Why Picking Sides in Libya Won’t Work

The West needs to get serious about negotiations to end the civil war.

453910920 cropped

Earlier this month, Libyan jihadis aligned with the Islamic State (IS) released a video showing them beheading 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. A few weeks before that, IS-aligned militias attacked the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, killing one U.S. citizen. Televised beheadings and bombings of luxury hotels have a unique way of capturing the news cycle and galvanizing hesitant policymakers into action. Having vacillated for months as Libya descended ever deeper into civil war, the United States and its allies suddenly feel an urgent impulse to do something — yet none among them seems capable of coming up with a coherent strategy. Is the international community really prepared to allow the emergence of a series of jihadi statelets right off the southern coast of Europe?

Since the ouster of Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011, Libya has reverted to a patchwork of city-states loosely governed by warlords, city councils, and tribal networks. The U.N.-led talks set to resume this week in Morocco will try to reconcile the two loose coalitions that have been facing each other since last summer. One is the internationally recognized government based in the eastern city of Tobruk and its military wing, Operation Dignity, led by General Khalifa Haftar. The other is the Tripoli government installed by the Libya Dawn coalition, which combines Islamist militias with armed groups from the city of Misrata. The Islamic State has recently established itself as a third force that now aims to scupper any chance for reconciliation between the two blocs and thus to profit from the ensuing chaos.

The West now faces a dilemma: It must choose between unreservedly backing the anti-Islamist Tobruk administration or working to broker the creation of a national unity government that will probably have a better chance of effectively fighting IS. The Tobruk option is heavily supported by Washington’s conservative Arab allies, who, regarding all forms of Islamism as their foes, wish to exploit the fight against IS to undermine the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region. In fact, the United States and the Europeans would be better off insisting on the national unity option, which could lead to a non-violent and hence sustainable political solution. The Tobruk government has shown itself inept and unable to conquer even the most exposed jihadi strongholds, like those in Benghazi. Seen in this light, the strategy of backing Tobruk to re-conquer all of Libya appears both delusional and counterproductive, since it risks pushing the moderate Islamists within Libya Dawn toward finding common cause with the jihadis.

Unfortunately, the Tobruk option is gaining currency in some Western capitals. Firstly, the relative success of the U.N.-led negotiations coordinated by Special Envoy Bernardino Leon has splintered each of the two coalitions into moderates who want to strike a deal and hardliners who want to continue fighting. This fragmentation makes reaching a unity deal more complicated. Secondly, the rise of IS has created a sense of urgency that discourages continued support for negotiation, which requires time to succeed.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to lobby for Tobruk, Egypt and the UAE have made it clear that they will enhance military support for their clients in Libya. While they justify this move by the need to take the fight to IS, they are actually motivated by a desire to prolong the civil war and, ultimately, to re-take Tripoli from Libya Dawn forces. For them, such a victory — though probably unattainable — would represent the final rout of the Muslim Brotherhood in all of North Africa.

In the week following the release of the Copt execution video, Cairo sought a U.N. mandate for direct intervention. When this failed, the Egyptian government asked the U.N. to lift the current embargo on arms shipments to Libya so that it can replace its covert support for Tobruk with overt deliveries of military assistance. The United States and major European countries pushed back against both attempts, but while the initial response was united, cracks are starting to appear. On Feb. 26, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi stated that any solution must start by supporting Tobruk. At the same time, Paris has signaled a greater willingness to cooperate with Egypt and the UAE on fighting terror in Libya, while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg promised help to the Tobruk government in its fight against IS.

The United States should avoid jumping on the Tobruk bandwagon. The French and Italian positions are partially the result of economic interests. Cairo recently signed a $5.7 billion contract for French Rafale jet fighters, while the Emirati company Etihad recently acquired the Italian airline Alitalia. While Barack Obama is backing away from America’s traditional embrace of military dictators in Egypt, the southern European powers are eager to step in.

The threat emanating from Libya and the potential loss of its oil exports should certainly be a matter of international concern. Yet Western governments should not view the Libyan crisis solely in the context of counter-terrorism and energy policy. To do so would be to address a symptom of the crisis rather than its cause. The rise of Islamic State-aligned militias in Libya is a result of the civil war, so mediating an end to it should be the priority.

