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Libya: Achieving a Ceasefire, Moving toward Legitimate Government
Libya: Achieving a Ceasefire, Moving toward Legitimate Government
Avoiding a Protracted Conflict in Libya
Avoiding a Protracted Conflict in Libya

Libya: Achieving a Ceasefire, Moving toward Legitimate Government

The longer Libya’s military conflict persists, the more it risks jeopardising or undermining the anti-Qaddafi camp’s avowed objectives. Civilians are figuring in large numbers as victims, both as casualties and refugees. The country is de facto being partitioned, as divisions between the predominantly opposition-held east and the predominantly regime-controlled west harden into distinct political, social and economic worlds.

As a result, it is virtually impossible for the pro-democracy current of urban public opinion in most of western Libya (and Tripoli in particular) to express itself and weigh in the political balance. All this, together with mounting bitterness on both sides, will constitute a heavy legacy for any post-Qaddafi government.

The prolonged military campaign and attendant instability likewise present strategic threats to Libya’s neighbours. Besides fuelling a large-scale refugee crisis, they are raising the risk of infiltration by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, whose networks of activists are present in Algeria, Mali and Niger. To insist on Qaddafi’s departure as a precondition for any political initiative is to prolong the military conflict and deepen the crisis. Instead, the priority should be to secure an immediate ceasefire and negotiations on a transition to a post-Qaddafi political order.

Unlike events in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, the confrontation that began in mid-February between the popular protest movement and Qaddafi’s regime morphed into a civil war from a very early stage. This owes a great deal to the country’s history and chiefly to the peculiar character of the political order Colonel Qaddafi and his associates set up in the 1970s.

Whereas Egypt and Tunisia had been well-established states before Presidents Mubarak and Ben Ali came to power in 1981 and 1987 respectively, such that in both cases the state had an existence independent of their personal rule and could survive their departure, the opposite has been true of Libya. As a result, the conflict has taken on the character of a violent life-or-death struggle.

Eight years after overthrowing the monarchy in 1969, Qaddafi instituted the Jamahiriya, or “state of the masses” -- a jerry-built state that is very much a personal creation largely dependent on his role. A constitutive principle of the Jamahiriya is the axiom, proclaimed in Qaddafi’s Green Book (1975), that “representation is fraud” and that no formal political representation is to be allowed.

Whereas all other North African states have at least paid lip-service to the right to political representation and have permitted political parties of a kind, however unsatisfactory, in the Jamahiriya there has been none at all, and attempts to create them have been considered treason.

The consequence of this radical refusal of the principle of representation has been to stunt the development of anything approaching effective, formal institutions or civil society. Notably, the articulation of diverse ideological outlooks and currents of political opinion, which other North African states have allowed to at least some degree, has been outlawed in Libya.

A corollary of this low level of institutionalisation has been the regime’s reliance on tribal solidarities to secure its power base. Strategic positions within the power structure -- notably command of the security forces’ most trusted units -- have been held by members of Qaddafi’s own family, clan and tribe and of other closely allied tribes. At the same time, and especially as of the late 1980s, the regular armed forces have been kept weak, undermanned and under-equipped, the object of Qaddafi’s mistrust.

These various features of Qaddafi’s political order help explain why the logic of civil war set in so quickly after the first demonstrations. The protest movement’s early demand that Qaddafi leave unavoidably implied not simply his departure and regime change, but rather the overthrow or collapse of the entire order that he established. The distinction between the state on the one hand and the regime on the other, which was crucial to enabling the Tunisian and Egyptian armies to act as neutral buffers and mediators in the conflict between people and presidency, was impossible to make.

There can be no doubt that the Jamahiriya is moribund and that only a very different form of state -- one that allows political and civic freedoms -- will begin to satisfy the widespread desire of Libyans for representative and law-bound government. Yet it was never going to be an easy matter to find a way out of the historic cul-de-sac of Qaddafi’s creation.

