Libya: What is the Cost of Inaction?

In what was arguably one of the most shocking foreign policy developments and biggest news items of that year, NATO-aligned forces invaded Libya in March of 2011 to topple the-then de facto leader of the Libyan Arab Republic, Muammar al-Gaddafi; better known to the western world as Colonel Gaddafi.

Yet today, in 2020, those who do not regularly acquaint themselves with foreign policy developments could be forgiven for not being aware of the present-day developments in Libya. Although the current state of the world is not exactly short of a crisis to report, it is bewildering nonetheless that the developments in Libya receive so little attention in mainstream media.[1]

The NATO-led invasion of Libya shocked the world, and for the first time, it brought the country into the mainstream consciousness. Although some may argue that the invasion was, in an overall sense, beneficial for Libya, it is an irrefutable fact that the invasion itself was deeply catastrophic for Libya and the wider North Africa region as well.[2] Death toll figures vary, but on account of Libya’s National Transition Council 30,000 died and 50,000 were wounded.

It would be somewhat of a safe bet then that most would agree that, on balance, it would probably be better that Libya isn’t invaded again. If not for the Libyan people, for the rest of the world.

Yet unfortunately, the country is now in crisis, quite possibly on the brink of another international incident.[3] Complacency is the enemy.

Here’s why the situation in Libya is so serious.

Nine years on from Gaddafi’s removal, Libya remains a deeply divided country.[4] Two parties are vying for control of Libya: the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA). Notably, the LNA currently controls the crucial port city of Sirte in eastern Libya, where much of the country’s oil-producing assets sit.[5] Both the GNA and the LNA are supported, economically and in some cases militarily, by foreign states, for various economic and political reasons.[6]

This means that there are two very large and extremely well-funded armed groups vying to control a state with huge economic potential that has no effective ‘main’ government.

It is inevitable that at some point, unless some form of agreement is reached whereby the whole of Libya is controlled by a single, UN-recognised government, that external intervention will come, and with it, violence, an exodus of Libyan citizens and regional chaos.

Here’s why you should care.

There is good reason why Italy has chosen to back the GNA government in Libya. Italy is reachable by sea from Libya, so from Rome’s perspective, backing the GNA is a matter of national security.[7]

There are really no winners if an exodus of Libyans flee to Europe to avoid another catastrophic invasion. Although Italy is (technically) reachable by sea from Libya, it is nonetheless an extremely treacherous crossing, where the possibility of migrant deaths is very high.[8]

Should the refugees make it to Italy in one piece, the COVID-19 pandemic poses a unique challenge in the sense that Libyan refugees could act as ‘super-spreaders’ of the disease as they move around Europe if they are infected with COVID-19. It has also been shown that refugee communities, because of their propensity to live in high-density living and lower-than-average living conditions, are more at risk of infection.[9] Given the highly infectious nature of the disease, it is not out of the question for a resurgence in infections in Italy to have global implications.

There’s a second reason why you should care about Libya: NATO & Russia. For a considerable time now, Russia has been active in Libya. Russia considers Libya as the ‘weak underbelly’ of Europe and from Day 1 Moscow has sought to exploit the lack of consensus, particularly the lack of Western consensus [10], over who governs Libya for its own benefit and to undermine NATO’s effectiveness in the region.[11]

Although better reserved for a separate discussion, the strength of NATO has decreased significantly since 2011, on account of the Trump administration’s decision to decrease NATO funding [12], the movement of Turkey away as a U.S. ally [13] and the decision to withdraw 12,000 American troops from Germany.[14]  Russia’s involvement in Libya presents yet another challenge to NATO.

Without a proper consensus on who governs Libya, Russia (who supports the LNA) can use its relationship with the LNA to use Libya for its own nefarious purposes, such as by building military bases in the country.

Libya is something of a ‘perfect storm’ situation. Where an interest in oil assets, political Islam, the weakening of NATO and the COVID-19 pandemic collide together.

