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Egypt’s Push to Lift Libyan Arms Embargo Could Lead the Country to Unravel Further

The proposal to lift sanctions could go beyond allowing Libyans to purchase weapons (presumably to fight IS), and could involve more coalition airstrikes.

by Steven Tomaszewski
Feb 24 2015, 7:19pm

Photo via Wikipedia Commons

With Islamic State (IS) militants ramping up operations in North Africa, the current Libyan government, along with Egypt, is calling on the UN Security Council for an end to an arms embargo in order to give Libya a fighting chance against the Islamic extremists.

Economic sanctions were introduced by US President Barack Obama in February 2011 to stop transactions between anyone in the US and senior officials in Libya as part of a broader crackdown (and sometimes bombing) campaign on then Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi.

Libyan sanctions run deep across several international organizations, and Western governments so far have not shown a willingness to change policies towards the country, fearing the possibility that the Libyan government may use terrorism as an excuse to kill off its political opposition.

In March 2011, the UN Security Council unanimously passed its own round of sanctions against Libya, freezing global assets and placing a travel ban on Qaddafi's inner circle. In addition, the Security Council called on member states to put an arms embargo on Libya, stopping the sale or transfer of "weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary equipment… technical assistance, training, financial or other assistance… including the provision of armed mercenary personnel."

After the UN cut off the sale of armed mercenary personnel, the European Union was the next international entity to formally stick it to Libya. The same month the UN passed its embargo, the EU followed suit, banning everything on the EU Common Military List — which is a great deal more specific than the previous embargoes, listing specific items like fuel cells, robots, and paragliders.

Soon after the death of Qaddafi in October 2011, Libya descended into a mosh pit of warring factions involving an internationally recognized government, a moderate Islamist minority, tribal groups, and a slew of Islamic extremist groups, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. By the time IS loyalists began to work their way into Libya in 2014, they found a pre-made sanctuary of chaos and lawlessness, which is now allowing them to establish a foothold in the country.

Related: Jordan Executes Two Militants and Vows 'Earth-Shaking' Response to Islamic State

As a coalition against IS and its affiliates began to form, bringing in nations across the Middle East and North Africa, the terror group dialed up the evil with two back-to-back atrocities — the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot and the beheading of 21 Egyptians. Both have sparked an international reaction that has called the wisdom of US, UN, and EU sanctions in Libya into question.

A few days after IS burnt the Jordanian pilot to death in Syria earlier this month, the international community rallied around Jordan and their crackdown against IS forces. More directly, UAE and Bahrain stepped up to the plate, deploying aircraft to Jordan to stage airstrikes against IS targets in Iraq and Syria.

This was followed shortly by the horrific beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya this month. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi responded with airstrikes on the Libyan city of Derna, which sits near the border with Egypt. Looking at the international support for Jordan, Egypt apparently reasoned that it could get some global support for beating the hell out of IS, and appealed to the international community for additional military assistance.

The international community responded by sending condolences for the beheadings — but that was about it. To be fair, the US currently gives Egypt $1.5 billion per year in foreign aid, and $1.3 billion of that is for foreign military financing, which can be used to buy US weapons to fight IS.

Related: 'We Need to Do it Again, and All of Us Together': Egypt Calls for International Action on the Islamic State

Sisi has also proposed lifting the arms embargo on Libya to give the country a fighting chance against IS and other rebel groups. Domestically, the request does well for Sisi, mainly because he has established his political career on fighting Islamists in his own country. However, this is also why the Western world is skeptical about his motives for re-arming Libya.

Sisi earned his anti-Islamist stripes in 2013 when he overthrew Muslim Brotherhood-backed former President Mohamed Morsi. The current Egyptian regime has used a heavy hand toward Islamists of any type, including the moderate Libya Dawn Islamist government, which opposes the internationally recognized Libyan government based in Bayda. Western concerns revolve around whether the government would use the arms to battle IS, or would be using this as an opportunity to jump into the Libyan Civil War.

The proposal to lift sanctions could be an opening to discuss resumption of airstrikes in Libya, in a replay of 1990s Bosnia. Bosnian Serbs had outgunned the Bosnian Muslims and Croats, and in an effort to even the playing field and give the Muslims and Croats a chance to defend themselves, US lawmakers voted to lift the arms embargo to Bosnia. The lifting of the embargo in conjunction with coalition airstrikes was referred to as the "lift and strike" policy.

If history repeats itself, this discussion of ending the arms embargo could prompt a Libyan version of a "lift and strike" — going beyond allowing Libyans to purchase weapons (presumably to fight IS), and could involve more coalition airstrikes.

While a Libyan "lift and strike" policy could benefit the internationally recognized Libyan government, and save face for the current Egyptian government, it could also unravel, with lines quickly blurring between Islamist terrorists and moderate Islamic political parties that oppose the current governments.

Western powers are hesitant to lift the arms embargo for fear that the Egyptian and Libyan governments would be more interested in grinding down political minorities than fighting IS, not to mention the likelihood that those arms would eventually get into IS's hands.

Regardless, the situation in Libya remains highly unstable. It could be that the only way out is to sell everyone European-made, fuel-efficient, paragliding robots.