What now for Libya?

Tripoli, Libya's capital city, sits on the Mediterranean coast.
Tripoli, Libya’s capital city, sits on the Mediterranean coast.

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Patrick Bury is a private security specialist since 2011 as well as a PhD Candidate at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute and PS21 Global Fellow. 

The increasing number of migrants perishing in the Mediterranean over the past fortnight has finally brought the deteriorating situation in Libya into the spotlight of the Western media, resulting in an increase in the EU’s naval presence off the Libyan coast.

On 24 April EU leaders held an emergency meeting in Brussels, during which they agreed to triple the budget for the EU’s border control forces in the region to €120 million. The United Kingdom has announced that HMS BULWARK will shortly begin patrolling off the Libyan coast, with the capability to deploy two smaller patrol boats and refuel three Merlin helicopters that will based in Malta and Sicily. Germany, France and Belgium have also offered ships and aircraft to bolster the EU’s presence. It appears that the EU’s main objective will be the interdiction of trafficking vessels – the majority of which are departing from areas around Tripoli controlled by the one of Libya’s rival governments – before they reach international waters, thus giving EU ships the legal basis to force such vessels to return to Libya.

However, any lasting solution will be dependent upon the Libyan state’s ability to control its own borders. For this to have a chance, the increasing intensity of the factional infighting currently wracking the country – which, with over 1,000 battle casualties caused in the past two years can be described as civil war[1] – must be brought to an end.

As part of the ongoing negotiations process between the broadly Islamist General National Congress (GNC) based in Tripoli and generally more conservative and secularist House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk, on 28 April the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Bernardino León, released the third draft agreement for political transition. This draft is based on progress made at previous rounds of talks held recently in Algeria and Morocco, which León himself acknowledged: ‘This draft will not meet all the expectations of all the parties, particularly with regard to the distribution of competencies among the different institutions.’

The same day, the GNC dismissed the draft out of hand, stating it was ‘not balanced and does not respect the Supreme Court ruling [which declared the June 2014 elections to choose the HoR void], neither does it meet the aspirations of the revolutionary fighters for a political and balanced solution to the Libyan crisis.’ Addressing the UN Security Council the following day, León reacted to the GNC’s statement by saying that another draft is in the process of being drawn up, and will based on comments on the third draft from both sides that must be submitted by 3 May. After this, another round of talks is scheduled to take place in Morocco ‘in the coming couple of weeks’, according to León. The ultimate goal is the creation of a consensus government of national unity before the beginning of Ramadan in mid-June.

This may prove optimistic.

A demonstration in Bayda, Libya, July 22 2011.
A demonstration in Bayda, Libya, July 22 2011.

While the dialogue between Libya’s two rival legislatures has continued, the past two weeks have witnessed heavy clashes around Tripoli, fighting and airstrikes in Benghazi and Derna to the east, and in the south. The loose alliance of militias comprising Libyan National Army (LNA) and ‘Operation Dignity’ forces – both of which support the HoR-appointed government of Abdullah al-Thinni – have continued to increase the military pressure on the various militias comprising the broadly more revolutionary and more Islamist ‘Libya Dawn’ alliance that supports the GNC.

Indeed, the confidence of the Dignity bloc in an outright military victory is growing: on 13 April the LNA’s commander-in-chief, General Khalifa Haftar, told journalists that the Dignity bloc was now ‘betting on a military solution’ to the current political crisis. Haftar elaborated that while he would abide by the decisions of al-Thinni’s government, it was not clear how the rival political blocs could reach a deal. He also warned that if the peace talks do not succeed, ‘then the military solution is a must because it is decisive.’

Haftar’s comments were supported by a similar statement a couple of days later by the LNA’s commander in the northwest region, Colonel Idris Madi. Taken together, both comments are the clearest indication yet of LNA/Dignity forces’ pursuance of a military strategy to wear down the Dawn alliance while the political negotiations proceed.

This strategy certainly appears to be succeeding. On 15 April pro-LNA militias in the eastern Tripoli suburb of Tajoura clashed with Misratan and Tripoli-based Dawn militias, while the LNA has also advanced in numerous other areas in the northwest region. Clearly, the military initiative lies with the Dignity bloc at present, especially as Misratan Dawn forces have been diverted to besiege Islamic State in the Iraq and Levant (ISIL) forces in Sirte. Thus, the temptation to continue the fighting, in the hope that the Dawn alliance may fracture further – perhaps with the all-important Misratans staying out of the fight – remains strong for some in the HoR camp.

