Argument

The West Is Letting Libya Tear Itself Apart

Calling for elections in the absence of stable institutions while competing for diplomatic and economic influence won’t rebuild the country — it will destroy it.

A Libyan fireman stands in front of smoke and flames rising from a storage tank at an oil facility in northern Libya's Ras Lanuf region on January 23, 2016, after it was set ablaze earlier in the week following attacks launched by Islamic State jihadists to seize key port terminals.
A Libyan fireman stands in front of smoke and flames rising from a storage tank at an oil facility in northern Libya's Ras Lanuf region on January 23, 2016, after it was set ablaze earlier in the week following attacks launched by Islamic State jihadists to seize key port terminals. (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

For the ninth time since 2011, rival Libyan factions are slugging it out to control the country’s strategic “oil crescent,” a coastal strip which begins 100 miles south of Benghazi and arcs westward 250 miles toward Sirte. Located at the center of this crescent are the oil terminals of Sidra and Ras Lanuf. These rusting crown jewels of Libya’s oil infrastructure were blockaded by the federalist warlord Ibrahim Jadhran from 2014 to 2016 and attacked twice by the Islamic State.

In September 2016, they were captured by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army and production promptly resumed. It was interrupted when they were stormed by the jihadi Benghazi Defense Brigades in March 2017 and restarted when they were recaptured by Haftar a few weeks later. These fluctuations in production have crippled Libyans’ standard of living and deterred almost all major oil companies from servicing them.

On June 14, Jadhran retook Sidra and Ras Lanuf by teaming up with a motley crew of tribal allies, jihadis, internally displaced persons from Benghazi, and Chadian mercenaries. And despite the many factions that support him, Jadhran is unlikely to hold these key oil installations for long. Only Haftar has access to an air force. His full counteroffensive began in earnest on June 19. It will surely reconquer the whole crescent — if it has not done so already.

As this article went to press, Haftar’s spokesperson and pro-Haftar media claimed to fully control Ras Lanuf. Jadhran has fled the scene of his crime in disgrace — his coalition scattered, and some of his Chadian mercenaries were captured. That’s because Jadhran failed to garner the support of the mainstream militias which support Haftar’s most legitimate rivals: those from the city of Misrata and the cartel that controls Tripoli.

Despite Jadhran’s recent promises to keep the virtually irreplaceable infrastructure intact during his current offensive, oil storage tankers were predictably set ablaze last week, burning tens of millions of dollars of crude oil, threatening an environmental disaster, and making Libya’s future earnings potential look far less bright.

The current round of violence was tragically predictable. Western governments’ recent loose talk about holding elections is a major culprit for inflaming passions, after over a year of quiet. For years, scholarly research has demonstrated that elections in the absence of robust institutions are more likely to catalyze conflict than resolve it. After all, institutions are needed to define what an electoral winner receives and what protections losing groups are entitled to. In the absence of such institutions, elections reignite stalled conflicts, usually leading to a free-for-all quest for power.

Why, then, do Western leaders repeatedly make the same mistake? Optimists would assume it is due to a Western desire to spread democracy. In many instances, that might be the case. But when it comes to Western diplomacy in Libya, the answer is far more cynical.

The United States, United Kingdom, and Russia — great-power rivals that have long competed for influence in the greater Middle East — don’t usually feel the need to dominate in Libya. France, Italy, and the array of middle powers involved in Libya all have their own geostrategic reasons to punch above their weight by dominating the so-called Libya file. For the French since 2017, micromanaging the drive toward elections with high-level summits appears to be their gambit for dominance in a country outside their traditional sphere of influence.

France hosted the first major Libyan conference last July. This May, with French support, Francophone U.N. special envoy Ghassan Salamé tacitly abandoned his previous road map for Libya, dispensing with two stages the United Nations had previously stated were necessary prerequisites to holding elections: amending the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement and convening a national conference.

This was promptly followed by a summit of the major Libyan stakeholders in Paris. Somewhere amid this flurry of diplomatic activity, France and the U.N. forgot to establish the rules of the game or the legal framework that would govern these elections. No one in Libya or in international capitals knows if the elections will be parliamentary or presidential. Nor do they know what is being done about the constitutional draft, which is awaiting a referendum.

The French have neither sought to clarify these unknowns nor to put themselves forward as unbiased mediators. They established close relations with Haftar during François Hollande’s presidency through his then-defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian.

When political upstart Emmanuel Macron came to power in May 2017, he promptly promoted the experienced Le Drian to foreign minister. According to most reputable pundits, this move led the French to double down on Haftar, essentially making France the only Western nation whose Libya policy is closely aligned with that of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia.

