By Hayder al-Khoei & Ellie Geranmayeh & Mattia Toaldo
This analysis was titled ‘After ISIS: How to Win the Peace in Iraq and Libya’. However, we decided to only publish the sections related to the situation in Libya in two parts.



The EU and the member states actively engaged in Libya should not aim for the unattainable goal of a fully functioning Libya. A more innovative strategy would focus on freezing the current conflict while pursuing an economic deal that would help avert a humanitarian crisis and a collapse of Libyan institutions. Avoiding widening conflict and possible state implosion is the key component needed to cement recent gains against ISIS and prevent it and other jihadist groups from returning.

The EU, and member states engaged in Libya, should be aware of their limits, but also of their potential. Some of the things that have to be done in post-ISIS Libya are in their toolbox: managing a post-conflict, divided polity; mediating an economic agreement; and mediating security arrangements.

Strengthen the political coalition behind Tripoli’s government

Tripoli’s Presidential Council is split between a majority of members that side with Serraj and other members, including Haftar’s representative Ali Gatrani, who are boycotting the meetings. However, the Presidential Council majority is struggling and lacks a real coalition of political and armed groups backing it besides the moderate elements in Misrata, which have increasing reservations about the government. The EU and its member states, through bilateral and multilateral mediation and engagement with Libyan political actors, could work to expand the coalition-backing unity efforts. This should include prominent politicians from all sides, including those normally associated with the anti-Islamist camp who now fear marginalisation if Haftar (and leaders of military groups more generally) gain the upper hand.

Even though, for the sake of simplicity, media and experts often refer to the Government of National Accord (GNA) as if it already exists, there is no such thing in place. Two different lists of ministers submitted by the Presidential Council majority were rejected in 2016 by the House of Representatives. On 7 December 2016 the UNSC urged the Presidential Council to submit a new list. This could be a new opportunity to give Libya a government and broaden the coalition supporting the Libyan Political Agreement.

This broadening would imply two things to be managed and approved by the Libyan Political Dialogue, which groups together all the different Libyan delegations that are party to the talks. First, a new annex to the Agreement, which would clarify the tasks of the GNA, focusing on the management of public services and the economy while drawing a clearer distinction between the government and the Presidential Council. Second, prominent politicians from all sides should join the GNA together with some technocrats – and Libya has some good technocrats, especially on the economy. This strategy would be based on ‘what works’, and it could be more effective than rewriting a completely new agreement, which could take months if not years.

Libya needs a more inclusive political compact and European actors can strengthen efforts in this direction. Political mediation in coordination with UNSMIL is crucial in this sense, including offering increased access and recognition to those politicians who play a more constructive role.

Help Libyans build a decentralised state

Libyan local authorities are struggling but they are important in preventing conflicts, delivering public services and maintaining a minimum of state authority and presence. Particularly in areas that are nominally under the control of Presidential Council-aligned forces, municipalities are the only elected and fully legitimate institution. Some municipalities have played an important role in mediating ceasefires or even, in the case of Misrata, sanctioning a change of policy in favour of negotiations within the UN framework. Service delivery, which is one of the top priorities for ordinary Libyans, can only happen by involving municipalities in such a big and sparsely populated country.

The EU should help to:

a) unlock funds from the central government for municipalities, both through the economic dialogue meetings between the Central Bank, the Audit Bureau and the Presidency Council, and by more funding for the UNDP Stabilisation Facility;

b) encourage coordination, through bilateral contacts with Libyan authorities, and provide advice and recommendations on best practice;

c) promote capacity-building through ‘on the job training’ in Europe for Libyan civil servants. The European Committee of the Regions and national associations of local authorities, could be helpful in this regard.

The EU should also reject all attempts to replace elected mayors with appointed military governors – Libya needs more elected and accountable officials, not fewer.

Finally, the EU should consider whether it is worth revamping the ‘municipalities track’ of the UN-coordinated Libyan Political Dialogue, which the EU had previously taken care of and which brings together Libyan mayors to discuss the main issues facing the country.

Support deep reconciliation efforts

Even more than before, post-ISIS Libya will need concrete efforts on reconciliation, not just to heal the wounds of the past but to avoid future escalations. This is something that UNSMIL is already working on. EU member states should support its efforts with the provision of logistical support or ‘adopting’ tracks of dialogue similar to those pursued in the past by countries undergoing democratic transition, like Spain or Bulgaria. This could initially focus on confidence-building measures like the release of prisoners or the reopening of vital infrastructure and communications.

Pursue military de-escalation

The EU and its member states should support efforts to reach a military deal between different actors in western and southern Libya, focusing on de-conflicting mechanisms, military federalism between the different regions, and a joint effort to build accountable security services. Part of this deal would acknowledge Haftar’s position in the east while establishing different military regions elsewhere under the leadership of other commanders. One of the effects would be to contain any potential desire by Haftar to move westwards by showing that western and southern Libya are under the effective control of other leaders committed to building a national army and not an empty territory to be conquered. There are increasing signs of a convergence of interests between different armed groups in western and southern Libya. The EU could make it clear that once a military deal is reached within the framework of the unity government it would provide the same or even more support than previously given to the fight against ISIS.

