end of March 2016, the Security Council passed Resolution 2278, which continues the arms embargo.
Al-Sarraj has argued for the complete removal of the embargo, a position backed by several other Arab states, especially Egypt.[ii] Both he and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi issued a call for the embargo’s end after a recent meeting in Egypt.[iii] Al-Sarraj noted the need for arms to fight militants like the Islamic State.
The rise of the Islamic State group’s Libya branch, in particular, is a threat both to Libya and to the region. Though not the only potent terror organization operating in Libya, it has captured significant amounts of territory, including the city of Sirte, and has threatened oil assets.
However, the concern among many in the Security Council is that lifting the arms restrictions altogether could end up exacerbating the civil war, making a long-term political solution more difficult to achieve. Moreover, there is a possibility that arms sent to the country could be diverted into the hands of militant groups or sold on the black market.
Though Resolution 2278 extended the arms embargo, it specifically offers an additional exemption to the embargo in the case of requests “for the supply, sale or transfer of arms and related materiel, including ammunition and spare parts,” meant for fighting the Islamic State and al-Qaeda-linked militias.[iv] Whereas previously the Sanctions Committee could consider such requests, Resolution 2278 explicitly affirms that such requests are covered under the sanctions resolutions. As indicated by the joint communique, the Security Council and other countries are ready to meet those requests.
In addition to support for supplying weapons to the GNA, the joint communique notes the international parties’ interest in training both the Presidential Guard and other “vetted forces” in Libya. The Presidential Guard, a new military force that was announced earlier this month,[v] draws from security troops from around the country. It will protect important institutions like the Central Bank of Libya, as well as airports, ports, and electricity lines.
The possibility remains that arms sent to aid efforts against the Islamic State or other terror groups could be diverted toward other ends, such as transfer onto the black market, or used to refuel the civil war.
Any arms shipped under the auspices of Resolution 2278’s provisions are intended for fighting terror groups, but once delivered there is no guarantee of their use, particularly if a showdown occurs with militia groups outside the GNA’s fold or the formerly U.N.-recognized Tobruk government. Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Tobruk government’s forces, has already shown his willingness to buck the GNA’s demands,[vi] by ordering his forces to march on Sirte despite the GNA’s call to temporarily halt the offensive until a unified command can be established.
What the Security Council is hoping for, however, is to provide the GNA with tools to help it maintain security, which in turn promotes the unity government’s image as an entity able to effectively govern and bring about greater political reconciliation. Key institutions in the country – like the central bank and the national oil company – have already given their support for the GNA. The international community is looking to do the same, with an aim toward bringing stability back to Libya.
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