Keeping Libya’s fragile peace process on track requires redoubled efforts by external stakeholders eager to see the conflict end. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to support the UN-led economic dialogue and the creation of a Ceasefire Monitoring Mechanism.
Ten years after Muammar Qadhafi’s regime fell, the Libyan civil war that ensued remains far from resolved. If there is reason for hope, it is that the year-long assault on the capital Tripoli by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s forces ended with their withdrawal in June 2020. Haftar’s retreat prompted a realignment of factors that points to the possibility of a peaceful settlement.
In September, the field marshal and his allies lifted a nine-month oil export blockade, providing temporary relief to the country’s oil-dependent economy. In October, officers of the two main military coalitions signed a ceasefire agreement.
Then, in November, politicians from the two rival sides started a dialogue under UN auspices. Foreign backers of Libya’s warring factions, while still working to cement their influence in the country, have toned down their bellicose rhetoric.
Yet there is also much reason for concern. Implementation of the ceasefire terms is lagging, with each side accusing the other of continuing to receive foreign military support.
In such a volatile environment, any mishap – such as one side moving weapons around, and the other side interpreting the activity as mobilisation for an assault – could spark renewed fighting. Another reason to worry is that the UN-backed political talks, which comprise 75 representatives from a broad array of political and tribal groups and which the EU is helping finance, have thus far produced no consensus behind a new interim unity government.
The various factions agreed on a voting mechanism to appoint top officials, but while paying lip service to a transparent vote they remain dangerously divided on who they want to see lead the country. All, furthermore, have the means to spoil the process.
On the economic front, although hydrocarbon exports resumed, a dispute over management of oil revenues has led to a temporary freeze of hydrocarbon income, impeding economic recovery.
Keeping the peace process on track will be an uphill battle requiring redoubled efforts by those external stakeholders eager to see Libya’s conflict come to an end.
Events are increasingly driven by those outside actors who are providing military assistance to one Libyan side or the other, in particular Turkey, the Tripoli-based government’s main backer, and Russia, the Haftar-led coalition’s chief ally.
Rival Arab countries that for years helped turn Libya into a proxy battleground are still pursuing their agendas as well, but for now by non-military means.
The easing of the Gulf crisis might, over time, have a positive knock-on effect in Libya. Europe, as a party concerned to make peace, can still do a great deal to advance that goal, notwithstanding its diminished leverage.
The EU and its member states should intensify their efforts along the following lines:
- Support the creation of a Libya Ceasefire Monitoring Mechanism, which Libyan military officers from both sides negotiated and which the UN secretary-general called on Security Council members to adopt; deploy to the UN Support Mission to Libya (UNSMIL) monitors from European states accepted by Libyan parties.
- Extend the mandate of the EU’s maritime operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI so that it can help uphold the ceasefire monitoring. Despite being unable, for legal and logistical reasons, to block the transfer of weapons to Libya, the operation’s vessels and satellites are helpful in monitoring the flow of arms to the country in violation of the UN embargo and in deterring some transfers. The operation can support the Ceasefire Monitoring Mechanism’s work by providing UN monitors with information about suspected violations and military movements.
- Support efforts to reach consensus among Libyan parties on the need to hold parliamentary elections, if delegates to the political dialogue do not reach agreement on an interim government. Europe should also provide funds and technical support to the institutions that will have to ensure elections are credible and inclusive, including of women.
- Support the UN-led Libyan economic dialogue and continue to engage with the UN, the U.S. and EU member states to find a lasting settlement to the economic and banking disputes, especially regarding the allocation of oil revenues, that continue to hinder economic recovery.
Steadying a Shaky Ceasefire
On 23 October, the Libyan National Army – led by Haftar and supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia – and the Turkey-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, signed a ceasefire formally ending a battle that had been raging on the outskirts of Tripoli and elsewhere since April 2019.
The fighting had killed some 3,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands. Turkey’s direct military intervention to aid Serraj in early 2020 reversed what had been Haftar’s advantage and forced the withdrawal of Haftar’s forces to central Libya along a new front line.
The ceasefire was an important step toward political talks but remains fragile, as efforts to fully implement several of its provisions are sputtering. Haftar and Serraj committed to withdrawing their troops from front lines, expelling foreign fighters and ending all foreign military training.
Yet both sides have backtracked on the original agreement. Their forces remain deployed on the front lines; foreign military cargo planes continue to land at their respective air bases, suggesting that outside backers are still resupplying their allies; Turkish officers are training GNA forces in plain sight; and Russian private military contractors remain part of Haftar’s forces.
To bolster the ceasefire and press the parties to honour their commitments, the UN is backing a Ceasefire Monitoring Mechanism to be established in central Libya, where the GNA and Haftar’s coalition continue to position their troops.
Libya’s rival factions requested the mechanism, and UN officials are discussing what it will entail. Libyan officers from both sides appear to have greenlighted deployment of a small group of unarmed international civilians “under UNSMIL’s aegis”, in the relevant UN report’s words, to work alongside monitoring teams established by both sides.
