These developments allowed the unification of the two colonies, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, under the leadership of Marshal Pietro Badoglio. This was a major shift: Until that point, Libya had two political governments, two military commands, and two different administrations.
The Italians had faced a formidable set of foes, and made the right call in marshaling the use of all available troops on the ground and in the air, immediately and completely disarming the population and, in the end, transitioning Libya’s government from a military to a political one.
There’s a critical history lesson here, for the Libyans and for foreign powers that seek influence there: When Italians tried to unify the two already profoundly divided regions, they faced an extremely motivated enemy, with superb fighters and fine experts of the terrain who were supported by the people. That enemy had everything to win, but lacked one thing: unity.
Long after the Italians left and Libya gained independence, Sirte remained a strategic point for the country. It was the hometown of longtime Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and the birthplace of the African Union in 1999. To this day, Sirte is still the key line of contact between Libya’s two main regions.
And one year ago, ISIS took control of the city. Various Libyan militias—about 70 percent of whom have come from Misrata, the rest from all over Libya—have fought to free it since then. The battle has been much more than a battle—rather, in the streets of Sirte, Libyans are deciding the alliances that will determine the fate of their country. Historically opposed militias are now allied and vice versa, while ISIS loses ground and withdraws into the dunes of the desert, planning much more fluid strategies.
Libyans are winning the battle, not the war. In Libya today, the main threat is not ISIS. It has never been. In Libya, the real problem is Libyans, fraught with internal divisions, just like a century ago. Many tend to perceive the foreign presence—even if decisive for victory, as in this case—as a threat rather than as a true alliance. Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj and Mohammed al-Ghasry (commander of the operation al-Bunyan al-Marsous) officially requested Western participation in the anti-ISIS fight. But that presence, which has been so decisive in military terms, could be counterproductive politically.
It’s striking, in fact, that two bitter enemies—General Khalifa Haftar (the “strongman” of Tobruk, supported by the Russians and French) and Sadiq al-Ghariani (the Grand Mufti of Libya, who lives in Tripoli)—have both condemned the U.S. intervention and, more typically, Serraj’s weakness. The latter is another problem: Serraj was chosen because he is a moderate, but this is likely to be his undoing at a time when political charisma could make a difference. To make things worse, the special envoy for the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, Martin Kobler, declared last week that support for the Government of National Unity (GNA) is “crumbling” amid increased power problems and the quick fall of Libya’s currency.