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Surprising as it may be stateside, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is wildly popular in Libya. Since 2014, the civil war in Libya has been in a stalemate as rival factions, including the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the House of Representatives in Tobruk, each backed by an assortment of militias, fight for control.
In 2015, things looked particularly dire in Libya; some cities have fallen entirely under jihadi control and most of the country’s oil terminals had been taken offline. But since mid-2016, there have been some positive developments too: Libya’s oil production is rebounding and the Islamic State (ISIS) has been evicted from Sirte, which was its largest patch of territory outside of Iraq and Syria. But the political roadblocks to reconciliation remain. A new war is brewing in Libya’s south and the GNA is on the verge of collapse. On January 2, its deputy prime minister, Musa al-Koni, resigned live on Libyan television. The next day, the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is aligned with the House of Representatives in Tobruk, bombed a civilian aircraft in Jufra airbase that was transporting senior officers from Misrata, which is home to militias that support the UN-backed government. This is a dangerous escalation and is likely to prompt extensive counterattacks.
The moment is truly ripe for alternative mediation efforts—outside of the existing UN framework. For the last few months, the LNA and forces aligned with it have finally gained control of the oil fields, pipelines, and terminals, which are needed for Libya to pump its way to something approaching financial solvency. These developments are wildly popular even among Libyans opposed to the LNA and the House of Representatives. Faced with an east consolidating around the LNA, the western factions, including the Misratans, have an incentive to come to the table now before their position degrades further. The LNA, on the other hand, can now pump oil via its behind-the-scenes deal with the National Oil Corporation and thus, has limited incentive to push a bloody fight for Tripoli if negotiations are a possibility. Trump should seize the opportunity as he has the potential to shift the dynamic in previously unimaginable ways.
At least initially, Trump will find it fairly easy to engage a wide range of local actors. Supporters of Libya’s most powerful military figure, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar—who heads the LNA and is backed by both Russia and Egypt—believe that Trump will favor them as part of his new administration’s geostrategic realignment toward Russia. Conversely, opponents of Haftar, who are tired of the stagnant negotiations with the UN-backed unity government, believe that Trump may breathe fresh life into the talks or else pursue more effective alternatives to building a functioning government, eradicate what remains of ISIS, and find new ways to jumpstart the Libyan economy.
In short, at least on the Libyan streets, Trump comes into office far more popular than a President-elect Hillary Clinton would have been. The former secretary of state’s emissaries are associated with the status quo and with the Misratan faction. Furthermore, few areas of the world were more neglected during President Barack Obama’s second term than Libya. Yes, Washington was instrumental in coordinating the airstrikes that ousted ISIS from its stronghold in Sirte. But the United States has failed to exert leadership over the political and economic aspects of Libya’s transition.
There is good reason for the Trump administration to pay attention to Libya sooner rather than later, as the conflict is evolving in ways that threaten U.S. interests. Neighboring states such as Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia, are facing contagion from Libya’s ongoing civil war, increasing the chance that what remains of ISIS’ faction in Libya will flee and entrench itself elsewhere in the Maghreb. Russia is providing ever more political support to Haftar and could easily outflank Western policymakers by recognizing him and his allies in the House of Representatives as Libya’s legitimate government. This could create another frozen conflict or else end with a Russian-backed regime over all of Libya. Although Trump appears capable of making a broad geostrategic deal with Russia, there is no reason to think he wants to give Moscow more leverage before such a deal is made.
But Washington still has leverage—if it chooses to use it. Only the United States can offer full entry into the global economy and give international legitimacy to the various Libyan factions. Russia and its ally, Egypt, would only generate dependency and further marginalization.
The United States currently recognizes the GNA as the only legitimate government of Libya. Unfortunately, the GNA governs nothing in Libya. Its writ does not even extend to Tripoli, where it is currently situated. It is entirely dependent upon militias to provide its security. Hence, it cannot govern without favoring their interests.
