Memo on Policy Options Toward Libya

To: The International Community
From: Karim Mezran


Security in Libya has rapidly deteriorated in the last several weeks, jeopardizing what incremental gains were aspired through new parliamentary elections, a constitution-drafting process, and a national dialogue. The violence gripping Libya is a manifestation of a deeply-entrenched political struggle that has grown worse with each passing year since the ousting of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi. As rival militias aligned with opposing political blocs battle in the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi, the international presence in the country has all but disappeared, with the United Nations and several major countries evacuating their staff.

With severely constrained access resulting in the transmission of imperfect information, it is important to note that there are two narratives unfolding on the ground. One narrative portrays the violence as patriotic liberals (comprised of the rogue general Khalifa Haftar, the National Forces Alliance, and the Zintani militias) fighting against Islamism. This depiction of a dichotomous battle, devoid of nuance, permeated the discourse among media and western powers. But a counter-narrative within the murky landscape also needs to be understood: Fighters from Misrata and elsewhere, who consider themselves the real revolutionaries, declare their promise to complete the revolution, pushing back against what they perceive to be former regime elements and preventing them from taking power in the country; in fact, Zintani brigades are known to have former Qaddafi soldiers in their ranks.

Given that the “good versus bad” (or “Islamist versus liberal”) framework misrepresents the situation, both Libyan and international policy should avoid taking sides, rather establishing open channels of communication to forge an inclusive political roadmap. The same is required of the recently-elected House of Representatives, which will need to demonstrate that it works in the service of all Libyans. Should the body throw its weight behind one warring faction over the other, it will absolutely undermine its standing and shatter any prospects for a sustainable resolution. Due to a weakness in leadership and a lack of capacity to provide for their citizens, Libyan authorities have lost credibility and increasingly cede ground to divisive, polarizing entities fighting for dominance in the vacuum, resulting in the fragmented and embattled state of the nation.

While it falls primarily to Libyans to fulfill the promise of their revolution, it remains true—as it did during the uprising—that they need international support to do so. Since the 2011 revolution, the international community has delivered clear pronouncements of support for the political transition in Libya but has largely refrained from active engagement out of concern that it would be perceived as meddling. This avoidance has become more acute since the fatal assault on the US Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012 that claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. However, if the international community wishes to preserve Libya’s transition, it will have to assist Libyans in promoting a political, sustainable resolution to the current crisis.

Reasons for robust international assistance to Libya

Resolution will require significant political capital and will, but is in the international community’s interests for several reasons:

  1. A politically viable and stable Libya is critical to address security concerns that impact and are shared by Libya, the region, and the larger global community. Libya’s vast, unmonitored borders have become a no-man’s lands since the revolution, particularly due to the absence of a national security apparatus. As such, the porous borders are used as camp grounds for extremist militants; they serve as smuggling routes for arms, drugs, and human trafficking; they are also the paths sought by migrants to reach the Mediterranean for passage to Europe. Reports confirm that weapons from the 2011 revolution have made their way from Libya into Syria, and thousands of innocent people have died trying to make the journey to a better life. These developments pose significant security threats and can only serve to destabilize the region. Libya needs a strong, functioning state to assert authority and capably partner with the international community in stemming the tide of traffickers and jihadists, and find a humane resolution to the outflow of poor migrants.
  2. Libya’s political crisis has sparked a serious humanitarian catastrophe. Weeks of fighting have left several dozen civilians dead and put great strain on the populace, as fuel, electricity, water, and internet services are disrupted. The clashes have reportedly displaced thousands. Even beyond the recent weeks of escalating violence, targeted assassinations occur on a near-daily basis, with lawmakers, activists, and journalists being gunned down by unidentified killers who essentially operate in an environment of impunity. Spiraling insecurity has also prevented many Libyans from casting their ballots in the last two elections this year. The threats to the transition and to the population are not unlike what Libya was experiencing in 2011, when the international community acted to protect civilians against the threat posed by Qaddafi. As UN Security Council Resolution 1975 still stands, the international community’s commitment to help Libya out of its current state of affairs must not wane.
  3. Keeping the transition from derailing will ensure that the 2011 intervention and the sacrifices made—military, human, monetary, and political—were not in vain. The international community lost no time in intervening in 2011 when Qaddafi threatened the lives of his own citizens. Rebel forces successfully exploited NATO’s aerial incursions to push back against Qaddafi’s army. With the National Transitional Council eager to prove it could undertake post-conflict nation-building, NATO forces quickly pulled out of Libya after Qaddafi’s defeat. Since then, Libya’s partners have exercised a largely hands-off approach, with the United States in particular grappling with questions of war powers and diplomatic security in a politically polarized scene. By President Barack Obama’s own admission, his biggest foreign policy regret was not providing sufficient support to Libya’s institutions following the revolution.

If Libya is not brought back from the brink, history will judge international involvement in 2011 as a hasty mission with no follow-through—one that merely exacerbated an already-turbulent region, a futile effort in humanitarian assistance and limited military intervention, rather than an example of smart policy during the Arab uprisings.