The United States is not a big economic player in Libya. This gives it the physical and strategic distance to see beyond the immediate dangers of illegal migrants and terrorism that preoccupy the Europeans. The top brass at the Pentagon and NATO view Libya through a conventional counter-terrorism prism, and their inclination and monetary interests align with those of the French and Italians in propping up Generals Sisi and Haftar as proxies in the battle against the jihadis.

The State Department, however, correctly views such an approach as short-sighted and contrary to American interests. It is the long-term implosion of the Libyan state that really threatens American interests in the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Middle East. The United States must therefore push its allies to consider the long term rather than adopting a whack-a-mole strategy, which over the past decade has never succeeded at combating anti-Western jihadi insurgencies.

Instead, a policy aimed at creating more favorable conditions for dialogue could dramatically alter the trajectory of the Libyan conflict. Such a change might involve making some unusual friends and taking bold action against presumed allies like General Sisi and the Tobruk parliament. The latter recently made a temporary withdrawal from the U.N.-led mediation efforts and appointed General Haftar as the commander-in-chief of its armed forces — despite warnings from the United States and Britain that such an action would likely torpedo a possible national unity deal.

As a result of its international recognition and military support from the Egyptians and the Emiratis, Tobruk has few incentives to negotiate and is willing to take provocative actions to undermine potential progress. It is time for Western leaders to recognize that the Tobruk government is not in a position to address any of the West’s key strategic concerns. Ultimately, the Tobruk parliament is just one actor in Libya’s multipronged civil war. It is not a neutral government that can lead the country out of its present chaos. Moreover, the parliament was deemed unconstitutional in a November 2014 Libyan Supreme Court decision, one to which the major powers have not yet formally reacted.

The Europeans and Americans should draw upon the precedent of this decision and take it one step further: they should end their recognition of the Tobruk parliament and state clearly that they will deal only with a national unity government that emerges from the U.N.-led talks. Until then, the international community will consider ministers from both governments to be representatives of warring factions, thus publicly acknowledging what many have long admitted in private: that all parties in Libya lack the basic attributes of sovereignty.

Unfortunately, the United States’ regional allies — Egypt and the UAE on the one side, and Qatar, Sudan, and Turkey on the other — are known to be supplying military forces, funds, arms, and encouragement to their various proxies in the conflict. Such policies fail to recognize that the root cause of Libya’s instability is the civil war itself, not the failure of a particular side to win it. It is Libya’s war that provides the perfect breeding ground for IS.

Along with stressing progress towards a national unity government, the West should address the flows of cash that fuel the conflict. While it is hard to deny weapons to Libya’s warring factions — as the Qataris, Sudanese, and Egyptians will simply circumvent any bans — the West can deny rival sides the money they need to prolong the conflict by preserving the independence and the neutrality of the country’s national economic and financial institutions. There’s good reason to assume that the factions will run out of cash in a few weeks if the Libyan central bank cuts them off from the subsidies it currently provides.

Alternative financial institutions created by the two rival governments should be denied the recognition that would allow them to enter into contracts with international firms. Only the United States has the clout and the know-how to build a consensus to enforce such complex sanctions. The State Department has already been formulating plans to this effect. Such plans should now be publicly acknowledged and implemented.

The international community’s failure to pursue a negotiated solution will facilitate a war of all-against-all marked by assassinations, terrorist outrages, increased Egyptian intervention, and jihadi revenge attacks on civilians and infrastructure.

The disintegration of the Libyan state is already allowing for the creation of IS enclaves on the Mediterranean. Libya’s smuggled oil wealth, caches of heavy weaponry, and pilfered bank accounts could give Islamic State a new lease on life just as it is losing ground in Iraq. Diplomacy is the only realistic way forward.


Jason Pack is the founder of the consultancy Libya-Analysis and was previously the executive director of the U.S.-Libya Business Association. Twitter: @JasonPackLibya
Mattia Toaldo is a senior policy fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.