The EU should support this effort. It should push the UN and Libyan military negotiators to negotiate an updated version of the October ceasefire agreement that reflects a more detailed consensus on controversial points, such as the departure of foreign fighters and the repositioning of armed groups, that the original agreement referred to only in vague terms, and press for full UN Security Council backing of that new agreement.
It should also support a scalable monitoring mechanism that the UN secretary-general presented to Council members in December 2020. European governments should consider providing monitors from those EU member states to which the Libyan parties signal they would not object, to be deployed within UNSMIL’s framework – the only one accepted by both parties.
The EU can provide additional support to ceasefire monitoring by expanding the mandate of its maritime Operation IRINI to report any troop movement that may threaten the ceasefire and inform the UN monitors accordingly, in addition to reporting on detected violations of the UN arms embargo.
Toward Reunified Governance
The EU and member states could also assist in resolving Libya’s governance crisis. To do so, they will need to make tough, perhaps counterintuitive, decisions. European and other states face a conundrum: should they keep supporting the faltering UN-led dialogue aimed at naming an interim unity government, which would prepare the ground for elections at the end of 2021?
Or, should there be no progress in the coming weeks, should they instead endorse calls to hold elections without waiting any longer for Libyans to form an interim government?
The chances of agreement on an interim government appear quite slim. And the threat of EU targeted sanctions, which some European officials appear to be considering, is unlikely to increase the odds. Since November, the 75 delegates, who comprise representatives of Libya’s two rival assemblies as well as several UN-selected independents, have been meeting in person and online.
They agreed in general terms on the need for a new three-man Presidency Council to replace the one headed by Serraj and a separate prime minister. They also approved a voting mechanism to select these top officials.
But despite this apparent progress, Libya’s numerous competing factions remain profoundly divided on who they want to see leading the country.
Any one camp could easily trigger controversies or spoil the vote to prevent an outcome it perceives as unfavourable.
With regard to elections, the delegates of the UN-backed political dialogue have succeeded in setting a date for elections but failed so far to decide on anything else.
If Libya’s rival legislatures fail to draft a legal framework for elections by late February – little suggests they will be able to – then the 75 delegates are supposed to take over.
But delegates remain divided on what they consider to be the best electoral roadmap, whether elections should be only parliamentary or also presidential, and whether a referendum on a draft constitution is also required.
In these circumstances, Europe’s best course of action is
1) to encourage Libyans to hold only parliamentary elections in December 2021, even if the UN-backed dialogue fails to reach agreement on an interim unity government; and
2) to urge the 75 delegates to agree on a legal framework for elections as soon as possible, should Libya’s rival legislatures fail to produce one by late February.
The EU and European capitals should communicate unequivocal support for this course of action and urge other powers, particularly Egypt and Turkey, to accept the elections’ outcome.
It is obviously risky to hold elections in a highly polarised country – one camp controls the west and another the east – where weapons are abundant and corruption is ubiquitous.
But absent a negotiated solution to reunify the country’s governing institutions, attempting to forge consensus on a new vote for a single parliament appears to be the best – albeit inevitably risky – way out of the untenable status quo of rival legislative institutions and governments.
Settling a Financial Feud
Europe should also keep supporting UN efforts to settle the squabble over the country’s financial institutions and continue to back the economic dialogue, alongside the political and military ones, as a pillar of the UN-led peace process.
Over the years, the financial feud has manifested itself in different ways, ranging from division of Libya’s Central Bank into two rival branches to a national banking crisis to oil sector blockades.
Europe should keep supporting UN efforts to settle the squabble over the country’s financial institutions and continue to back the economic dialogue.
The most recent iteration is a controversial arrangement proposed by the Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation and accepted by the Haftar camp to temporarily freeze oil export revenues, which constitute almost the totality of government income, until a new unity government is formed and the Central Bank of Libya unified.
This arrangement, which enjoys U.S. and UN backing, was put in place in September as part of a deal aimed at ending Haftar’s nine-month oil sector blockade.
Pursuant to the deal, the Tripoli government and National Oil Corporation modified how oil revenues were to be managed, ordering export receipts to be kept “temporarily” in a National Oil Corporation account from which they cannot be spent rather than being transferred automatically to the Central Bank, as used to be the case.
This set-up was supposed to last only 120 days – the period that negotiators thought necessary to reach agreement on a new government that could revert to standard allocation procedures.
Without such a government, the country will need alternative arrangements for oil revenue allocations. Freezing revenues is untenable in the medium to long term.
The EU and its member states should make their collective voice heard on the matter, calling on all Libyan parties to reach a new agreement – one that strikes a balance between, on one hand, providing Haftar and his foreign backers guarantees that oil sales revenues will not fund their Tripoli rivals’ military build-up and, on the other, using oil revenues now to cover public expenditures throughout Libya.