Canada has become the latest in a long line of countries to withdraw its diplomatic staff from Tripoli, as Libya continues its descent into chaos. Fighting between rival militias has claimed hundreds of lives, shuttered the international airport and fuelled an exodus of Libyans across the borders. A raging fire at a fuel storage depot near Tripoli is perhaps the ultimate searing symbol of the country’s demise.
The safety of Canadian diplomatic staff is paramount. It’s impossible to fault Ottawa, or other Western countries, for pulling their people back when the country’s central government power has faded away, even in the capital. Libya must not be allowed to continue its stagger towards failed-state status. Three years ago, Canada played a key role in a UN-backed intervention to dislodge Moammar Gadhafi’s 42-year-long dictatorship. Libya is in need of international assistance now, more than ever.
Canadian Air Force jets flew 446 missions over Libya – 10 per cent of the NATO total. Airstrikes coupled with a naval blockade demonstrated what swift, coordinated action by the alliance could accomplish. Seven months after Libya’s Arab Spring protests began, Col. Gadhafi was overthrown. Elections were prepared. Stable, representative government seemed to be at hand.
This democratic victory, however, proved short-lived. Col. Ghadafi’s death left a power vacuum with virtually no national institutions to take his place. Various militias have vied to fill the void, to catastrophic effect. Today, Libya is riven not by a single civil war, but by competing conflicts. Warring factions from Misurata and Zintan are overlaid with a struggle between Islamists and secularists. Another complicating factor comes in the form of a former general, Khalifa Hifter, who has ordered his fighters to essentially purge the country of those loyal to Islam, from jihadists to average Muslims. These competing fighting forces outgun the central government, or what’s left of it.
Realizing there is no other option, Libya is now seeking international assistance as a stabilizing force. Canada and other Western countries that rushed to Libya’s aid not long ago should consider doing so again – but in a different way. Militarily, Libyan state security forces could be bolstered with trainers. Given its experience in Afghanistan, Canada is particularly well-suited to offer support. Diplomatically, the United Nations should also offer to mediate between Libya’s warring factions. The interests of those competing factions will have to be acknowledged and to some degree accommodated to save the state.
Looking at what's left of Libya today, it's clear NATO’s work did not end with the ouster of Col. Ghadafi. That was only the beginning. If Libya is to avoid becoming a failed state, the real work needs to start now.