How Do You Solve a Problem Like Libya?

Analysts discuss the humanitarian, security, and political crises emanating from a country in chaos

 The chaos in Libya that has prevailed since the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 has placed both a humanitarian as well as a security crisis on Europe’s doorstep.

Libya today has two governments—one in Tripoli and the other in Tobruk. Only the latter is internationally recognized. Its borders are porous. Its security in the hands of groups that often have no more than local control.

An illicit network of traffickers has thrived amid this chaos. Thousands of migrants daily risk deadly voyages across the Mediterranean Sea to flee desperate conditions in their homes in Africa and the Middle East.

The traffickers are not the only ones exploiting the instability. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State (IS), has put down roots in Libya prompting concern that the terrorists are now at striking distance from Europe.

Mattia Toaldo, a Policy Fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and Abdul Rahman Al-Ageli, a Nonresident Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, were in Washington this week. In an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen, Toaldo and Al-Ageli discussed developments in Libya and the prospects for peace.

Here are excerpts from our interview:

Q: What are your thoughts on the European Union’s plan to interdict, and even take military action, against smugglers’ ships to prevent migrants from flooding into Europe?

Toaldo: The language in the conclusions of the European summit speaks of disrupting the business model of smugglers, which gives them leeway in terms of what kind of response they want.

If you listen to the Italian navy, which will probably take the lead on this because the headquarters of the mission will be in Italy, what they want is to have rules of engagement that give them the option of responding if they are attacked by smugglers, which has happened in the past.

On the other hand, there is a lot of talk of going onshore and that, I think, is the dangerous and tricky part. I am not sure that those who advance that option are actually aware that it means getting involved in Libya’s civil war, antagonizing the local communities, and ultimately acting like the colonial power that didn’t really care about what was happening in Libya and only cared about migrants coming from Libya.

Q: Can the solution, as it is presented now, work?

Toaldo: Absolutely not. The whole idea that you stop smugglers in the Mediterranean doesn’t make much sense. We are talking about people who usually leave the Horn of Africa, western Africa or Syria. That is where the ultimate response should be in terms of providing them with safe and legal channels of access to Europe as well as protection near their homes.

You also need to address the communities for which smuggling is such an important part of the economy. In the end, we will have to discuss with them which goods it is OK to trade, and which are absolutely not OK. Drugs, weapons, and human beings are at the top of the list of things that should not be smuggled. But we need to offer them an alternative.

Al-Ageli: There haven’t been much operational details that have been released [by the EU]. They haven’t said how they will cooperate with Libyan forces on the ground or Libyan authorities, or even with which authority. So far both authorities have come out and said this [EU plan] wasn’t done in coordination with them.

Q: What are authorities—either in Tobruk or in Tripoli—doing to crack down on the flourishing trafficking networks? Are either in a position to do anything?

Al-Ageli: There isn’t the capacity to deal with this problem; and there aren’t any clear policies. That’s partly because both authorities do not have full monopoly on the use of force through formal military or security structures. The use of force is mostly controlled by semi-state or non-state groups that provide local security services.

Toaldo: The problem is also that there was a system put in place in cooperation with the Europeans, especially the Italians, under Gadhafi. This was based on a number of detention centers for migrants. These are still active, but they are not under the control of what is left of the Libyan government. They are managed by local armed groups and they have turned into kidnapping centers where migrants are brought and released only upon payment of ransom. This only adds to the push factors for these migrants and refugees to leave Libya as soon as possible and to pay whatever the price to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.

If there is something that the two governments are doing it is actually increasing the flow of migrants. A crucial change that should be implemented by Europeans is not to continue this policy of outsourcing the pushbacks—this creates leverage in local actors in order to continue with the civil war—and justify this in the eyes of Europeans as “We Are fighting illegal immigration.” This is particularly dangerous for Europeans because it doesn’t actually solve the problem. You only solve the problem by on the one hand addressing the situations from which these people are fleeing, and on the other by offering legal means to access Europe.

Q: What, if anything, do the Libyan authorities want from the European community to help address this problem?

Al-Ageli: Most of the strategies that were being implemented in cooperation with the international community on border security, and particularly illegal migration, were happening before the eruption of conflict in the summer of 2014.

The issue of illegal migration has exacerbated because the networks involved in that activity have taken advantage of the void in governance. Without a viable Libyan counterpart, the international community and the European Union in particular, have been forced to take up the issue themselves.

Q:  Can the migrant crisis be addressed without first finding a solution to the chaos in Libya?

Al-Ageli: It would be possible to do it in parallel. The way people talk of the EU strategy is a “bomb the boats” strategy. That is why it is being widely criticized. The international community is supporting the United Nations’ effort [to form a national unity government]; it’s just that the results are not forthcoming.

Is it possible for the Libyans to deal with the migrant issue? At the local level, yes, but at the central level I find it difficult to believe. At the end of the day, there are incentives and human will at play that are far more powerful than the Libyan government’s will to stem the issue. A lot of these people are desperate and if they want to arrive in Europe they will. If Libya is cut off they will find another way to get to Europe.

Toaldo: What we are seeing in the past few months is that almost an equivalent number of Syrian refugees are trying to enter Europe from the eastern, route rather than from Libya. If you are fleeing a civil war you will find a way to get to Europe because you have a very potent motive to run away. What Europe is getting is just a trickle of the ten million displaced Syrians.

But it is a huge number for some European countries. Sweden has been getting hundreds of thousands of Syrians in a population of ten million. That is having an impact on domestic politics in Europe. That’s why, for some European governments, containing migration is a priority over solving Libya.

I think the priorities need to be reversed. Unless you address Libya, it is very hard to address migration. The priority should also be to avoid migrants and refugees getting into Libya. That’s why it is important to offer legal means of access to Europe so people don’t have to cross the Mediterranean just to submit an asylum application. That is nonsense. That is part of the EU plan, which I hope will be implemented sooner rather than later.