The character of the Libyan crisis today arises from the complex but so far evidently indecisive impact of the UN-authorised military intervention, now formally led by NATO, in what had already become a civil war. NATO's intervention has saved the anti-Qaddafi side from immediate defeat but has not yet resolved the conflict in its favour. Given its mounting political and human costs, complacent assessments that simply sustaining the present military campaign or increasing pressure will force Qaddafi out soon enough reflect a refusal to reconsider current strategy and envisage alternatives.

In any event, it would be reckless to ignore the possibility that, should the regime suffer swift military defeat, the outcome might be not a transition to democracy but rather a potentially prolonged vacuum that could have grave political and security implications for Libya’s neighbours as well as aggravate an already serious humanitarian crisis.

The revolt and its subsequent military efforts have been comparatively unorganised affairs. While the Interim Transitional National Council – the institution designed to govern opposition-controlled territory -- has been making some progress in developing political and military structures in the east, it is most improbable that it has or can soon acquire the capacity to take on the business of governing the country as a whole.

The assumption that time is on the opposition's side and that the regime will soon run out of ammunition or fuel or money (or will be overthrown by a palace coup) similarly substitutes wishful thinking for serious policy-making. Although such predictions might turn out to be true -- and it is difficult to assess in the absence of reliable estimates of Qaddafi’s resources -- time almost certainly is not on the Libyan people’s side.

As the military confrontation draws out, casualties and destruction mount, the country’s division deepens, and the risk of infiltration by jihadi militants rises. Economic and humanitarian conditions in those parts of Libya still under regime control will worsen. Nor should the cost to Libya’s neighbours of a prolonged chaotic, unstable situation at their borders be overlooked.

If some way cannot be found to induce the two sides in the armed conflict to negotiate a compromise allowing for an orderly transition to a post-Qaddafi, post-Jamahiriya state, the prospect for Libya but also North Africa as a whole and the Sahel countries (Chad, Mali and Niger) will be ominous.

A political breakthrough is by far the best way out of the costly situation created by the military stalemate. This will require a ceasefire and unfettered humanitarian access to all areas within the country, implementation of which should be monitored by a UN-mandated international peacekeeping force. It must be accompanied by immediate, serious negotiations between regime and opposition representatives to secure agreement on a peaceful transition to a new, more legitimate political order.

Such an outcome also necessitates involvement by a third party trusted by both sides -- actors currently in short supply. A joint political proposal by the Arab League and the African Union --the former viewed more favourably by the opposition, the latter preferred by the regime -- is one possibility to lead to such an agreement. But this cannot happen without the leadership of the revolt and NATO rethinking their current stance.

Their repeatedly proclaimed demand that “Qaddafi must go” confuses two quite different objectives. To insist that he can have no role in the post-Jamahiriya political order is one thing, and almost certainly reflects the opinion of a majority of Libyans as well as of the outside world. But to insist that he must go as the precondition for any negotiation, including that of a ceasefire, is to render a ceasefire all but impossible and maximise the prospect of continued armed conflict.

To insist that he both leave the country and face trial in the International Criminal Court is virtually to ensure that he will stay in Libya to the bitter end and go down fighting. Ultimately, only an immediate ceasefire is consistent with the purpose originally claimed for NATO's intervention, that of protecting civilians.

The claim that Qaddafi has failed to deliver a ceasefire ignores the fact that no ceasefire can be sustained unless it is observed by both sides. The complaint that Qaddafi cannot be trusted is one than can be levelled at any number of leaders on one side or another of a civil war. The way to deal with the issue is to establish the political conditions -- by mobilising through concerted diplomacy a strong international consensus in favour of an immediate, unconditional ceasefire and serious negotiations -- that will increase the likelihood that he keeps to his undertakings.

The present conflict clearly represents the death agony of Qaddafi’s Jamahiriya. Whether what comes after it fulfils Libyans’ hopes for freedom and legitimate government very much depends on how and when Qaddafi goes.

