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Prolonged military fighting in Libya’s capital Tripoli is threatening to destabilize the United Nations (UN) peace process between rival governments. Initiated by General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), the offensive has been successfully held off by forces loyal to the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). With no immediate signs of a victory for either military power, the conflict risks growing into an extended stalemate with a mounting civilian toll. At least 278 people have been killed and more than 1,300 wounded, according to the World Health Organization.
Haftar’s offensive is the latest conflict between competing power bases since the overthrow of the Muammar Gaddafi regime in 2011. Various transitional governing bodies have since been unable to restore stability. Conflict is ongoing between a multitude of armed militias and the nation split between two rival governments with competing institutions. Since 2014, the United Nations has formally led mediation efforts intending to form a unified government. This led to the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in December 2015 forming the GNA, headed by President Fayez Al-Sarraj. However, Haftat, allied with the Toburik-based Libyan House of Representatives (HoR), has continuously contested its legitimacy. Having consolidated power in the east he has been gradually expanding military control over the oil-rich desert in the south and into the west of Libya’s territories targeting the ruling body in Tripoli.
Yet, the offensive came as a surprise occurring just before a scheduled national conference organised by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) on April 14 as part of the UN Action Plan for Libya. The UN plan aims to resolve Libya’s political crisis through a clearly sequenced transition process that unifies all sides. In the first phase, talks had been held between the GNA and HoR to discuss amendments to the LPA. In this next phase the conference was expected to produce agreements to the amendments and produce a road-map to the final phase: a constitutional referendum and national elections bringing together the fragmented society under a transitional unity government.
Failure of the International Community
The UN mediation efforts have been weak from the beginning facilitating political dialogue that has done little to resolve the conflict. Any intended progress to be made from the LPA in 2015 was nullified by Haftar and the HoR’s refusal to recognize the GNA. By pushing ahead with the agreement regardless and pressuring the Libyan factions into negotiations, the UN established poor conditions for their success.
Yet, even if the UN had garnered domestic support for the LPA, its success lay on the unified support of the international community backing the GNA to stabilise the country. While lending rhetorical support for the UN process, in reality various regional stakeholders and international actors in Europe have hijacked the process, choosing factions to side with and launching their own negotiation efforts and peace talks in pursuit of their own interests. The first group includes Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who all staunchly support Haftar in the form of financial, military, and political backing. Egypt and the UAE perceive him as the only actor to ensure regional security sharing his aversion to the Muslim Brotherhood, while Russia is capitalizing on the opportunity for weapons sales and to expand its influence in the Mediterranean basin. Turkey, Qatar, and Sudan, on the other hand have been supporting revolutionary forces with Islamist political agendas.
Meanwhile, the Western countries’ approaches have been mixed. Italy has held its own peace talks largely focused on preventing human trafficking from the region. France, despite hosting two peace talks between the rival leaders, has opted to support Haftar, as it considers the strong man capable to ensure stability. Its focus is on containing the Jihadist threat in the region from spreading across western borders to its former colonies Tunisia and Algeria and strategic interests and influence south in Niger and Chad. The United States (US) has historically focused on engaging in counter terrorism but under the Trump Administration, it no longer considers the conflict a priority.
In all, the outside interference and various prolonged and uncoordinated mediation efforts have undercut the UN’s process, giving Haftar time to consolidate his power and overtake his rivals. Over the last three years, through a strategy of engaging insincerely in negotiations, he has been able to expand in the east, seizing control of the oil infrastructure and key localities and replacing elected municipal leaders with loyal military officers. He has meanwhile sought to establish alliances with tribes in the west to strengthen his position for his current move westward. International silence during his previous operations has only encouraged his belligerence. With international support behind him he has been able to appear supportive of the idea of a negotiated solution but never fully commit to it, emboldened in his pursuit for a full military take-over.
Avenues for Peace
If international actors continue to remain as Haftar escalates the situation and dictates, the political process violence will only continue. A military solution is not viable. Now is the opportunity for the international community to re-evaluate their response in order to achieve peace. So far statements of condemnation have come from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) calling for immediate cessations to the hostilities but actions must go further. Powerful international players in the European Union (EU) and US especially must take the lead. France must realize that the only way to effectively contain threats in the region is by achieving a fair negotiated peace and stop backing who it considers more militarily capable. The Trump Administration must stop hesitating to decide on a concrete Libya policy. Rather than its passive approach, limited to announcements in the UNSC, it should assert leadership by clearly affirming its support to defend the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.
To do this, pressure needs to be placed on the regional powers to refrain from fueling the offensive. The EU and the US should demonstrate that they will enforce the existing arms embargo reaffirmed under UNSC Resolution 2441 of June 2018. Continued violations – whether in terms of arms transfers and logistical support to forces opposed to the unity government or support for the rival government’s economic institutions – should not be left unpunished. Pressure must be put particularly on Egypt who has signaled support for all relevant UNSC decisions on these issues but continuously breached the resolution. The US is in a unique position to credibly pressure foreign actors to avoid meddling in the conflict due to its disengagement from the country in recent times, alliances with European nations and partnerships with those in the Persian Gulf.
A credible threat of sanctions must accompany this, imposed by the UNSC on all individuals and political forces who actively seek to subvert a prospective peace deal. Similar measures must also be placed on those individuals involved in illegally selling oil, disposing of Libyan assets, or breaching the existing UN resolution and supplying weapons. Asset freezes and travel bans can be especially effective in reigning in the majority of senior Libyan leaders who hold foreign passports and assets abroad that they fear losing. Haftar particularly, a US citizen, is vulnerable to such a tactic. In both 2014 and 2018 his efforts to sell oil outside of the approved national channels were effectively prevented by combined European and US threats.
Ultimately, the international community should support and advocate for a revamped UN-backed process and refrain from their own separate peace initiatives. All outside powers should coordinate to have one voice with Libya to encourage all sides to accept a ceasefire and resume negotiations for a peaceful solution. The UN should not abandon its plans for a national conference that can produce a road-map to stability in Libya. Haftar is not as powerful as he may seem. His expansion has relied on co-opting local forces into the LNA and has resulted in an army that is feebly held together between various factional militias around a core of his more traditional forces. Now with his forces overextended and his finances stretched, he is more vulnerable than many realize. Without the international backing he currently enjoys, Haftar could be leveraged into participating genuinely for a negotiated road-map to peace rather than dictating his own terms.
Finally, the revamped negotiations should no longer be limited to a deal between Haftar and Sarraj but extended to political representatives from the number of Libyan fractions to ensure a national consensus can be found. Although the civil war is presented as between the two rival governments, each side is made up of a multitude of militias and factions with continuously shifting personal, tribal and regional alliances. Fractional leaders and local municipal leaders will need to be included to ensure a solution is found that reflects who has real control on the ground. The solution should thus focus on powering individual municipalities to have a major role in governance. A decentralized form of governance – in which significant economic, political, and security activity is centred on the country’s dozen major cities – may be an effective option that satisfies all parties to rule their own. A strong central government with national-level institutions can still remain an eventual goal, but current UN attempts to rush elections without including all major Libyan actors will never succeed. Negotiations for decentralized regional governance can allow municipal parties to grow a sense of security and trust in each other to work towards future unification goals.