Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
When it comes to Libya’s year-old civil war, the international community has all but openly admitted that it’s out of ideas. The UN-led negotiations, which are formally aimed at reaching a peace deal by mid-June, have produced no positive developments or even meaningful cease-fires. They are presently on the brink of collapse. On Tuesday, the Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni barely escaped an assassination attempt, and a parliamentary session was stormed by gunmen. Yet despite how dire the situation has become, many Western officials reject the very idea of a plan B, arguing that the current talks represent the only way forward and that seeking alternative paths would weaken the willingness of the warring parties to negotiate.
This thinking is dangerously flawed. True, some kind of mediated solution represents the only way to resolve the crisis—since no side enjoys a clear military advantage—but the current UN talks rest on a faulty foundation. Specifically, the international community has failed to offer Libya’s two competing governments adequate incentives to search for a lasting compromise. And that, in turn, is because certain powerful global stakeholders are clearly biased toward one of the two sides: the exiled House of Representatives, which rules from of the eastern city of Tobruk, is recognized by the UN and is supported by General Khalifa Haftar, its anti-Islamist commander in chief. The rival governing body, based in Tripoli, counts many of Libya's most powerful regions and players among its fractious stakeholders but does not have similar weight at the international negotiating table, due in no small part to its Islamist leanings and lack of electoral legitimacy.
The West’s approach to Libya fits with its broader strategy toward Middle Eastern turmoil—namely, backing anti-Islamist actors against competing groups at almost any cost. For another example, look to the support that the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi enjoys from key global players—including France and Italy—in return for publicly embracing the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). The West’s method, however, has proved to create far more jihadists than it deters. Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen are all cases in point, and extending this model to Libya is a colossal mistake.
The West’s approach to Libya fits with its broader strategy toward Middle Eastern turmoil—namely, backing anti-Islamist actors against competing groups.
The Tobruk-Tripoli split emerged almost a year ago with the assault by Islamist-aligned militias on the capital’s airport. Shortly afterward, the capital and large swaths of the country were taken over by Libya Dawn, a collection of militias from Tripoli, the Berber areas of western Libya, and the port city of Misrata. Having conquered the capital, the movement reinstated the General National Congress (GNC), Libya's expired rump parliament, as its political puppet. Despite the lack of international recognition for this governance arrangement, Libya Dawn is loosely connected with many of the country’s scattered population centers and has as much internal legitimacy as any other militia-aligned administration.
The UN-sponsored negotiation process has since followed a general pattern: negotiators develop draft proposals that are then largely accepted by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and squarely rejected by the GNC. Not helping matters is Haftar’s tendency to launch attacks whenever a new negotiating round is set to begin, either to bolster his side’s negotiating position or to scupper the talks entirely. This perverse cycle explains why Libya Dawn is on the verge of leaving the talks altogether and splintering into two parts: a pro-dialogue group of Misratan businessmen and a hard-core group of Islamist militias who oppose compromise.
THE TRAJECTORY OF FRAGMENTATION
Much of the reason for Libya’s increasing fragmentation is the fact that the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), which oversees the talks, has continuously emphasized that only one side—the parliament based in Tobruk—enjoys international legitimacy. To Libya Dawn, that position signals profound bias. The UN’s third draft peace agreement, which was leaked to the press in late April, has underscored Libya Dawn’s worst fears. The proposed settlement “would roll back Libya Dawn’s political gains by marginalizing the Islamist current which lost the June 2014 election,” explained Geoffrey Howard, the lead Libya analyst of Control Risks, an international risk consultancy. The agreement would also extend the legitimacy of the House of Representatives—whose mandate expires this October—by as much as two years and make it the basis for a unified Libyan legislature. Essentially, the pact would enshrine the mandate of the House of Representatives in an international treaty while giving the defeated Islamist current almost no formal role and little ability to regain one by any means other than the barrel of a gun.
The advantage of international recognition affords the House of Representatives numerous other benefits. Foremost among them has been carte blanche for its continued military offensive, which is targeted primarily against political rivals but is also framed as a battle to rid the country of Islamist militants. This explains why the Tobruk faction’s leaders constantly exaggerate the threat of ISIS in Libya and warn that the group could use migrant boats to ship jihadists to Europe. Paradoxically, it is actually Libya Dawn that has been doing most of the fighting against ISIS in Sirte, Muammar al-Qaddafihometown that fell to ISIS this spring. In the meantime, Tobruk-led forces have been bogged down in Benghazi for over a year.
