Libya: Thinking the Unthinkable

Observers and commentators have floated many ideas on how best to support the Government of National Accord (GNA) born out of 18 months of UN-led negotiations. They range from advice to Western nations on how to implement an international stabilization force to provide security for the new government in Tripoli to strongly discouraging any foreign presence in Libya. Others suggest establishing a network of Libyan militias to support the government, with international assistance taking the form of equipping and training those who have decided to stand by the new government. While each position arises from a well-supported logical and factual foundation, an unthinkable possibility looms large: what happens if the GNA does not receive the House of Representatives’ (HOR) endorsement?

Despite the US State Department’s statement hailing the presumed endorsement of the GNA by the majority of the HOR members, the situation remains unclear. Recent delays have made likely a number of scenarios wherein an HOR endorsement may not be forthcoming. The HOR could outright reject the most recent iteration of the GNA. Or it could keep postponing a vote on the matter until it becomes overcome by events on the ground—such as an increase in terrorist attacks or an extended foreign military operation to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). Or, as it is happening now, a military success led by General Khalifa Haftar in Benghazi could change the political calculus, negating the UN deal in its entirety. Even if the HOR gives its endorsement, an agreement with militias in Tripoli to provide security for the GNA is far from guaranteed. Under these circumstances, any scenario is conceivable.

An endorsement by the HOR requires the immediate arrival of the GNA in Tripoli, lest its absence contribute to the further breakdown of Libyan institutions into three parts, each one claiming national authority: a government in Tobruk, supported by General Haftar’s forces, Egypt, and possibly Russia; another in Tripoli under a Libya Dawn reconsolidated with Qatar’s and perhaps Turkey’s help; and a third, recognized by the international community sitting in Tunisia or Morocco. The failure in obtaining the endorsement would, on the other hand, present even more negative eventualities. These consequences could include increased military operations in the east coupled with renewed hostility between the Libya Dawn and Zintan forces in the west, the further strengthening and expansion of terrorism, and renewed clashes between ethnic groups in the south. The looming economic crisis, with its potential humanitarian fallout, could exacerbate this already tragic situation. Each violent scenario contains consequences so grave and dark that no one has willingly taken them into consideration.

Taking notice of these potential outcomes, however, does not necessarily mean giving up hope. In fact, it should inspire the redoubling of efforts to support the GNA and ensure its success. Nonetheless, the best intentions could always fall victim to events on the ground, requiring a contingency plan to maintain the minimal modicum of order and civility in Libya, without which the country could further plunge into civil strife, war, and humanitarian tragedy.

One possible course of action stems from adjusting one’s view of the crisis. Rather than grapple with Libya as one overwhelming problem, deconstructing it to its more manageable parts can create opportunities that synergize with a larger solution. It requires a de facto (if not legal) split of the country into smaller geographic (east, west, and south) components, addressing each component’s divisive issues separately. The international community can specialize its members’ support according to capacity and expertise.

In other words, some countries would deal with western Libya and the relevant forces on the ground to foster a network of relationships that would realize peace agreements and rebuild consensus around a common objective. Under this regional framework rather than under a national one, negotiators could foster a peace agreement between the rival cities of Misrata and Zintan more easily. In a strictly western context, for example, General Haftar’s role as head of the army (unacceptable to the revolutionaries of Tripoli and Misrata) would become moot.

In eastern Libya, negotiators would take the same approach. If the majority of local and regional actors decide that Haftar remains head of the region’s armed forces, he could continue—with renewed international support—his operations against ISIS and its allies. Temporary international oversight could be legally devised and implemented to guarantee neutrality and autonomy to the Central Bank, the Libyan Investment Authority, and the National Oil Company until a modicum of security returns to allow for an inclusive and transparent reunification in whatever form Libyans may decide – a federation, a confederation, or a unified state. If a nationally oriented rivalry is removed from the equation, the international community would find easier access to carry out anti-ISIS operations. It could provide training and military support to both western and eastern forces, coordinating their operations against the terrorist organization in Sirte and other locations. The same approach, with the necessary modifications, would also be applied to southern Libya.

While not a preferred scenario—and one that needs further study and elaboration in the event of a collapse of the top-down UN-devised peace plan—such a contingency could provide a bottom-up foundation for a sustainable solution. Tailored answers constructed in subunits to the nation state may have a higher chance of success. The idea in 2012 that local councils appoint representatives to a national assembly and proceed from there to form national institutions might have spared Libya much pain, but today’s local grievances compounded at the national level would hinder such a solution now. Libya needs an immediate cure to stop the advance of a complex and intertwined political pathology. If it takes a de facto partition of the country, then this option should at least be taken into consideration.

Karim Mezran is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on North Africa.

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Image: Libyans wave their national flags as they celebrate Libya's eastern government's gains in the area, in Benghazi, Libya, February 24, 2016. (Reuters)