Libya, the US, and the Palermo Conference

Key Libyan and international stakeholders will meet in Palermo, Italy, on November 12 to discuss and, hypothetically, draft a plan to deal with the political crisis in Libya. Main Libyan actors from the east—strongman Khalifa Haftar and president of the House of Representatives (HoR), Ageela Salah—as well as the west—prime minister of the United Nations (UN)-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Serraj, and head of the High State Council, Khalid al-Mishri—are supposed to attend. The heads of state of the United States, France, Germany, and Russia have been invited: none have confirmed their attendance. The United States should send Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The Italian government hastily organized the conference in Palermo in an attempt to counter the Paris summit organized by France in May. The Paris summit produced a verbal commitment by Libyan leaders to a timeline: a referendum on the draft constitution by September 16 and presidential and parliamentary elections on December 10. The elections would supposedly fix the political crisis and act as a step toward stability (or to elevate Haftar, something French officials would not publicly admit if true). The elections have been planned without any details stipulating how to deal with the tricky security issue—in which militias responsible to no political entity will secure voting stations—and the sheer logistical weight of organizing national elections in a short time.

Italy’s approach to solving the crisis is the reverse of the French’s: stability is the only path forward for Libya, and elections should come later. Whereas the French conference began with an intended outcome and ended with specific mandates and a timeline, the Italian approach has no specific goals for the Palermo conference nor does it intend to bind the leaders to any dates or stipulations.

The competing agendas for Libya’s path to stability of the French and Italians is more than a disagreement on a political solution, it is also a diplomatic rift. The French did not invite Italy to their summit in May; the Italians learned of the summit only the day before via news reports. Moreover, the parallel plans for Libya and intra-European Union (EU) fighting on how to solve the issue affects more than the French and Italian governments. The French worked outside of the United Nations-led framework several times by hosting high-level summits in an attempt to take control of the conflict (efforts that either did not work or further entrenched spoilers’ footing by legitimizing certain actors). Militias and spoilers move in reaction to news of elections or major changes in the political trajectory—by jockeying for control of lucrative infrastructure, usually in the capital Tripoli—which are often triumphantly announced but rarely implemented.

Foreign interference in Libya has been criticized by Libyans as well as the international community of Libya watchers since Moammar Gadhafi’s ouster in the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. This criticism is not limited to the Europeans. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have propped up Haftar’s military conquest in the east with funding and weapons, overtly breaking the UN arms embargo that has been in place since February 2011 when the uprisings began. Qatar and Turkey also have their role in fueling a drawn-out, latent civil war.

The United States, on the other hand, has not devoted much attention to the Libyan crisis. The position of US ambassador to Libya has been vacant for a year following Peter Bodde’s retirement at the end of 2017. It was announced last week that Bodde is returning to his post as ambassador to Libya—an unexplainable and unprecedented move by the State Department. The Trump administration only publicly took an interest in Libya for the first time in December of last year, when the White House hosted Serraj. Eight months later, Trump held a joint press conference with the new Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte. Trump endorsed Italy’s leadership on attempts to stabilize Libya. Yet, for the United States, the most important consequence of Libya’s chaos was migration, not a need to solve bloodshed and criminal activity. The Trump administration has not proposed any action items on Libya.

The United States, however, is the only country that could exercise leadership and apply the necessary pressure on the other countries intermingling in Libya and spoiling negotiations. US leadership in Libya could save the negotiation process and thus sufficiently insulate the country from outside actors’ disruptions and the subsequent effects on the ground. US leadership in the Libyan conflict could prevent Russia—and eventually the Turkey/Qatar bloc— from getting a bigger foothold in Libya and exploiting the situation.

The United States also has an interest in the viability of the Mediterranean region, in particular the stability of important allies such as Italy, Spain, and to a lesser extent Greece. All countries are directly threatened by illegal immigration as well as by the strengthening of international criminal organizations that are capitalizing on the lucrative smuggling of human beings through Libya to Europe. These groups will only grow further entrenched in the networks and markets in Libya and position themselves as key opponents of whatever state structure is built in Libya.

Other obvious US interests in Libya’s stabilization include containment of terrorism and preventing the spillover of the conflict to Libya’s northern African and Sahelian neighbors.

A stable Libya could also bring positive economic outcomes for the United States. A stable Libya would have serious potential for US companies and could also be a very positive actor in revitalizing regional organizations, such as the dormant Arab Maghreb Union (a political union including Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya). According to a World Bank study, increased economic integration would have enormous positive growth effects on the gross domestic product (GDP) of the Maghreb countries, upon which the United States could also capitalize.

Libya could also help the United States with its newly-reimposed Iranian sanctions. The drive to eliminate Iranian oil from the market will lead to an increase in oil prices that would hurt industrialized economies. Increased oil production in Libya following stabilization of the country could help the United States keep the price of oil low, while squeezing Iran out of the market.

The Western heads of state who have previously been involved in Libya have yet to announce whether they plan to attend the conference in Palermo on November 12. The United States has much to gain by taking a larger leadership role in the political negotiations and redirecting the tangential European actions toward the UN-led stabilization process.

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @mezrank.

Erin A. Neale is a project assistant at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @erinaneale.

Related Experts: Karim Mezran

Image: Khalifa Haftar (C), the military commander who dominates eastern Libya, attends an international conference on Libya at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, May 29, 2018. (Etienne Laurent/Pool via Reuters/File Photo)