Scenarios and responses

The situation on the ground is rapidly unfolding, prompting the necessity to consider various scenarios and possible responses. Some policy recommendations that would serve to preserve the political process include the following:

Scenario 1

Inter-militia battles prevent the political institutions from functioning. Clashes in Tripoli and Benghazi continue at the level of intensity seen in recent weeks, further exacerbating the humanitarian situation, but without one side gathering enough strength to overpower the other. Feeling marginalized, Islamists do not recognize the newly elected House of Representatives, based in Tobruk, and agitate to prevent the new government (to be appointed by the parliament) from taking power in Tripoli.

Issuing an ultimatum, the international community can order warring factions to a ceasefire and withdraw from the main cities, under threat of a UN resolution sanctioning targeted brigade leaders and their political backers. This would serve as a name and shame tactic that would potentially choke off the warring leaders’ resources and push them to the negotiating table.

  • If this threat does not incentivize the factions, then the international community should consider issuing a threat of military intervention. Under one of these pressure points, the warring sides would stop firing and withdraw.

With Tripoli and Benghazi secured, the United Nations can deploy a peacekeeping force to guard government buildings, fortify key installations, and protect civilians.

  • If the Libyan government or its partners reject international armed intervention, an alternative policy option could include a robust program for the immediate training, in Libya, of an elite force to be deployed in protection of the government and key installations. The force would incorporate a large number of trainers that would work alongside local troops.

With some semblance of peace and order restored, the state acquires more room to operate.

The United Nations leads a mediation process, with the Libyan parliament fulfilling a critical liaising role through which it demonstrates that it can negotiate in good faith and bolsters its own legitimacy. The objective of the negotiations would be to reach a power-sharing agreement, including selecting a consensus-based government and creating a political roadmap. To ensure its success, the new UN envoy Bernardino Leon would coordinate all negotiating activities in order to minimize duplication of efforts, as has happened in the past.

Consequences of inaction
Should the international community choose not to get involved at this stage, they risk the destabilizing effects of spillover into neighboring countries as a consequence of ongoing clashes. A humanitarian crisis would develop along the borders, placing exorbitant pressure on economically frail countries like Tunisia. Libya’s bureaucracy and elected institutions would become increasingly irrelevant as factions fight for power, forcing neighboring states to bear disproportionate responsibility for security threats, particularly as jihadists take advantage of the security and political vacuum to create bases along or move through the porous borders.

With many of Libya’s neighbors having expressed grave concern over spillover (namely, Tunisia as it grapples with the flood of refugees and Egypt as it combats rogue elements moving through Libya’s deserts and into the Sinai), states in the region could take military action to protect themselves, with or without international consent. Unilateral action would increase the likelihood of warring factions in Libya being bolstered by states favoring one side or the other–not to mention additional difficulty in coordinating a military response.

Scenario 2

In a second possible scenario, one of the warring factions gains the upper hand and achieves a military victory over the opponent. On one hand, the Islamists in alliance with Misrata defeats the non-Islamist Zintani forces, rejecting elected institutions from which they have been marginalized and calling for the establishment of their own government. On the other hand, the Zintanis defeat the Islamists in Tripoli, while rogue general Khalifa Haftar and his supporters succeed in rooting out Islamists and taking back the eastern part of the country.

Such a development would mark a critical turning point, testing the international community’s resolve to uphold the political process. Under no circumstances are Libya’s partners to recognize the so-called victorious faction if they have achieved their gains through violent means, outside of the rule of law. Regardless of whether Islamists or non-Islamists take power, the international community must not lend legitimacy by recognizing them and send the signal that military might trumps the polling station.

The international community would first need to engage the only elected and legitimate institution in the country, the House of Representatives, to bolster their standing and capacity to be a leading Libyan voice in an inclusive political dialogue.

Libya’s allies must also engage the winning side and make clear that it will exert all economic and diplomatic pressure should the faction continue to maintain the upper hand through coercive means.

Allies should also send a similar message to the weaker faction so as to disincentivize them from launching a more aggressive and violent campaign to wrest power and control from its opponents.

With the House empowered, the United Nations should then steer negotiations with all stakeholders, whose participation would be conditioned on checking arms at the door. Such mediation could forge consensus around a roadmap that would reinstate the democratization process through peaceful means.

As the aforementioned scenarios and policy recommendations underscore, creating and preserving an inclusive political transitional process must steadfastly remain the objective of the international community and Libya’s elected institutions. If authorities exhibit inconsistencies or double standards in their treatment of one side or the other in the current crisis, they will only serve to perpetuate and prolong the conflict.

The suggestions put forth here do not ignore the international community’s efforts in Libya. The country’s partners provided training to strengthen the national army, worked to build the capacity of civil society organizations, and funded polling projects to gauge the pulse of the Libyan population. Within the context of an entrenched political struggle playing out in urban battlefields, however, these programs cannot achieve the desired impact. The underlying grievances of a deeply divided polity must be addressed and physical security restored for traditional assistance programs to be effective. The current climate in Libya mandates a swift and assertive international response.

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, focusing on the politics and economics of North Africa.

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Image: Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdel Aziz attends the Fourth Ministerial Meeting for the Neighbouring Countries of Libya in Cairo, August 25, 2014. The meeting aims to address latest developments in the security and political situation in Libya. Rockets hit Labraq airport in eastern Libya on Monday, its director said, striking one of the oil producer's few still functioning airports as violence between armed groups escalates. Lying east of Benghazi, Labraq has become a main gateway into Libya since Egypt and Tunisia cancelled almost all flights to the capital Tripoli and western Libya last week, citing security reasons. (Photo: REUTERS)