This in turn depends on when and how the armed conflict gives way to political negotiation allowing Libya’s political actors -- including Libyan public opinion as a whole -- to address the crucial questions involved in defining the constitutive principles of a post-Jamahiriya state and agreeing on the modalities and interim institutions of the transition phase.

The international community’s responsibility for the course events will take is very great. Instead of stubbornly maintaining the present policy and running the risk that the aftermath will be one of dangerous chaos, it should act now to secure a negotiated end to the civil war and facilitate a new beginning for Libya’s political life.

Avoiding a Protracted Conflict in Libya

The continued violence between the two local forces competing for power, and their inability to cooperate has locked the conflict in a stalemate that sees no immediate end. In this excerpt from its Watch List 2019 - Second Update, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to work towards an internationally-monitored ceasefire.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2019 – Second Update.

Since the outbreak of violence in Tripoli last April, the prospect of a negotiated settlement to end the competition for power in Libya has only grown more remote. The military offensive launched by the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and based in the east, against forces allied with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli has thwarted UN-led efforts. Those had been aimed at forging a new power-sharing deal or charting a consensual roadmap to reunify critical Libyan state institutions, split between east and west since 2014. The pursuit of outright victory has displaced earlier strategies aimed at reconciling the two rival political and military authorities. For Haftar-led forces, success means capturing the capital, expelling armed groups opposed to the LNA, imposing transitional arrangements that would sideline Prime Minister Faiez Serraj’s GNA, and gaining control of state funds held by the Central Bank of Libya. For the Tripoli-based government, winning entails pushing the besieging forces outside the boundaries of western Libya and implementing a political roadmap that marginalises Haftar.

Diplomatic paralysis pervades this state of affairs. UN Security Council members are divided and unable to call for a cessation of hostilities, mostly owing to U.S. opposition to a draft resolution that would have done just that. The U.S. claims it resisted the draft resolution because it lacked a mechanism to ensure compliance, but its stance more likely reflected White House sympathy for Haftar and for his Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian supporters. More broadly, continued military support (in violation of a UN arms embargo) and funding for Haftar from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, France and Russia, and to pro-GNA forces by Turkey and Qatar, are fuelling both sides’ willingness to continue the fight.

Much is at stake for Europe. A protracted conflict in Libya would further destabilise its southern neighbourhood with direct economic and security ramifications, and would continue undermining EU cohesion in dealing with migration. Against the backdrop of UN Security Council paralysis, however, the EU and its member states likely have little leverage to stop the war, especially as European capitals are divided between those that betray a bias toward either Haftar (as in Paris) or the GNA (as in Rome). Still, the EU and member states could and should contribute to de-escalating tensions in the following ways:

  • Urge governing authorities in Tripoli and eastern Libya to reconsider their uncompromising positions and nudge them toward agreement on an internationally-monitored ceasefire, followed by negotiations for new political, military and financial arrangements under UN aegis and with EU technical and financial support;
     
  • Through joint or concerted high-level diplomatic missions representing all EU member states, or by tasking the EU foreign policy chief Mogherini to represent a common EU position, persuade Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Cairo to recognise that a prolonged LNA offensive is unlikely to produce the swift or “clean” victory that would stabilise Libya and that their interests are better served at the negotiating table. They should similarly seek Ankara’s and Doha’s cooperation in persuading the GNA to sit with the LNA;
     
  • Seek to persuade President Donald Trump’s advisers, who themselves appear somewhat divided, to adopt a more even-handed approach toward the Libyan conflict by calling for a cessation of hostilities, including through the UN Security Council;
     
  • If and when a ceasefire is in place, support an economic dialogue to reconcile the Central Bank of Libya’s two separate administrations and address financial grievances that deepen the conflict, thus paving the way for a military de-escalation and a return to talks.

Tanks and Banks

Neither side shows appetite to accept a ceasefire.

