U.S., Europe weigh sanctions, armed force for Libya

Planes were damaged as one group of militia fighters captured the airport in Tripoli, Libya's capital, from another group.
(Mahmud Turkia / AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration and its European allies are weighing their options for greater involvement in Libya, including sanctions against warlords and an armed international force to help stabilize the North African country, diplomats said Tuesday.

With Egypt and the United Arab Emirates secretly cooperating in airstrikes in Libya in the last two weeks, diplomats will meet Wednesday at the United Nations Security Council to consider joint action aimed at defusing the conflict before it grows worse and aggravates regionwide instability.

Fear of a broader Mideast struggle between supporters and foes of Islamist groups “is forcing some rethinking,” said a European diplomat who asked to remain unidentified, citing diplomatic sensitivities. “It seems clear we need to start doing something differently.”


Some diplomats are looking at sending in an international force to help Libya’s paralyzed government become functional. U.S. combat troops would not be involved, officials say.

The force, consisting of troops from a variety of nations, possibly under U.N. leadership, would seek to protect the central government and prevent marauding militias from interfering with its operations.

Western officials have been deeply reluctant to entertain the idea of sending a foreign force, fearful that it might be viewed as an invader.

But desperate Libyan officials have publicly asked for foreign military help this year, and U.S. officials said they now are willing to consider the idea.

“We just need to understand more of what they need,” said a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk about the internal deliberations.

Officials also are looking at imposing economic sanctions and travel bans on Libyan militia leaders, especially those with families, bank accounts and business dealings in Europe, to pressure them to back down.


“If they think they might lose all of that, it could change their calculations,” said Mattia Toaldo, a London-based analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Diplomats and private experts acknowledge that the proposals face daunting obstacles, both because of Libya’s growing conflict and the limits of Western resources and interest.

The United States and Europe have tried to help Libya become a stable democracy since a North Atlantic Treaty Organization air war helped insurgents oust former ruler Moammar Kadafi in 2011.

Libya instead devolved into a semi-lawless state, with a patchwork of warring militias, some secular, some Islamist, or focused on tribal and local issues. The country has two rival parliaments in different cities, each claiming to be its legitimate representative body. The growing chaos has attracted terrorist groups, as well as drug and arms trafficking.

President Obama told the New York Times this month that he regretted that his administration and Europe had not done more to help set Libya on the road to stability after Kadafi’s fall.

Western governments, immersed in economic and foreign policy crises, have withdrawn most or all of their personnel as the violence has worsened. The U.S. Embassy in Tripoli was evacuated July 26.

U.S. officials were caught off guard this week when UAE warplanes operating from Egyptian bases carried out airstrikes in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent Islamist militias from seizing Tripoli’s international airport. The militias are reported to be in control of much of the capital.

The intrusion by the UAE awakened concern that Mideast monarchies and secular rulers fearful of Islamist groups, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are lining up against regional powers that support them, such as Qatar and Turkey.

In a statement Monday night, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy called for an end to foreign intervention and said they want the U.N. Security Council to discuss imposing “consequences on those who disrupt Libya’s peace and stability.”

Frederic Wehrey, a Libya specialist with the nonpartisan Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he sees a “real momentum now for some sort of international stabilization force” for Libya.

But he said working out its mission, finding nations willing to contribute troops, and persuading militias to accept its presence will be challenging.

Wolfgang Pusztai, a Vienna-based Libya specialist, said a foreign force could become a target for terrorist groups in the region, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Persuading Arab neighbors to stand down may also be a challenge. The Abdel Fattah Sisi government in Egypt sees legitimate security issues in the flow of arms and drugs from Libya, and it views the Islamist threat as an existential one, Wehrey said.

Brian Katulis, a Middle East specialist at the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress, noted that Western governments have suffered repeated setbacks in previous efforts to help the Libyan government build its defense forces and control its borders.

“You’ve got a country in a downward spiral into fragmentation,” he said.

Follow @richtpau on Twitter