In Libya’s case, the cost of inaction and complacency is too great to fathom.



1. Gberie, L 2018, ‘Forgotten war: a crisis deepens in Libya but where are the cameras?’ Africa Renewal (United Nations), December 2017-March 2018 edition, <https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/december-2017-march-2018/forgotten-war-crisis-deepens-libya-where-are-cameras&gt;

2. Milne, S 2011, ‘If the Libyan war was about saving lives, it was a catastrophic failure’, The Guardian, 27 October 2011, <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/oct/26/libya-war-saving-lives-catastrophic-failure&gt;

3. Bremmer, I 2019, ‘The Quick Read About… What’s Happening in Libya’, Time, April 12 2019, <https://time.com/5569624/whats-happening-in-libya/&gt;

4. Fielder, J 2019, ‘Libya, a country divided: From Gaddafi to Haftar, how did they get here?’, Euronews, 6 April 2019, <https://www.euronews.com/2019/04/05/libya-a-country-divided-from-gaddafi-to-haftar-how-did-they-get-here&gt;

5. ‘Libya: Mapping areas of military control’ – Al Jazeera https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2020/06/libya-mapping-areas-military-control-200604114507211.html

6. Chughtai, A & Allahoum, R 2020, ‘Libya’s war: Who is supporting whom’, Al Jazeera, 27 June 2020, <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/01/libya-war-supporting-200104110325735.html&gt;

7. Varvelli, A & Megerisi, T 2020, ‘Italy’s chance in Libya’, European Council on Foreign Relations, 16 June 2020, <https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_italys_chance_in_libya&gt;

8. Dehghan, S 2017, ‘Migrant sea route to Italy is world’s most lethal’, The Guardian, 11 September 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/11/migrant-death-toll-rises-after-clampdown-on-east-european-borders&gt;

9. Kluge, H, Jakab, Z, Bartovic, J, D’Anna, V, Severoni, A 2020, ‘Refugee and migrant health in the COVID-19 response’, The Lancet, vol. 395, no. 10232, pp. 1237-1239, <https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30791-1/fulltext?dgcid=hubspot_email_newsletter_tlcoronavirus20&utm_campaign=tlcoronavirus20&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=85659804&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-9AOxncNHTK1GIhH6-FENNTUYXO0qrXAeBcoOE7ZvvkScMmb748HVE9sSwVrNFvc5dWezuiXJT1x9F2uHeL7X29_VA5AgEHpxsTcWJKwTfmrA1jojQ&_hsmi=85659804&gt;

10. Editorial Board 2019, ‘France and Italy Should Lead on Libya’, Bloomberg Opinion, 11 April 2019, <https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-04-11/libya-conflict-france-and-italy-should-stop-squabbling-and-lead&gt;

11. Dixon, R 2020, ‘Russia’s ally in Libya is battered by defeats. But Moscow has wider goals to expand its influence’, Washington Post, June 6 2020, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/russia-libya-war-putin/2020/06/05/c3956bf4-a109-11ea-be06-af5514ee0385_story.html&gt;

12. Browne, R 2019, ‘Trump administration to cut its financial contribution to NATO’, CNN, November 28 2019, <https://edition.cnn.com/2019/11/27/politics/trump-nato-contribution-nato/index.html&gt;

13. Kuczyński, G 2019, ‘Is Turkey NATO’s Weak Link?’, Warsaw Institute, 22 July 2019, <https://warsawinstitute.org/turkey-natos-weak-link/&gt;

14. Stewart, P & Ali, I 2020, ‘We don’t want to be the suckers’: US to withdraw 12,000 troops from Germany’ Sydney Morning Herald, July 30 2020, <https://www.smh.com.au/world/europe/we-don-t-want-to-be-the-suckers-us-to-withdraw-12-000-troops-from-germany-20200730-p55grj.html&gt;

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