The international community's attempt to bring peace to Libya treats the symptoms and ignores the root causes of the conflict.
- By Fadil AlirizaFadil Aliriza is a Visiting Senior Fellow for the Legatum Institute’s Transitions Forum. He has been working as a journalist and analyst focusing on Tunisia and Libya after the 2011 uprisings. Follow him on Twitter @FadilAliriza.
After over half a year of UN-brokered negotiations, a number of Libyan politicians signed a political agreement ostensibly designed to “end the conflict” last month. There are, in fact, many ongoing armed conflicts in Libya, but this deal focuses on the big one that began last summer, pitting two competing governments — the internationally recognized House of Representatives (HOR) in Tobruk and the General National Congress (GNC) in the capital, Tripoli — against one another. Last month’s deal was crafted through diplomacy between the two bodies and local leaders, and aims to stop the conflict by forming a new unified government.
There are no illusions about the deal’s flaws. For one, the GNC, one of the major parties to the conflict, didn’t sign it. Negotiators are trying to fix that, and they may well succeed. But that isn’t the only problem. The politicians who signed don’t have control over the armed forces that are linked to them. Many observers say the GNC would have signed if not for pressure from its militia’s allies. Indeed, in both Tripoli and in Tobruk, armed groups — the real power brokers — have either criticized or expressed skepticism about the deal.
Despite these glaring issues, the mere fact of an agreement after several years of steady deterioration in security and the political order seemed to offer hope. Many greeted the deal with cautious optimism. Diplomats have been brainstorming how to expand and support it. It’s easy to understand the sentiment. One of the sharpest analysts of Libyan politics, Wolfram Lacher, had a grim assessment: “There is no Plan B.” But building a strategy around a flawed agreement with weak support could spark even more violence. A bad peace deal could be bad for peace.
This is because a bad deal needs enforcement. Since it doesn’t bring on board the key players who are holding guns, the only way to make it stick is through force. Western governments already know that, which is why they are considering plans for intervention. British Prime Minister David Cameron has tried to frame possible Libyan intervention in terms of protecting British citizens at home. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the U.S. will “review a couple of possibilities and options” to get “greater support to the UN initiative.” Some reports hint U.S. and French officials have already been in Libya to coordinate unspecified military operations, suggesting that some Western policymakers are considering military support for a so-called unity government.
The notion that the deal might actually provoke armed conflict rather than preventing it is hardly theoretical. In the west of the country, moves toward a deal and a series of local ceasefires helped push a group to splinter from the former GNC-linked Libya Dawn military coalition. This new group — the “Steadfastness Front” — is an armed coalition whose chiefs have had considerable influence in Tripoli since the revolution. The Front’s leadership and its supporters have criticized the deal and are rumored to be preparing to defend their position. As one prominent leader of the Front said earlier this year: “Only after one side wins and one side loses can you form a government.”
In the east leaders of a group that calls itself the Libyan National Army (LNA) appear wary of the political track as well. After the signing ceremony in Morocco, the head of the LNA, Gen. Khalifa Hafter, announced that his armed forces have nothing to do with the dialogue. He used a press conference to stress the importance of prioritizing the fight against terrorism over political processes. On other occasions, the general has been less reserved in his criticism of UN-brokered talks and of politicians’ interference in LNA affairs.
In the language of UN negotiators, groups like these represent “spoilers” that, as chief negotiator Bernardino León recently told the Security Council, “should be held accountable, as they bear the responsibility [for] hindering the political agreement.” But calling them spoilers or hardliners doesn’t necessarily mean they are on the fringe of the Libyan political scene. In fact, those who back the deal “were picked arbitrarily by the mediators, and in many cases they lack a political power base,” according to Lacher.
Even defeating the spoilers on the battlefield wouldn’t herald peace. As much as politics has changed since the toppling of the late dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, some dark parallels persist. Qaddafi had advocated for a “stateless” society. Given the prominent role of tribal and local identities and the lack of independent and efficient state apparatuses, it’s tempting to conclude he succeeded. But state institutions — as well as a convoluted patchwork of councils and revolutionary committees — did exist. Qaddafi used them to mask where power really lay: in his own hands and those of his family and a few trusted confidantes.
Since Qaddafi’s fall, militias have been using state institutions in exactly the same way. They may claim that they are under the umbrella of official state control — say under the authority of the GNC or the HOR — but it’s really the militias themselves who hold power. And any armed group — even one ostensibly under control of a new unity government — that defeats the Steadfastness Front or Gen. Hafter would simply end up replacing them as wielders of real power.
This is precisely why a deal focused primarily on forming a unity government could have negative effects: It ignores the causes of the conflict and instead treats the symptoms. The prescription of a unified government makes sense only if the root cause of Libya’s sickness were a split government. But that’s not the case.
“We don’t have conflict because we have two governments; we have two governments because we have a conflict,” says Abdul Rahman Al-Ageli, a former advisor to the office of Libya’s post-revolutionary prime minister. “What I fear is after negotiations, conflict will erupt again because the grievances haven’t been addressed.”