After three months of war, more than 1,000 battlefront deaths and 100,000 displaced civilians, neither Haftar nor Serraj is near victory. Tripoli government forces scored a tactical win in late June when their fighters expelled Haftar’s forces from Ghariyan, a town 80km south of the capital. But in Tripoli’s southern suburbs, where front lines might shift daily, rival forces have been locked in a stalemate for the past three months and airstrikes from both sides continue. Despite this, and the casualty toll, neither side shows appetite to accept a ceasefire, as both view the conflict as existential and believe they can prevail on the battlefield. This means the deadly war around Tripoli likely will drag on and this, in turn, could bring additional military support from both sides’ external backers, triggering new fighting and likely further stalemate, but with even greater destruction.

The fighting around Tripoli is unlikely to end without greater regional support for a ceasefire. Libya’s institutional fractures, which have become conflict lines, and the existential narratives embraced by both sides reflect deeper geopolitical divides through the Middle East and North Africa. Haftar receives support from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who argue he is the only Libyan leader who can rein in Islamists of all stripes, whether the Muslim Brotherhood, jihadists or Qatari and Turkish-backed GNA-aligned militias in Tripoli, all of whom they view as a single undifferentiated enemy. The support offered to Haftar by his regional backers, like that offered to the GNA by its own Qatari and Turkish defenders, reveals the depth of the schism and the significance of this dividing line in regional politics. Tacit U.S. support for this worldview (dictated more by White House priorities elsewhere in the region than by a concrete U.S. vision for Libya), and the push to reshape the regional order espoused by the Emirati, Saudi and Egyptian axis, has also deepened Libya’s internal divides.

While international rifts and competing regional ambitions remain an overarching conflict driver, locally, interlocking competing narratives of political and military legitimacy, a battle for power, tribal rifts and recriminations, and a deeply polarised media are making the war even more intractable. But another important, often overlooked, conflict driver is competition over oil revenues, specifically management of and access to state funds, held by the Central Bank of Libya. Since 2014, the Central Bank has been divided into two rival administrations reflecting the country’s broader institutional divides: the internationally-recognised headquarters in Tripoli and the Benghazi branch, which operates as the central bank but is loyal to the east-based government and parliament. The Benghazi branch, which funds Haftar, has no access to the country’s oil revenues, which have accrued to the Central Bank in Tripoli. Instead, eastern authorities have funded themselves – illegitimately, in Tripoli’s eyes – by issuing almost $30 billion in promissory notes processed by east-based commercial banks. But this parallel funding scheme has strained the banks, which began to show signs of stress just as Haftar launched his offensive in April.

De-escalating the Libyan conflict necessitates resolving this longstanding financial dispute and the immediate banking problems it poses. Failure to mend the financial rift could prompt the Haftar-backed government to pursue independent oil sales, which would ultimately deepen the split between the duelling authorities in east and west.

Haftar sees no role for the UN or those who have risen to power as a result of UN mediation.

Zero-Sum Logic and Muddled Roadmaps

Although neither side is likely to win on the battlefield, the LNA and GNA-aligned forces, both captive to zero-sum logic, have rejected calls for a ceasefire and resuming talks. Instead, they propose conflicting political roadmaps that exclude their opponents from future negotiations. Haftar repeatedly declared that the assault on Tripoli will proceed and that, once it succeeds, he will impose a new transitional government. This would entail dismantling the governing bodies created by the 2015 UN-backed Skheirat agreement, disbanding his opponent’s militias, forming a constitutional committee and holding a referendum on a draft constitution, followed by elections. In this, Haftar sees no role for the UN or those who have risen to power as a result of UN mediation.

For his part, Serraj has publicly refused talks with Haftar. Apparently convinced that pro-GNA forces were close to military victory, he announced his own roadmap in June, from which he specifically excluded Haftar. Serraj’s plan consists of holding a nominally inclusive National Conference under UN aegis that would appoint a judicial committee to draft a new election law. In an attempt to bring east-based leaders to his side, he made vague promises about economic decentralisation and fairer resource distribution.

