The Problem With Libya’s Peace Talks

The United Nations is making a last-ditch drive to head off Libya's civil war. Don't hold your breath.

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Can the international community help Libyans find a way out of their deepening civil war? Perhaps — but the window of opportunity is shrinking by the day. And the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), which has the task of brokering talks among Libya’s myriad factions, so far has little to show for its four years of work.

This week, UNSMIL head Bernadino Leon is pushing once again to bring the warring sides together. But this latest effort is unlikely to succeed for the same reason that previous ones have failed: currently only one party to the conflict is willing to show up at the negotiating table. Unless Leon can figure out a way to fix that before the talks near their end, the Geneva process will produce little in the way of positive outcomes.

There are two main sides in Libya’s civil war. The Tobruk-based government, derived from the recently elected House of Representatives (HOR), is represented on the battlefield by the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar. It’s opposed by the Tripoli-based remnants of the General National Congress (GNC), the post-Qaddafi interim parliament that was meant to have been superseded by the HOR. The GNC’s military equivalent is a hodgepodge of both Islamist and non-Islamist militias grouped together under the banner of “Libyan Dawn.”

The problem that UN mediators now confront is that the international community recognizes the first side and regards the second as illegitimate. It’s hard to imagine how there can be any proper negotiated settlement without the Islamists at the table. Yet the GNC has little incentive to cooperate as long as it perceives the Tobruk Government as enjoying a starting advantage on the international stage. Indeed, they probably gain in the eyes of their supporters by rebuffing UNSMIL and persisting in their plan to defeat the opposition on the battlefield.

Nor is that the only issue. Those currently holding invitations to the Geneva talks don’t include any leaders from the military units on both sides — even though they’re more crucial to the prospect of a ceasefire than any politicians. For that reason, the Geneva meeting is unlikely to produce any concrete outcome even if political representatives of the two key sides participate. The HOR and GNC are far too fractured among themselves to act as unified bodies in discussions. (The photo shows Leon greeting Emhemed Shoaib, a representative of the Tobruk government, in Geneva earlier this week.)

But there are also some interesting wild cards in play. Perhaps the most important of them is the inclusion of Misrata, the powerful coastal city that — though not necessarily more religiously minded than other Libyan communities — has been a crucial financial and military supporter of the GNC and its allied armed groups. Lately, though, the Misratans seem to be recalibrating their position. They have agreed to send delegates to the Geneva talks even as the GNC in Tripoli continues to demur. While the main battle lines in the civil war run between the two main players, Misrata is now emerging as an independent force, one that could potentially help to tip the balance.

A key question, then, is how much daylight the Misratans are willing to allow between themselves and the Islamists. Haftar’s Libyan National Army is keen to eradicate all of Libya’s Islamists regardless of their affiliation, and Misrata still has strong clan ties with many of the Islamist militias, including those that western governments would consider extreme. So although Misrata may want to create an impression of collegiality and openness, it’s still at war with its prime enemy, and it still needs the support of the GNC and the Islamists to wage it.

Nor is that the only potential fracture line on the Tripoli side. The Islamists, who command the most powerful armed forces in Libya, are anything but monolithic. Theirs is a loose coalition at best; each group pursues distinct and often sharply divergent goals. Some Libyan Islamists support a combination of the precepts of their religion with a modern political state. Others — such as Ansar al-Sharia, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State — abhor the very idea of such a state, which they view as a Western construct. They prefer a caliphate.

Most members of the GNC are Muslim Brotherhood modernizers, but observers speculate that hardline Islamist factions from within the body are pressuring its members to decline the invitation to talks. Conversely, Misrata’s independent announcement to join in at Geneva suggests that Libyan Dawn’s forces are losing whatever coherence they may have born previously. Moreover, the cautiousness of Misratan politicians may also reflect the desire to distance themselves from hardline Islamists in the GNC. Misrata, after all, is a proud city-state that will defend itself against any group it perceives as a threat to its position as Libya’s only fully functioning city and leading political and economic center. It may soon begin to see the growing presence of Islamic State, and its ties to Ansar al-Sharia, as a direct threat.

Simply put, Misrata’s business and political interests — both locally and internationally — run counter to the regional interests of the jihadis. The circumstances of war have nonetheless drawn together Misrata and all of Libya’s Islamists, whether moderate or extremist, in a fight against their common enemy in Tobruk. Viewed in this light, Misrata’s edging away from the GNC signals that greater strategic shifts could be in the offing. Indeed, the city’s flexibility suggests that UNSMIL might achieve more lasting success by bringing together representatives from other such councils throughout the country — which, like Misrata, have concrete economic concerns that might benefit from greater international recognition and approval.

Islamist militia leaders and the GNC are missing at Geneva precisely because they have little to gain by showing up. Yet divisions within the Tripoli camp increase the potential for sudden shifts in alliance. The rise of Misrata may be the factor that makes the Libyan Dawn coalition more fragile, and creates alignment with non-Islamists who seek the same elusive peace that UNSMIL aims to broker.

As things stand now, however, the prospect that the Geneva talks will end the war is simply unrealistic. Even the odds of achieving a temporary halt in the violence are slim. The current guest list is far from comprehensive and the outcome will likely be modest. This preliminary round of negotiations should be seen as little more than an opportunity to establish conditions for further meetings down the road.

If local leaders, militia, and the GNC decide to attend the talks, there’s at least the possibility of progress. At the moment, however, the GNC is still figuring out its response to the UNSMIL invitation. Most of Libya’s Islamist groups remain on the fringe and beyond the reach of any political agreement, and this will remain so until the international community acknowledges them as legitimate actors. Until that happens, Libya’s civil war will continue to spiral toward an uncertain end.


Amanda Kadlec is a Middle East and North Africa analyst and 2012-2013 Fulbright Fellow. She has written extensively on Libya since 2011.

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