Those grievances are as diverse as the multiple local, tribal, and ideological armed groupings that have called the shots since the revolution. There are grievances over the distribution of power, resources, and property; over justice; over ideology and religion; and over Libya’s place in world politics. Untangling these sensitive disputes won’t be achieved through military solutions, nor will it be achieved through high politics orchestrated by an international community that’s grown impatient with Libyan dysfunction.
Short of dislodging the spoilers with guns, or merely hoping they come around to a deal, what tools does the international community have to weaken them? There are a few options that haven’t been tried yet. Nearly all of them would follow basic human rights principles. The premise here is that issues of justice can’t wait until peace breaks out — because justice is itself a prerequisite for peace.
“The failure to include human rights accountability has been a major misstep in the UN-led negotiations,” says Thomas Ebbs, acting director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya. A bad deal that ignores human rights could have drastic consequences. “The very people who have committed crimes and severely disrupted [people’s] lives will be put into power with a pat on the back by the international community with no further consequences,” Ebbs explains.
Using the stick of sanctions against the warring parties much earlier could have been one way to hold them accountable and force them to move toward political agreement. A leaked document seen by Reuters suggested the European Union was planning sanctions and travel bans on five of the most prominent spoilers. Some of those allegedly on the EU’s target list have publicly scoffed at the threat, essentially taunting the Europeans to do their worst. But despite their bravado, Lacher warns they “fear not only political marginalization but also possible prosecution if a unity government cements its authority.”
Another option is to starve the spoilers of supplies. While the international community has shrewdly resisted efforts by the Tobruk government to lift the arms embargo, weapons are still getting in. Numerous reports indicate that Gen. Hafter receives arms and financial support from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In fact, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates went so far as to conduct airstrikes in Tripoli against Hafter’s opponents last year. The government in Tobruk alleges that Turkey and Qatar are aiding Tripoli’s rulers. Even if EU sanctions were imposed on individual spoilers, they’d need to be strong enough to cut warlords off from their regional backers. Thus far there have been no indications that decision-makers will pursue this strategy.
The international community’s options are quite limited because one of the few things that nearly all sides of Libya’s bitter conflict agree on is resistance to breaches of national sovereignty by Western powers. When Europeans floated the idea of using military force in Libya’s waters to sink ships used by people smugglers, both rival governments forcefully condemned the plan, finding themselves in rare agreement. The UN mission, which is perceived by many Libyans as an unwanted meddler in their internal affairs, has become the object of intense rancor from several sides.
The UN talks may have been flawed from the start. The fact that only one of the two governments in Libya enjoys international recognition is a sign that global stakeholders are “clearly biased toward one of the two sides,” according to Libya analyst Jason Pack. A further blow to the UN’s reputation came when prominent Egyptian politician Mohammed ElBaradei said that its lead negotiator, Bernardino León, had been involved in negotiations leading up to the coup against Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi in his previous role as the EU’s special envoy to the southern Mediterranean. León has explained that his brief at the time included mediating between President Morsi and opposition parties to form a unity government. Despite the clarification, the fact that that Egypt’s current President Sissi — the beneficiary of Morsi’s downfall — is now seen as supporting Hafter in Libya has been used by critics to further discredit the negotiators’ neutrality.
For the international community, there may be no Plan B. But there is, in fact, another less-noticed peace process under way. In western Libya, a series of local negotiations and ceasefires have been slowly gaining ground. While the United Nations Support Mission in Libya has tried to offer some support to these, it has generally been more focused on high-level politics.
According to Ageli, negotiators “are engaging with politicians thinking they have some sort of hierarchical control over militia leaders, which they don’t have at all.” Ageli says the process so far has been absolutely necessary but “ineffective,” and he offers some advice: “Focus on local ceasefires and local security plans which don’t involve politicians — they represent the social structures that have come up to protect people’s interests.” He’s also betting that an economic collapse could either force the warring parties to eventually opt for dialogue or push them toward all-out war.
It’s easy to see why Europe, in particular, is instead reaching for drastic solutions. Libya’s chaos means that the self-declared Islamic State and other radicals are gaining a foothold on the Mediterranean. It means no state body is effectively policing Europe-bound migrants. And it also means that businessmen cannot operate safely in a ludicrously resource-rich country. The temptation is to build on a bad deal, try and increase its legitimacy, get a “unified” government made up of whoever will sign up, and then support the new government militarily. This would be a rushed solution that might further feed the conflict.
The best option for Western governments to avoid exacerbating violence may be to quietly invest in the local track, crack down on regional actors who are supplying arms and funding to Libya’s warring factions, and sanction alleged war criminals. This is a slow and frustrating approach. Such a tedious and hands-off policy will sound like self-enforced impotence. But more muscular alternatives, such as what Mattia Toaldo, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, calls “a too-narrowly defined security-first approach,” have been tried before with miserable results. In a country as schizophrenic and volatile as Libya, patience is a virtue.
In the photo, fighters from the Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) militia fire shells from a tank during clashes with forces loyal to Libya’s internationally recognized government on April 28, 2015.
Photo credit: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images