Proposals to prop up this pseudo-government with a foreign armed and trained presidential guard will only add another uncontrollable militia to the mix. Instead, the Trump administration should acknowledge that no faction, including the GNA, has a unique claim to political legitimacy in Libya. Haftar’s LNA and the opposing forces from the city of Misrata comprise the two most powerful blocs. At present, Haftar is consolidating power in the east and south of the country. Although Misratan hegemony over the west is weakening, it remains unlikely that Haftar’s forces can overpower Misrata and the allied militias anytime soon. If developments are left to follow their course, a de facto separation appears likely to calcify. A negotiated power-sharing solution among the militias, rather than the powerless politicians of the GNA or any other pseudo government must be forged from the bottom up.
The United States is vital to such a settlement. It could offer access to international oil markets for Libyan crude and international recognition for any true unity government. It could also hold out the promise of aid for reconstructing the war-torn neighborhoods of communities that join the new order. This cannot happen, however, as long as Washington insists on the GNA as the sole legitimate government to the exclusion of Haftar and others. The rump General National Congress, an interim governing body whose mandate ended in 2014 but continues to assert its legitimacy, and the House of Representatives should be ignored in favor of direct engagement with Haftar’s representatives and moderate Misratan leaders. In Libya, it is the militia leaders, not the politicians, who rule the roost.
And these real military stakeholders are eager to be invited to international conferences. When asked, they have come to Tunis or Geneva to meet with UN officials. They frequently go to Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Moscow to meet their current political patrons. The United States should now engage with them directly. Further, moderate Misratan leaders have shown that they are willing to work with the United States to achieve mutual aims. Washington should ensure that the Misratans, for one, are rewarded for the instrumental part their fighters played in defeating ISIS in Sirte by making sure that their control over their local affairs is not threatened.
The West could also help craft a proposal for political decentralization, since all factions see the current conflict as a zero-sum competition for absolute power in Libya. Devolving most authority to cities (not regions, which has been tried and has failed) along with oil revenue—prorated based on population size—would ease the competition for control of Tripoli. Although it is true that some municipalities are themselves divided, several local conflicts is better than one national conflict or three regional ones. Also, decentralization will help Libyans build local governance capacity—something sorely needed if the country is to rebound economically.
Trump’s signature policy towards Libya should be the appointment of a presidential envoy—akin to the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, a position currently held by Brett McGurk. Only a presidential envoy can make the United States primus inter pares among Western nations in setting and coordinating policy towards Libya. Up to and until now, the British, French, Italians, and the UN have all exercised leadership in some capacity when it comes to Libya. Washington has only taken control when it comes to airstrikes and counterterror policy. It was a bit player in the negotiations to broker a unity government or to deal with postwar reconstruction. This muddled leadership has led to poorly coordinated and incoherent policy. If the United States wants to end the civil war Libya, it must no longer lead from behind. It must actually lead.
A special presidential envoy focused solely on Libya would have the power to coordinate all federal agencies’ policies towards Libya, supersede the flawed UN process, and coordinate the special envoys of the informal P-6 on Libya (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States). The envoy would also delegate to various European allies complementary roles in making a new Libya policy succeed. The envoy would need to be able to demonstrate—to both various Libyan factions and European chancelleries and envoys—that he has access to the president and is the only font of government policy on Libya. The role of the State Department’s Special Envoy for Libya should be eliminated because it lacks sufficient authority over the other federal departments that are integral to U.S. policy toward Libya.
Trump’s transition team is already thinking seriously about Libya and recalibrating policy toward the Middle East. Phillip Escaravage, a member of the Forbes publishing family who has a decade of experience focusing on Libya, has been rumored as a possible pick for POTUS Special Envoy for Libya or Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. The Forbes family were early Trump supporters and represent the kind of private sector know-how the president-elect prizes.
Trump, as we know, is an unconventional thinker, not bound by the standard bureaucratic way of doing things. And Libya needs a fresh and bold approach. Fortunately for the United States, for geopolitical reasons, the main Libyan factions are eager to work with Trump. Now is the time for him to demonstrate that he is keen to work with them as well.