ROME — The arrival in Libya of a new, UN-backed government has given the lawless country a semblance of stability, but a series of unresolved legal and military issues are making Western nations wary of dispatching soldiers and ships to help out the administration.
New prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj sailed to Tripoli in March to seek to unite the country, which has been run since 2014 by two rival governments — one in Tripoli and one in Tobruk — as well as numerous warring militias.
He has won backing from the Tripoli-based administrationadminstration, but lawmakers in Tobruk in the country's east of the country are holding out, much to the frustration of European countries. , including like t The UK and Italy, which want to see Sarraj get the country behind him and then call in support from Western militaries.
European capitals want Sarraj to crack down on people smugglers who are dispatching thousands of migrants from Libyan beaches to Italy, and to defeat Islamic State group ISIS fighters, who have seized a 155 mile stretch of coastline around Sirte.
The US has already mounted air raids against ISIS positions and special forces from various nations are on the ground lending support to militias confronting the jihadis, but that is not seen as enough to defeat a fighting force numbering up to 6,000.
One challenge to Sarraj winning support from Tobruk is the army commanded by Gen.eral Khalifa Hiftar, which is aligned with lawmakers in the city. , and Hiftar's army is preparing to attack the key city of Benghazi, rather than awaiting orders from the UN-backed leader.
"If Gen. Hiftar takes BenghaziBenghasi, as he is currently trying to do, then Libya may still end up being divided," said Gabriele Iacovino, an analyst at the International Study Center in Rome.
Mr Iacovino said that a huge shipment of armoured vehicles recently delivered to Gen. Hiftar was likely provided by Egypt and the UAE. The Toyota Llandcruisers were reportedly customizsed to give them armoured protection by firms in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
"The delivery shows the will by these countries to keep Libya divided, despite the arrival of the new government, or at least give the East a stronger bargaining position with the new prime minister," he said.
A second Libya-watcher said Benghazi was not an end in itself for Haftar.
"He doesn’t want to control Benghazi;, he is using his power to avoid being marginalizsed in negotiations which are underway about a future Libyan civilian controlled military," said Benjamin Fishman, a former White House official involved in relations with Libya from 2011 to 2013.
Fishman said he was not surprised at Egypt and the UAE for apparently maneuvering against a UN-backed prime minister who is supported by the moderate Islamicists running Tripoli.
"Ever since the revolution in 2011, the UAE and Egypt have been opposed to any Islamicist representation in government," he said.
Haftar and another militia suggested on April 28 they were ready to move against ISIS in Sirte, prompting Sarraj to warn that he preferred that his government had be in charge of any attack.
"In the absence of coordination and unified leadership ... the Council expresses its concern that the battle in Sirte against Daesh (ISIS) will be a confrontation between those armed forces," it said in a statement, adding that such a battle would benefit ISIS.
"Accordingly, the Presidential Council, as the supreme commander of army, demands all Libyan military forces wait for it to appoint a joint leadership for the Sirte operation," the statement said.
"Libya remains highly fluid and it is hard to see what will happen next," said Fishman. "It's one step forward and two steps back. If we don't see a unified force tackling ISIS or Tobruk backing the unity government in the next few months, we will know nothing has changed."
If the situation on the ground remains frustratingly complicated for Western diplomats, the state of play off the coast, where European navies are trying to catch smugglers is just as tricky.
Last year, the EU launched a naval operation, named Sophia, to arrest traffickers seeking to ship migrants to Europe. But traffickers have since shifted tactics, preferring to mostly load migrants into rubber dinghies and stay on shore as the migrants sail themselves across the Mediterranean, leaving the Operation Sophia vessels with the task of saving the migrants at sea when their overloaded boats begin to sink.
Now, with the prospect of backing from the unity government, Operation Sophia commanders are hoping to move their vessels into Libyan waters, and US President Barack Obama has backed plans for NATO vessels to join the operation, with approval expected at NATO's summit in Warsaw in July.
But legal experts have warned that if traffickers continue to dispatch migrants vessels from Libya’s beaches without themselves boarding them, the naval task force will continue to have little chance of catching them.
Moreover, thanks to international law, however close the navy vessels are to the Libyan shore, they will still be obliged to take back to Italy any migrants they pick up at sea who request asylum, the experts have said.