Q: What percentage of migrants fleeing Libya are actually Libyans?

Toaldo: Microscopic. Out of the 170,000 who arrived in Lampedusa in Italy last year from Libya only 200 were registered as Libyans.

Q: What are your thoughts on the UN peace effort? How have the rival sides responded to UN envoy Bernardino Leon’s power-sharing deal and is a final deal possible by Ramadan (June 17) as Leon hopes?

Al-Ageli: All signs are pointing to the fact that that would be a very difficult result to achieve by Ramadan. The two delegations have been in discussions for months making amendments to the various drafts of the agreement. The latest draft is being heavily criticized by Tripoli because it is perceived as being favorable to the government in Tobruk.

Toaldo: The biggest obstacles for Leon’s work are not really in Libya. The biggest obstacle is to implement a power-sharing agreement in a region where the alternative game seems to be a zero-sum game.

If you look across the region, the idea is to exclude your enemies from power by force. That is what is happening in Egypt, Syria, and Yemen. It is hard to find an inclusive solution in Libya given these regional circumstances. At the moment the only exception to this rule that I can think of is Tunisia.

In west Libya, in particular, today there are the dynamics that would allow for at least local ceasefires. But it’s hard to have them survive in this regional context where the idea is that you are going to physically eliminate your enemy.

Q: Even as Leon sought to bring all sides to the negotiating table, the government in Tobruk appointed Gen. Khalifa Haftar, an anti-Islamist, to the position of army chief fueling distrust in Tripoli. Do you share a concern raised by some Libyans that Libya is heading toward an Egypt-like situation?

Al-Ageli: The only thing I would accept is that there are certain factions in Libya that perceive that to be a real threat. That fear has manifested itself into conflict. Realistically, I find if difficult to believe that one side could use force to gain Libya-wide monopoly and use that to create a totalitarian regime.

In reality, both sides actually desire that situation. The [Tobruk government] has a fear that if the Islamists [In Tripoli] gain control of Libya they will also implement an exclusionary, totalitarian regime. Both sides have an inherent fear of exclusion.

Toaldo: One of the many watershed moments in post-Gadhafi Libya was the approval of the political isolation law by which one side tried to politically eliminate the other side. This was implemented as a consequence of use of force that was used to threaten the Libyan parliament to approve this law. The law resulted in the ousting of the then head of state [General National Congress President Mohamed al-Megariaf].

The people in Tobruk could read that as a coup attempt in the Libyan way. And the people in Tripoli could read Khalifa Haftar’s operation as a coup attempt the Egyptian way. Unless there is a regional context that avoids the zero-sum game and helps deescalate the civil war, I don’t see any solution.

Haftar is clearly one of the problems. The best example of that is twice his forces have bombed Tripoli’s airport while the delegation from Tripoli was flying to the UN dialogue. That is a demonstration of his commitment to dialogue!

Q: Has military support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates for Haftar undermined the UN effort to make peace in Libya?

Al-Ageli: The regional dimension is very important. Unfortunately, in the past few years the region has been just as polarized as Libya in their political positions on some of the conflicts in the region.

Regional support to either of the two factions is an obstacle to successfully concluding a dialogue process. The international community should be playing more of a role to obstruct regional interference that is not productive to a dialogue and reconciliation process.

Toaldo: I agree!

Q: How serious and widespread is the ISIS threat in Libya?

Toaldo: We must be careful in addressing this issue because it has been manipulated by several actors in Libya using the playbook of the Gadhafi dictatorship. As long as you shout “Terrorist! Terrorist!” someone in the West will hear you and it will justify whatever you do to crush your domestic opponents. The first takeaway from the past months is that we shouldn’t be fooled by local actors into siding in the Libyan civil war based on that threat.

Having said that, I do think that the threat is serious more in terms of potential than in its current form. ISIS has, unfortunately, great potential, especially as long as two crucial forces in Libya feel the threat of exclusion. It is paradoxical that these forces are fighting each other.

We are seeing more and more defections from Islamist armed groups towards ISIS. On the other hand, we hear about rank and file from the Gadhafi loyalists willing to join ISIS also out of the marginalization that they have suffered since 2011.

We shouldn’t fall into the war-on-terror trap. The more inclusive the solution to Libya, the better it is in the fight against ISIS. ISIS is also a military threat, but the use of force must take place within a political strategy otherwise we may find ourselves in the same situation as we are in Syria and Iraq where we haven’t really offered an alternative to enfranchise Sunnis.

Al-Ageli: I agree!

Q: Can the ISIS threat unite the two main rival factions in Libya?

 Al-Ageli: The idea of using IS [the Islamic State] as a common enemy to unite both sides is an attractive idea to some, although practically what it would entail is over exaggerating the threat in order to unite everybody against them. That would possibly lead to the evolution of the organization into a more sophisticated and regionally integrated organization than it is now, which is something that has happened in other countries.

Toaldo: It was my hope in February that the emergence of the Islamic State in Libya would unite the factions and be a push factor for a national unity deal.  But what we have witnessed since then is that the different factors have tried to use IS to win support from the West for their domestic goals.

I fail to see how we can peel off support for IS absent a more inclusive vision for the future of Libya. I realize IS is an emergency for the West, and I am not denying that, but I do think that we need to address the long-term problems of Libya if we want to tackle IS, otherwise we risk taking short-term solutions, which actually create long-term problems.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

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Image: Karim Mezran (center), Resident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, moderates a discussion on Libya at the Atlantic Council in Washington May 20 between Mattia Toaldo, Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and Abdul Rahman Al-Ageli, a Nonresident Fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center.