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Libya: Achieving a Ceasefire, Moving toward Legitimate Government
Libya: Achieving a Ceasefire, Moving toward Legitimate Government
Reviving the JCPOA after Maximum Pressure
Reviving the JCPOA after Maximum Pressure

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.

Reviving the JCPOA after Maximum Pressure

Reviving the Iran nuclear deal could help alleviate the threat of nuclear proliferation and cool regional tensions. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to support the Biden administration in re-engaging with Tehran and to facilitate trade between Europe and Iran.

The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which defined its Iran policy and underpinned much of its approach to the wider Middle East, did not succeed. Its punitive approach was meant to curtail Iranian nuclear activity, which increased instead, and to lower regional tensions, which rose dramatically. Tehran responded to U.S. unilateral sanctions with a series of breaches of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), slowly weakening the landmark 2015 nuclear accord. The deal’s further erosion could spark a non-proliferation crisis. Enmity between the U.S. and Iran, manifested in risky tit-for-tat military exchanges in the region, additionally strained relations between the Islamic Republic and U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The mutual distrust simmered for years, frequently coming perilously close to a boil.

Joe Biden’s election to the U.S. presidency has raised hopes for a new U.S. Iran policy in 2021 that can help bring down the temperature in the Middle East and alleviate the threat of nuclear proliferation by reviving the JCPOA. To assist in these endeavours, the EU and its member states should: 

  • Support the Biden administration in re-engaging with Tehran and returning the U.S. to the JCPOA if Iran restores its compliance with the deal.
     
  • Encourage the Biden administration to facilitate international humanitarian support to Iran in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including Tehran’s request for an International Monetary Fund loan.
     
  • Facilitate growth in trade between Europe and Iran as a crucial element in delivering the benefits envisioned under the nuclear agreement and laying the foundation for discussions with Tehran on a broader agenda, including Iran’s regional power projection and ballistic missile program. At the December 2020 EU-Iran High-Level Dialogue, both sides affirmed their interest in deepening bilateral cooperation. 
     
  • Encourage Gulf Arab states and Iran to enter an inclusive regional dialogue aimed at reducing frictions and opening communication channels to prevent dangerous misunderstandings.

A Vital Opening for Nuclear and Regional Diplomacy 

The 2018 U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA put the nuclear deal under significant stress. Instead of delivering an improved accord, as the Trump administration boasted it would, it ended up demonstrating the importance of the existing one. Sweeping sanctions put in place by Washington in pursuit of maximalist demands, compounded in 2020 by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and Tehran’s mismanagement, have driven Iran’s economy into three years of recession in a row and quashed Iranian expectations that the agreement would yield financial rewards. 

Tehran has in turn broken its commitments to restrict its nuclear program. Notably, since 2019 it expanded its enriched uranium stockpile, raised the level of enrichment, and stepped up its research and development activity. On 2 December, following the killing of senior Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh the previous month, which media outlets and others widely attributed to Israel, the Iranian parliament passed legislation that would enable further breaches of the JCPOA. The government has already implemented the first of these parliamentary instructions by raising the uranium enrichment level to 20 per cent in early January. Another measure instructs the Iranian government to stop allowing enhanced international inspections under the Additional Protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Tehran has been voluntarily implementing as part of the JCPOA, by 21 February if the JCPOA’s other signatories do not deliver various economic benefits laid out in the deal by that time. Limiting access would be a serious concern for the UK, France and Germany – the so-called E3 – who, along with China, Russia and Iran, remain JCPOA participants. 

The EU, which convenes the JCPOA signatory states under the Joint Commission, has played a pivotal role in diplomatic efforts to keep the accord alive, viewing it as the best available framework for holding Iran’s nuclear activities in check. But, at least in Tehran’s view, both the EU and E3 have failed so far to match their declared commitment to the deal with meaningful sanctions relief.

As the JCPOA began to unravel, regional tensions ratcheted upward in a series of incidents that risked major escalation.

As the JCPOA began to unravel, regional tensions ratcheted upward in a series of incidents that risked major escalation. Some of these incidents involved Iran and the U.S. alone, but others, such as a string of attacks on commercial shipping in the Gulf, underscored the entanglement of their respective allies as well. The danger is heightened by the near absence of consistent communication and decades of accumulated distrust between Iran and the two major Gulf Arab powers, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have precluded a security dialogue needed to mitigate tensions. These Gulf Arab states – along with Israel – are also pressing the U.S. not to rejoin the JCPOA or lift sanctions without concrete commitments from Tehran on matters that they consider of paramount concern, such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and what they view as its destabilising role in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. 

Recommendations for the EU and its Member States

The EU can play an important role in stabilising the nuclear agreement and championing constructive dialogue among Gulf actors. Having spent the past two and a half years hailing the JCPOA’s importance, the EU and its member states can claim vindication as they urge both Washington and Tehran to return to compliance with the agreement. Strong diplomatic support for reviving the JCPOA will strengthen the Biden administration’s hand against domestic critics urging it not to relinquish the leverage purportedly accumulated as a result of the “maximum pressure” approach. The Joint Commission can also help develop a roadmap and a timetable for Iran’s and the U.S.’s full resumption of their JCPOA obligations.

The EU and member states could buy more time and space for the incoming Biden administration by offering Iran, with Washington’s green light, some economic incentives of their own. For instance, they could revive President Emmanuel Macron’s 2019 initiative to pre-purchase Iranian oil as long as Iran agrees to halt any additional nuclear and regional escalation before the new U.S. administration moves to effectively dismantle the sanctions. European states should also work with the private sector to expand trade between Europe and Iran, which has deteriorated despite initiatives such as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), through providing European firms willing to re-engage with the Iranian market or invest in Iran with economic incentives, such as tax breaks. As part of its engagement with the new Biden administration, the EU should press for any measures that can provide immediate humanitarian relief to Iran, including approval of Tehran’s International Monetary Fund loan request for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

European states should also work with the private sector to expand trade between Europe and Iran.

Shoring up the JCPOA does not mean dismissing non-nuclear concerns. European governments, like the U.S. and some of its regional allies, are apprehensive about Iran’s ballistic-missile development, its support of various armed non-state actors, and its human rights record. But stabilising an existing agreement that addresses a key strategic issue offers the best foundation for follow-on negotiations with Tehran.

In parallel to the nuclear file, Europe can help de-escalate regional tensions by encouraging and supporting dialogue between Iran and Gulf Arab states and emphasising that diplomacy offers the best way to both prevent violent incidents from spinning out of control and lay the foundations for a durable regional security framework. Launched as a diplomatic initiative by a core group of European states, with support from the EU high commissioner and the UN secretary-general, regional actors should be prepared to take ownership of such a dialogue to maximise the chances of success. While the Biden administration would need to nudge the Gulf Arab states to talk to Iran, European governments can hold preparatory discussions to understand interests, concerns and aspirations, as well as offer to provide venues for the dialogue, possibly in coordination with the U.S. They could also convene technical discussions among regional states, backed by the relevant UN agencies, to foster cooperation on issues of common interest, such as climate change, public health and maritime security.