Verging on full-blown civil war, Libya may pose an even greater threat to Europe than jihadists in Iraq and Syria, yet the international community has few tools to help resolve the crisis.
Three years after NATO intervened to help overthrow Moamer Gathafi’s regime, two rival governments claim his mantle and a rash of heavily armed militias fight for territory and oilfields.
Hopes for a diplomatic solution are fading, say analysts, but the stakes are extremely high, particularly for southern Europe.
Most of the 200,000 migrants who braved the Mediterranean crossing to Europe last year came from Libya, the UN said last month, and security risks are multiplying.
“The West is distracted with Syria and Iraq, but arguably Libya is the greatest threat,” said Richard Cochrane, a senior analyst at IHS Country Risk in London.
“The jihadists — who are in the same mould as the Islamic State — have got a firm foothold and we’re only expecting that to grow.
“There is nothing stopping fighters using Libya as a conduit to get to Europe. It is a training ground right on Europe’s front door.”
Western diplomats have been shuttling frantically between the elected government — which has been driven into refuge in the remote east — and the Islamist-backed militia alliance that has seized most of the capital Tripoli.
So far, UN attempts to bring the two sides to the negotiating table have been in vain.
“Even if they get them to talk, they wouldn’t achieve anything,” said Geoff Porter, head of the US-based North Africa Risk Consultancy.
“Both sides think they stand a strong chance of military victory, each feels they have enduring support from external supporters, and both feel they have been done a severe injustice by the other party and would be betraying their followers if they backed down.”
– ‘Let’s not dream’ –
Some neighbouring countries such as Niger and Chad have called for military intervention to stem the tide of jihadists, refugees and weapons spilling over their borders.
But these hopes are unlikely to be met.
“A NATO-style operation? Let’s not dream,” a French government source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We are not going to restart the idea that we can show up, drop a few bombs and it brings democracy and national unity.”
An intervention force would have to be massive to make any dent on the chaos engulfing Libya.
“Anything short of a full-scale peacekeeping force would be highly vulnerable,” said Cochrane. “They would be stuck in compounds and repeatedly hit by morale-sapping IED (improvised explosive device) attacks.”
Making matters worse is the fact that Libya has also become the theatre of a proxy war between regional powers.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates oppose the Islamist militias, seeing them as the military arm of the Muslim Brotherhood that they have tried to eradicate in their own countries.
Qatar, and less overtly Turkey, have supported the other side.
“Regional powers are acting as spoilers,” said Cochrane. “Rather than helping with mediation, they are supplying arms.”
This is one area in which Western diplomacy could be effective, pushing these external forces to reduce their military support.
– Back where it started –
But the harsh reality is that Libya may be doomed to a prolonged and bloody conflict.
“The informal consensus from Libyans and their neighbours is that the Libyans are going to fight until they get tired of fighting,” said Porter.
That is something which Algeria — which went through its own brutal insurgency in the 1990s — knows all too well.
Resigned to a long period of unrest on its eastern flank, it opposes any international intervention in Libya, fearing it will only make matters worse.
The ultimate, tragic irony is that Libya may end up right back where it started before Gathafi was toppled and killed in 2011.
“There are two possible scenarios for a political solution,” said Porter.
“One is that the Libyans acquiesce to some kind of federalism — sharing power and resources.
“But the other is that a new strongman emerges who can bring the various warring tribes and factions to heel — who would rule in much the way Gathafi did.”