The Tobruk government’s blanket military and political campaign against the whole spectrum of Islamists is ratcheting up tensions and further fuelling extremism. Yet the UN’s draft proposal would do more than enshrine the House of Representatives’ right to keep on battling jihadists; it would also empower it to define who the jihadists are. This huge victory for the House of Representatives explains why Libya Dawn and the GNC have decried the draft peace proposal and called for the head of UNSMIL, Bernardino León, to resign—or else they would quit the negotiations altogether. Marginalizing key actors by labelling them jihadists will guarantee that any political deal—even if one is signed—will not hold, since political power in Libya lies with tribes and localized armed actors and not with the administrative echelon.
Marginalizing key actors by labelling them jihadists will guarantee that any political deal—even if one is signed—will not hold.
On the whole, the UN’s inadvertent bias has eliminated all incentives for either side to compromise. The Tobruk faction refuses to cede ground because it counts on the support of Egypt, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and certain European states no matter how intransigent its positions become. For its part, the GNC sees no advantages in abandoning the demands of its Misratan and Islamist constituents in return for only the prospect of meager paybacks. A stalemate in Libya imperils the whole region and creates a power vacuum in which militias, crime syndicates, and jihadists operate with impunity. If the peace talks collapse, the West could be compelled to double down on Tobruk by the sheer momentum of its misguided policy or even pushed into entering the conflict directly.
SHOOTING THE MESSENGER?
To break the impasse, one necessary step is shaking up UNSMIL, starting with its leadership. True, León has received well-deserved praise from Brussels to Washington for his character, dedication, and media savvy. And, in a sense, he’s not really to blame for failing to achieve greater progress; the powerful states behind his mission have hamstrung his efforts with their bias toward Tobruk. But León is now perceived by many as the personification of that bias, and, if the June deadline is not met, he must go. As Karim Mezran of the Atlantic Council explained to me, “after the rejection of the third draft agreement presented by León in April, the expectations for the negotiations are very low. At this juncture, León will present a take-it-or-leave-it fourth draft by June 1, to which each side has to react by June 17.” It’s highly unclear what carrots and sticks the international community can deploy to pressure both sides to compromise before that deadline.
This all-or-nothing approach is fundamentally misguided. The strategy does the opposite of nurturing trust or fostering long-term thinking among the factions, and so it is likely to backfire. The international community sorely needs to articulate an alternative avenue to settling the conflict—a plan B to pursue if the current negotiations dead-end.
Difficult steps would be required: removing the imbalance in the talks, providing a more even playing field for all parties, and encouraging members of the House of Representatives to cede some ground. Additionally, the UN Security Council could issue an unequivocal resolution that it won’t support lifting the current arms embargo—something that the House of Representatives has repeatedly urged it to do—and would oppose any kind of covert military assistance to the Tobruk government. The international community should also be ready to deploy robust sanctions against any disruptive actors: warlords, jihadists, and former Qaddafi officials alike—including Haftar, if necessary.
A bolder but necessary move would be to deny both competing governments the claim to sovereignty until reconciliation is achieved. This measure would amount to simply acknowledging the current reality on the ground in Libya, where no institution exercises sovereign functions, and where local militia rule their own fiefdoms without reference to either government. That step would block all Libyan institutions from attempting to act legally on Libya’s behalf. At present, factions aligned with Tobruk benefit in global business circles by calling themselves part of the Libyan government, while nationwide institutions—such as the Central Bank and the National Oil Corporation—contend to be neutrally stewarding Libya’s future and so can legally conduct business with foreign companies according to pre-existing contracts.
If the negotiations fail, denying sovereignty to all actors would cut all of them out of the international system of payments and contracts, preventing the warmongers from buying allies and financing the conflict. The Libyan economy is in such poor shape that the spigots of state subsidies might soon be turned off. Shutting them off sooner rather than later would benefit Libya’s future.
Another key step would be to limit the destabilizing role of regional players in the crisis. Although direct Turkish and Qatari support for Libya Dawn has receded over recent months, Egypt continues to provide military and diplomatic support for Haftar and the Tobruk-based authorities. The international community should encourage Egypt as well as Qatar, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates to push their allies and proxies toward dialogue. The fact that the new Saudi leadership seems eager to resume its position as the region’s balancing actor is an encouraging sign. Melding UN sanctions to Saudi diplomacy and financial muscle could be the path to a breakthrough in Libya.