Like those earlier and more autocratic contenders for dominance over the Libya file, France has sought influence not so much by supporting Haftar against his enemies, but by trying to blindside other international players with surprise summits and establishing facts on the ground. The unique French twist is attempting to unsubtly manipulate the elections timetable and optics to get a specific outcome.

There is no doubt that Macron’s May 2018 Paris summit further legitimized Haftar and puts him in the pole position in terms of name recognition heading into any electoral battle. Understandably, this ruffled feathers in London, Washington, and Rome as France’s allies were not notified about the summit until it was publicly announced.

The Italians, who hosted Haftar last September, were particularly irate. Libyan social media is understandably full of claims that the current violence in the oil crescent is a direct outcome of these French-Italian tensions. Unsurprisingly, the French and the Italians are both the leading foreign stakeholders in the country’s hydrocarbons sector.

Italian voters tend to view the conflict in their former colony through the lens of migration. Consequently, Italian politicians compete to be tough on migration, forging security relationships with western Libyan stakeholders, politicians, and militia leaders to prevent sub-Saharan African migrants from passing through Libya and reaching their shores.

Conversely, since 2011, French politicians of all persuasions have tended to see Libya as an opportunity to demonstrate their Gaullist bona fides by cementing France’s position as the leading international player in Libya. They may also see leading on Libya as an opportunity to best the distracted Anglophone powers, capitalizing on the unique moment where both the Trump administration and a British government consumed by Brexit are looking inward.

Perversely, the current violence seems to have been allowed to take place while Libyan and international opponents of French unilateralism largely turned a blind eye as Jadhran dealt an indirect blow to France’s perceived client, Gen. Haftar. Jadhran’s assault had been brewing since the Benghazi Defense Brigades reconstituted itself for an attack on Tamanhint air base in late May. The international powers — France included — had ample forewarning, yet they failed to send a robust message to deter the attack on the oil installations. Haftar noticed Jadhran’s preparations for an attack three weeks ago.

France seemed more concerned with maintaining the veneer of neutrality — of being a mediator rather than a de facto party to the conflict. Based on information from credible social media sources, it is impossible to assume that Western governments were caught off guard. All the major international players are theoretically united in their desire to protect Libya’s oil infrastructure, as only increased oil production can save Libya from financial ruin, and Libya lacks sufficient security for damaged infrastructure to be repaired by the best experts.

But practically, Libyans’ most neutral and domestically respected allies, the United States and Britain, have let them down once again. As Jadhran’s assault was brewing, Washington and London should have put forward a credible plan to protect the priceless oil infrastructure combined with a robust message of severe consequences for anyone who attacked it. Ex post facto condemnations will not avert the next round of bloodletting and oil burning.

Paradoxically, given the intensity and frequency of fighting, control of the oil terminals doesn’t allow any faction to pocket the money that international companies pay for outgoing oil shipments. The contracts to produce, purchase, and transport Libyan crude signed with the Libyan National Oil Corporation guarantee that all payments for oil exports flow into the Tripoli-based Central Bank of Libya. Nonetheless, various factions still wish to control the oil crescent due to the political leverage that threatening to turn the spigot off bestows.

Gen. Haftar has never used that leverage and — aside from a few Islamic State-aligned attacks over the past months — he has done a fairly good job at keeping the oil flowing. The opposite can be said of Jadhran, whose blockades from 2014 to 2016 cost Libya over a $100 billion in lost revenue and who frequently sought to cash in his bargaining chip in return for higher office.

Tragically, we have been here before. In the summer of 2014, the losing side in the June House of Representatives elections (the Islamists and Misratans) cried foul and then only weeks later stormed Tripoli International Airport and proclaimed their own rival government.

If only the United States and Britain had come together with Northern European allies and regional partners to issue ironclad security guarantees to protect Libya’s key infrastructure, the destructive orgies that accompany bouts of free-for-all fighting could have been stopped.

Now is the time to learn from past mistakes. Britain and the United States must not allow yet another Libyan election to be constructed as a winner-take-all event. Rather than engaging in cheap talk about democracy, veteran diplomats in Washington and London should attempt to enforce rules of the game as a corrective to the zero-sum mentality in Libya whereby winners try to marginalize the vanquished and control all the spoils.

Issuing concrete pledges to protect Libya’s crucial physical infrastructure, namely the electricity, water, and oil grids as well as the few brave Libyan technocrats willing to implement painful economic reforms is long overdue.

Without such a backstop, even the most courageous Libyan stakeholders will have difficulty safeguarding their country’s sovereign assets from predation. They know that if they stick their necks out to correct injustices, they will likely to be chopped off by the disgruntled militiamen who benefit from the corrupt status quo.

Jason Pack is the founder of the consultancy Libya-Analysis and was previously the executive director of the U.S.-Libya Business Association.

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