Six years after the U.S.-backed intervention in Libya, the Trump administration allegedly has plans to partition the country in order to achieve stability. Sebastian Gorka, a military and intelligence analyst and national security advisor to Donald Trump, first suggested the idea in the weeks preceding the inauguration.
During a meeting with a senior European diplomat, Gorka apparently sketched the potential divisions on a napkin. The proposed partition would divide the country into three regions modeled after the Ottoman provinces of Cyrenaica in the east, Tripolitania in the north-west, and Fezzan in the south-west. These provinces would effectively act as separate nations.
Experts on Libya, as well as journalists and foreign diplomats, have all widely criticized the plan. Should the country actually be divided, a majority of its oil reserves would end up in the eastern province Cyrenaica, while Tripolitania and Fezzan would be left with almost nothing. Given Libya’s reliance on oil revenues to sustain the public sector, these demarcations could devastate the populations of Tripolitania and Fezzan. Possible border disputes aimed at reclaiming the oil would only worsen the current conflict and potentially ignite another civil war.
Partition could also create border disputes with Libya’s neighbors, Algeria, Chad, Sudan, and Egypt. Each nation may lay claim to parts of the newly formed territories, turning the Libyan conflict into a regional conflict.
Many observers believe, however, that the United States ultimately will not pursue partition. In an interview with Sputnik International, Libyan expert Abu Bakr al-Ansari argued that the Gorka proposal is likely an attempt to probe “possible reactions to the suggestion within the country, in the region and within the international community.” While this might be the case, the imprudent plan is likely the product of a U.S. administration that has no idea how to approach Libya, particularly while the country is caught within factional rivalries.
After the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, Libya became mired in conflict, as opposing political actors vied for power. Since 2014, political power has been split between two rival governments, each of which maintains a separate parliament and military in an ongoing struggle to win control over the entire country.
Seen as the best option for achieving stability, the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) is based in Tripoli and is led by Fayez al-Sarraj, chairman of Libya’s Presidential Council. The GNA, which controls western Libya, is backed by the UN and received strong support from the Obama Administration.
On the other side is Khalifa Haftar’s rival government in Tobruk, which essentially controls eastern Libya. Haftar, an anti-Islamist strongman, has received a great deal of support from Russia, and may now be gaining support within the Trump administration.
With the help of Ari Ben-Menashe, an Israeli security consultant based in Canada, Haftar has been attempting to persuade the Trump administration to withdraw support for the GNA and back the Tobruk government instead. The Tobruk government, which has been fighting the GNA for control of Libya’s oil revenues, would certainly not support partition, as its end goal is singular control of Libya.
Although Trump has not made any public statements on Libya since taking office, he has previously stated that the Middle East would be safer if Muammar Gaddafi were still in power. He would presumably prefer a similar military dictator in power now, and might, therefore, be open to supporting Haftar, diametrically shifting U.S. policy in Libya.
Writing for The Libya Observer, political analyst Emadeddin Muntasser anticipates that both Western oil companies and the U.S. government will view Haftar favorably “as a strongman who can offer stability and security in the face of terrorism.” Muntasser ultimately fears, however, that the installation of another dictator will create a situation parallel to that in Syria at the moment.
While the partition of Libya may thankfully not come to fruition, U.S. support for Haftar may spark a resurgence in authoritarianism, as well as greater destabilization in Libya.