When U.S. Special Envoy for Libya Ambassador Jonathan Winer testified recently before two sub-committees in the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the situation in Libya, he drew a positive and hopeful picture. But not only was his assessment overly rosy, hopefulness is not enough to save the country.
Nonresident Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
Facts on the ground
Libya is in a new phase of its civil war, the most recent prominent iteration of which was the battle of Sirte against Islamic State forces (who are now on their last legs). Yet as Tarek Megerisi writes: “the battle is all but won…Victory in Sirte, however welcome, will have little positive effect on the country’s power vacuum.” In fact, ISIS’ defeat could cause even more chaos: multiple local factions are now competing for control.
In the eastern part of the country, meanwhile, General Khalifa Haftar—increasingly aided by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Russia—is focusing on consolidating control in Benghazi and Derna. One of his top leaders, the governor and General Abdul Razzak Al-Nazhuri, is positioning his military leadership in the strategic municipalities of the region.
In the west, there has been heavy fighting in the city of Zawiya, west of Tripoli, between two rival clans: the Ahneish and the Khadrawi. And in Tripoli itself, home to the internationally-backed Government of National Accord, the Brigade of the Revolutionaries in Libya entered Martyrs Square in armored vehicles last month to demand the government actually protect civilians, calling for new and more serious security forces. The situation is clearly very fragile, local frictions are running high, and militias are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.
The international carousel
Recognizing that public order in Libya is out of control, there were numerous international meetings in November to try to arrive at solutions. None yielded real progress, and the international community remains starkly divided in terms of who to support on the ground: The United States, Italy, the United Kingdom, Algeria, Turkey, and Qatar support Tripoli in the west; while Russia, Egypt, the UAE, and France support Benghazi in the east.
On October 31, there was a meeting in London between Secretary of State John Kerry, British Secretary of Foreign Affairs Boris Johnson, and representatives from Italy, France, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, as well as Libya’s Central Bank Governor Saddek Elkaber, Director of the National Oil Corporation Mustafa Senalla, and Chairman of the Libyan Investment Authority Ali Mohamed. They discussed the need to integrate militias into institutional security forces (the police, army, and presidential guard). They also discussed the urgency to restart oil production, aiming to pump one million barrels per day. Unlike achieving political stability in the near term, that goal might actually be realistic. But the London summit ended with no clear outcome, nor a concrete path forward. It has joined the already-long list of missed opportunities to resolve the situation in Libya.
A week later, the government of Malta hosted a meeting sponsored by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), which sought to unblock the political stalemate. Malta’s foreign minister spoke of the need to keep Libya united in its state borders—apparently forgetting that Libya has never been a truly unified country with a singular national identity, as I have argued elsewhere. Despite Special Envoy for Libya Martin Kobler’s efforts, very little was achieved in Malta, and indeed some politicians from Benghazi and elsewhere in Cyrenaica called it a waste of time.
Libya again featured at an international meeting on November 15, at a conference about EU and NATO cooperation in Brussels. This time, leaders focused on the Libya’s south, which is deeply fragmented by tribal divisions. Then, two weeks later, back to Rome for another meeting.
And yet, Libya remains a mess. In spite of the proliferation of international meetings, there have been no breakthroughs on Libyan soil. The Libyan people, for their part, tend to distrust both the UNSMIL-backed Serraj government and all these international meetings.
Outsiders looking in
Donald Trump’s election throws in a new element for Libya. In both Tripoli (and the western region of Tripolitania more broadly) and Benghazi (Cyrenaica)—which disagree on just about everything—many are welcoming Trump’s election, convinced that it can yield new benefits. This, in spite of the fact that the president-elect does not seem to have had any contact with the internationally-backed government in Tripoli, nor does he seem concerned with the Libya issue in general.
Some of Trump’s campaign’s statements (“We’re getting out of the nation-building business”) suggested he would loosen U.S. participation on the chessboard in Libya, leaving more room for Russia, Egypt, and the UAE. That would mean more aid to General Haftar, just back from his second official visit to Moscow. Russia is strategically trying to influence the conflict (remember Afghanistan in the 1970s?) by bolstering the government in Benghazi—through Emirati and Egyptian mediation—and by sending both military and non-military experts. The region’s entire aviation system, for example, is overseen by the Russians, and lucrative business deals are in the works.
Amidst this, ambassadors of various foreign countries are presenting their credentials in Tripoli, with the apparent hope that embassies will open soon. Without a dramatic improvement in the security situation, it’s hard to see how that’s realistic.
For the economy, it’s security
Libya has over six million people, almost one million of whom are under 18. Accordingly to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), 1.3 million need humanitarian aid. But Libya’s deep-seated instability isn’t exactly helping humanitarian assistance get through, nor is it helping the economy, as a recent U.N. report shows. The country’s economy—which already contracted 22 percent over the last three years—is forecast to shrink further, by 5.2 percent according to the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. Inflation has continued to grow (from 2.6 percent in 2013 to 11 percent in 2016) and the national currency has continued to depreciate. Unemployment, meanwhile, stands at least at 19.2 percent.
At the end of the day, Libya’s severe economic problems are of course rooted in the utter security vacuum in the country.
Is there any hope for Libya?
Can the country be put back together? In his congressional testimony last month, Ambassador Winer basically said yes: that the process would be difficult, but that a diplomatic process could help bring the country toward elections and eventual stability.
But I’m not convinced: This is the Libya of Tripoli and Benghazi, of the Government of National Accord and the House of Representatives, of Serraj and Haftar, of the United States et al and Russia et al, and of a complex constellation of militias to top it off. Amidst all this, not a single remotely unifying political leader has emerged for the country.
Libyans must decide whether their country will become a new Somalia, or whether they’ll make difficult choices (and compromises) to steer it in a different direction. Their divisions are the core of the whole problem, and international actors are exacerbating those divisions by lining up on one side or the other.
As Karim Mezran of the Atlantic Council wisely wrote: “the best outcome for Libya lies in reaching a negotiated power sharing agreement and a consensual political-economic way forward that could decisively reverse the country’s negative trajectory and put it on a pathway toward unity and prosperity.” Achieving this ambitious goal will take a great effort by all, and the rare capacity to look, finally, at the reality.