Indeed, many Libyans remain pessimistic about the talks. The first and most obvious reason is that the security situation on the ground reached a critical point at the start of the year with the increasing presence of ISIL affiliates in Tripoli, Sirte, Derna and the southern Fezzan region. The increasing confidence and belligerence of these groups, as evidenced by their mass executions of Christians and attacks on oil facilities recently, has underlined to the Libyan populace that those individuals once responsible and powerful enough to potentially bring peace to the country may no longer be in a position to do so. They argue that the ongoing political engagement is a potential distraction, rather than a solution, to the current situation, and rightly question whether those at the table will prove able to rule in the loose alliance of militias – many with their own local, tribal and economic agendas – if an agreement is reached.

A second reason to question real impact of the negotiations is a perception that there is no way to reconcile the situation in Libya without one of the rival governments being viewed as ‘losing’, encouraging both sides to pursue their own diplomatic, military and economic agendas while paying lip-service to the talks. The al-Thinni government has provided clear examples of how it intends to strengthen diplomatic ties independently of the negotiations. Most significantly, on 14 April al-Thinni confirmed that his government had asked Russia to provide military equipment, and to restart work on contracts won during the Gaddafi regime.

Libyan Prime Minister al-Thinni and US Secretary of State Kerry address reporters, August 2014.
Libyan Prime Minister al-Thinni and US Secretary of State Kerry address reporters, August 2014.

This announcement represents a radical departure from Libya’s immediate post-revolution position of entirely marginalising Russia for its prior relationship with Gaddafi. It should also be viewed as a blow to the West, which, due to its refusal to lift the current UN arms embargo on Libya until a unity government is in place, has slipped rapidly from a position of diplomatic authority – and potential economic strength – to one of worrying weakness. In fact, during a meeting in Moscow on 15 April, al-Thinni went so far as to accuse the West of destabilising Libya by supporting the Islamist bloc, calling on Russia and China to support his government in the face of Western inaction.

Many Libyans sympathise with his statements, arguing that the HoR was elected as a result of a democratic process and that the international community should promote decisive resolution of the crisis by providing military assistance, rather than prolong the crisis by delaying such support. A day later, following a meeting in Beijing between al-Thinni’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hassan Sagheer, and his Chinese counterpart, Zhang Ming, China announced it will train 150 Libyan police officers and provide substantial food and medical aid.

Nevertheless, al-Thinni’s courtship is unlikely to bear fruit. China and Russia are both permanent members of the Security Council, and thus are highly unlikely to break the arms embargo they have imposed; if they were going to subvert their status they would only do so for an issue that matters much more to them than Libya. Western states know this too, and al-Thinni’s gamesmanship is thus likely to fail as well. The US and UK in particular know that the UNSMIL process is the best chance Libya has of restoring political stability, and they will only shift from this policy if something really radical happens. It is noteworthy that US officials told a delegation from the HoR on 16 April that they should adhere to the dialogue process.

Meanwhile, representatives of both the HoR and the al-Thinni government have continued to court regional support. On 22 April, Haftar arrived in the UAE to discuss the provision of further military aid. The visit came on the heels of another to regional ally Jordan on 13 Apr, during which King Abdullah II promised to provide training and material support to the LNA. However, the fact that Libya has become a proxy for regional powers like Qatar, Turkey and Sudan on the GNC’s side, and Jordan, the UAE and Egypt on the HoR’s is not surprising given the strong support many of these nations gave to revolutionary groups in the early days of the rebellion against Gaddafi. Indeed, as outlined in this excellent recent analysis of the Libyan revolution and its aftermath, these groups’ competing visions of Libya’s future is at the core of the current crisis.

While the political bodies that claim to represent them are ultimately likely to agree a deal, it will take a strong international backing – and possibly more than that – to ensure that the armed groups on the ground obey the ceasefires and disarmament programmes agreed in conference rooms outside Libya. Libya’s problems are complex and manifold – a good example of a ‘wicked problem’ – and will need united and enduring international support, which has so far been lacking, to be overcome.

[1] Doyle, Michael W., and Nicholas Sambanis. 2000 (D&S2000). International Peacebuilding: A Theoretical and Quantitative Analysis. American Political Science Review 94 (4):779- 801

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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