Waiting for Consensus in the Libyan Conflict

7 MINS READMay 14, 2015 | 09:15 GMT
Waiting for Consensus in the Libyan Conflict
Migrants who were hoping to reach Europe by boat sit at a detention center in the Tripoli, Libya, on April 21 after being detained at a Libyan port.

Consensus continues to elude participants in U.N.-backed reconciliation talks aimed at cobbling together a national unity government in Libya. Myriad competing groups and feuding parliaments in Tripoli and Tobruk have found their conflict right in the middle of several regional crises. Headlines have focused on escalating numbers of illegal migrants making their way to Europe, difficult negotiations, fighting between militias and attacks by Islamic State-affiliated militants. But local interests continue to compete and complicate international efforts to resolve the Libyan conflict. Moreover, Libyan leaders can concede on a few points despite generally opposing another Western intervention.

Nevertheless, outside powers such as the European Union, NATO and the United States are unlikely to consider a military intervention on the ground in Libya before U.N.-sponsored talks designate a recognized national unity government. And as that process plays out, Libya's instability will continue to hamper the country's oil output and give safe haven to a range of militant actors and various organized criminal activities.

NATO foreign ministers gathered in Antalya, Turkey, on May 13 for two days of talks focused on the threats emanating from the bloc's southern periphery. The host state of Turkey is the only NATO member that borders Islamic State-controlled territories in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, in the days leading up to the NATO meeting, Libyan military forces (loyal to the staunchly anti-Turkey government in Tobruk) fired upon a Turkish ship, killing one seaman. Although the bloc will undoubtedly focus on Russian activities along its eastern periphery, especially in Ukraine, recent events are likely to focus at least part of the discussion on the situation in Libya.

Libya's vast space has flourished as a haven for regional militant groups because of the absence of a strong central government. Local groups pledging loyalty to the Islamic State have gained particular notoriety in recent months. But while militancy has been a persistent threat, both to Libya and Algerian natural gas flows, the lack of reliable law enforcement has exposed much of Europe's southern flank to a different kind of problem: organized crime.

Libya has become a prime staging ground for a variety of criminal activities, such as smuggling weapons and drugs across a sprawling network of traditional desert trading routes and human trafficking. The Syrian civil war, and poor conditions across much of sub-Saharan Africa, has transformed Libya by some estimates into the largest transit hub for non-European migrants in the European Union. Illegal immigrants from Libya, almost entirely Syrian and African refugees, numbering in the tens of thousands have sparked policy debates among EU member states. Sharing the burden of migrant populations, reforming immigration and asylum policies, and policing the Mediterranean are just some of the fractious discussions going on in Europe.

What Europe Wants

Still, of all EU member states, Italy has borne the brunt of rescue and coast guard operations because of its proximity to the Libyan coast. Over 4,100 migrants were rescued off the shores of Libya between May 2 and May 3 alone. EU policy has since shifted away from active rescue activities to remove the incentive for migrant behavior. But the decision has resulted only in the unfortunate drowning of thousands of people each month in their effort to cross the Mediterranean, intensifying the EU policy debate of how to best handle the crisis.

Since April, EU member states have sought to address the problem within Libya itself, with potential scenarios including airstrikes against human smuggling positions along the coast and attempted naval blockades, among others. Many of these plans rely on U.N. or NATO support and could involve the United States. Some countries, including Italy and France, have also reportedly consulted Egypt and some Arab states in the Gulf to garner regional support for international involvement.

In the days leading up to the NATO meeting, the European Union decided to focus its plans on policing Libya's maritime waters and pursuing U.N.-backing for the operation. However, strong opposition from both Libyan governments has again put the European Union's plans on hold. Furthermore, the United States, Libya and Algeria are advocating that the international community give the U.N.-backed, national unity negotiations process more time.

But Libya's spot within several overlapping peripheries does not help efforts for stabilization. Outside powers in the Middle East and Europe either do not want the responsibility of reconstructing Libya alone, or do not want a potential rival increasing its influence over Libyan factions and the country's sizable oil reserves. Often it is both. Consequently, the collapse of Libyan power structures will continue to be managed in a piecemeal fashion. Foreign stakeholders instead prefer a more distant, capable partner, such as the United States, to take on the costs of rebuilding a Libyan state, or for indigenous forces to slowly come together to partner effectively with the international community. Both preferences require waiting.

The Impediments

All the while, both Libyan governments have continued to take part in the U.N. talks. Leaders generally agree to form a unified body with additional councils that will include traditional tribal leaders and potentially militia commanders. Yet the internationally recognized government in Tobruk, the House of Representatives, has failed to establish control over much of the country since its inception. The decision to move the government to Tobruk to avoid violence in Tripoli and Benghazi alienated many of the country's powerful revolutionary militias. It also enabled a reformed General National Congress in Tripoli to take control of bureaucratic institutions, including the Oil Ministry.

The House of Representatives tried to counter this weakness by working with rogue Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who had attempted a military coup to topple its predecessor body. Hifter's strong anti-Islamist position gained the support of eastern Libyan strongmen such as rebel commander Ibrahim Jadhran, remnants of pro-Gadhafi fighters and foreign support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Tripoli's General National Congress has enjoyed the backing of the city-state of Misrata and its powerful militias, as well as a constellation of Islamist groups opposed to Hifter's anti-Islamist military operations.

Though violent clashes between Tripoli and Tobruk aligned, forces have slowed since late March and intra-regional competition has begun to intensify. Over the course of the summer we expect increased fighting between militias aligned with the General National Congress — especially those from Misrata — and a broad array of hard-line Islamist groups, including the Islamic State. Both want to increase their bargaining position ahead of an eventual negotiated deal. Eastern Libyan forces, such as Jadhran's Petroleum Facilities Guards and Libya's divided military, may also fight among themselves. Such conflict will exacerbate Libya's security vacuum in the short term as the groups fight to stabilize the country and reap the benefits of rising economic activity and oil production.

The biggest impediment is what to do with the extremist elements that support each government. Divisive hard-line Islamist fighters with links to the Islamic State and other jihadist groups, pro-Gadhafi fighters and Hifter himself have all contributed to a gradual but steady violence against the bases of support for each government. Misratan militias increasingly fight Islamist fighters opposing a future unity government that will not make room for their views. In the east, strong personal differences between leaders such as Jadhran, Hifter and Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani have slowed the momentum of the military campaign to secure Benghazi from Islamist forces and to combat Islamic State forces in Darnah.

Oil production has suffered as well. As fighting spread across the oil-rich Sirte Basin, competition for control of the country's export facilities has brought total production to about 260,000 barrels per day as of mid-May 2015. Other financial pressures on both governments are also a key motivator to keep talks moving forward. Libya's central bank, specifically its reserves, has opted to support neither the House of Representatives nor the General National Congress until a unity government is formed.

Ultimately, the competing governments are loath to cede authority to a unity government with each other. More important, the dialogue has served as the backdrop for a convoluted vetting process, as each government tries to separate itself from the more extreme elements of its respective support base. European and regional Arab actors are still largely unwilling to bear the burden of restructuring Libya out of its chaos on their own. Libyans will be left to consolidate their ranks and cobble out a fledgling national government to partner with international support in the future. The process will be difficult and violent. Instability will get worse before domestic forces are able to effectively police the state with outside assistance.

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