In principle, Serraj’s proposal hits all the points favoured by his Western interlocutors (inclusivity, decentralisation, elections and a UN umbrella), and for this reason it received endorsement from the UN, EU and some member states. However, he – like Haftar – has a distorted assessment of the power balance on the ground, overestimating his own strength and underestimating his adversary’s. This translates into an unrealistic belief that either side can implement its own roadmap without first reaching a settlement with the other.

Recommendations for the EU and Its Member States

The EU and member states should urge parties on both sides of the conflict to move away from their rhetoric of imminent triumph and toward more pragmatic positions that would open space for a possible de-escalation, an internationally-monitored ceasefire and resuming political and security sector talks, in the first instance to create new security arrangements in the capital. Through joint or concerted high-level diplomatic missions representing all EU member states or by tasking the HR/VP Mogherini to represent a common EU position, they should emphasise to decision-makers in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Cairo that a prolonged LNA offensive is unlikely to produce a swift or “clean” victory that would stabilise Libya, and dissuade them from playing out their regional rivalries on the outskirts of Tripoli.

Instead, given the stalemate and the fact that prospects of a quick LNA victory have faded, they should argue that those countries’ best interests lie in convincing Haftar to agree to a ceasefire and support UN-led talks for a political and military settlement. They should underscore that continued airstrikes in the capital are alienating public support for the LNA’s cause while also empowering the very armed groups that Haftar’s offensive was meant to drive out of Tripoli. Likewise, they should press the GNA’s backers to refrain from supporting a counteroffensive by Tripoli-based forces that would pursue LNA forces beyond Tripoli’s environs eastward or to LNA-controlled oil installations. They should seek Ankara’s and Doha’s cooperation in persuading the GNA to sit with the LNA at the negotiating table.

[The EU and member states] should support UN efforts to forge an agreement on the management of Libya's finances.

A ceasefire would allow all sides, and their foreign backers, to work together on new security arrangements in the capital, the shortcomings of which were one of the original triggers of the conflict. In particular, the two sides need to agree on the role of armed groups, namely which ones continue to operate or demobilise, and decide who will secure what areas.

The EU and members states should also press the Trump administration – which at times has appeared inconsistent and divided between the White House on the one hand, and the State Department and Pentagon on the other – for clearer and more even-handed U.S. policy toward Libya. This should include U.S. support for a UN Security Council resolution calling for a cessation of hostilities. To this end, the EU should seek to persuade the White House that a protracted conflict in and around Tripoli will not unify Libya under one ruler, but will rather fragment and destabilise it further. Such ongoing fighting may well undermine U.S. anti-terrorism objectives: prolonged conflict almost certainly will strengthen armed groups, including those linked to radical Islamist organisations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, whose affiliates have started operating with impunity in southern Libya since the outbreak of hostilities in April.

European diplomats also should press Washington to reject demands made by pro-LNA emissaries aimed at lifting or circumventing UN-imposed restrictions over Libya’s crude oil exports. For this purpose, they should convey the message to the U.S. administration, in particular the White House, that authorising independent oil sales to eastern authorities could, in the short run, give the upper hand to Haftar forces but poses the graver, long-term risk of consolidating the split between western and eastern authorities.

Finally, the EU and member states ought to intensify efforts to help reunify the rival Central Banks and offer technical advice on how to avert a looming banking crisis; likewise, as Crisis Group previously advocated, they should support UN efforts to forge an agreement on the management of Libya’s finances. They should step in to promote a financial and economic dialogue between rival branches of the Central Bank, especially at a time when the U.S. (which traditionally has led initiatives regarding Libya’s financial sector) has become far less active diplomatically. Failing to manage this dispute will only prolong the war and compound Libya’s post-2011 humanitarian emergency.