Efforts to build a strong ‘security track’ led by UNSMIL have so far faltered because of the growing rift between the forces of Haftar and the other, less organised, forces that formally support the government in Tripoli. To avoid anarchy and prevent conflict if Haftar does move west, EU and member states should work in tandem with UNSMIL to encourage efforts to build de-conflicting mechanisms and strengthen the security arrangements in Tripoli and other key cities, such as Sebha in the south. This will include efforts to promote accountable police and security forces in the western and southern parts of Libya that are nominally under the control of Tripoli.

This would have the dual benefit of not prejudicing a settlement with Haftar’s forces in the east while also not holding the process hostage to any rejection of civilian oversight by Haftar. To this end, UNSMIL’s Security and Defence Department together with the EU’s Planning Unit should promote a dialogue between army officers from all over Libya in which they can discuss the future of Libya and of the military.

But, ultimately, European policymakers should stop claiming that Haftar needs to be part of the Libyan Political Agreement for it to move forward. It is now abundantly clear that he has no interest, given his momentum, in striking any deal. Instead, Europeans should engage more seriously with other actors to see how they can help stabilise and de-escalate the fighting in the parts of the country where they are present.

Conclude an economic deal to keep the country united

The release of  LYD 37 billion as “Temporary Financial Arrangements” for the Presidential Council is good news but it is unclear if the government will be able to spend it across the whole country. The EU and its member states must give concrete support to a deal that saves the country from economic collapse while addressing the legitimate concerns of eastern Libya about marginalisation within a unified Libya. This would involve a bigger role for bipartisan technocrats, a shared budget and a working relationship between the different political and economic institutions. In order to build an ‘inclusive’ budget at times of great political polarisation, government expenditure should be built on common criteria: per capita funding (a big difference from the Gaddafi era), and provision of basic rights such as healthcare, education, water and electricity to all Libyan citizens regardless of whether they live in areas under its control or under the control of Haftar’s forces.

Since the London summit on the Libyan economy in October 2016, UNSMIL, the US and several European countries (the UK, France and Italy) have started to cooperate with the Libyan government in Tripoli and the major economic institutions to chart a way out of the economic crisis. Building on this, the process should involve as many political, social, military and economic actors as possible in order to work on some priorities: building a shared budget for all Libyans; preserving the independence of financial institutions; and strengthening the capacity of the government on fiscal policy by helping to build an effective Ministry of Finance and strengthening the Ministry of Planning. The EU itself should offer a budget assistance programme or help build an advisory board aimed at providing expertise to Libyan institutions.

Do not forget Sirte (and Benghazi)

Even before ISIS’s fall in Sirte, a number of post-conflict problems were clear. De-mining, humanitarian relief, and building the conditions for the safe return of IDPs are priorities not just for Sirte’s residents but also for the stability of the rest of western Libya. The EU has acted on these issues in the past in Libya, while the Netherlands has taken the lead on de-mining.

These efforts will need coordination. Furthermore, the city will need a great deal of political mediation and reconciliation between the different constituencies. The social fabric was torn asunder by the rise of ISIS and the capacity of local authorities needs to be built back up. An EU task force working in coordination with UNSMIL should provide support for reconciliation and the rebuilding of public service capacity in Sirte. This task force would help in two ways: providing UNSMIL and Libyan authorities with a single focal point on the European side when seeking assistance; and coordinating efforts by member states, pooling resources and avoiding duplication. The work of the UNDP Stabilisation Facility in Sirte and previously ISIS-held areas could be boosted with EU support, as recent funding for Sirte’s main hospital demonstrates. This would enable the presence of consultants, humanitarian assistance and some supervision of the activities conducted with the Libyan authorities.

Benghazi, too, will need significant reconciliation and reconstruction. While this may prove more problematic than in Sirte because Benghazi now falls largely under the control of Haftar’s LNA, which is not party to the Libyan Political Agreement, the EU should nonetheless provide help with humanitarian assistance and de-mining. This would, incidentally, also help to strengthen the case that the international community is impartial in internal Libyan political struggles.

Deal with regional powers and Russia through the UNSC, and set up an EU member state ‘contact group’

Over the past two years, the US and some large EU member states have successfully coordinated on Libya. Issuing joint statements and agreeing common positions on matters such as the lifting of the arms embargo or the independence of oil institutions has helped to reduce the appetite for escalation and zero-sum games by regional powers and their Libyan proxies. This may be more difficult under the Trump administration, which seems less eager to confront Middle Eastern autocracies. Further complicating matters, Russia has become increasingly vocal on Libya: while nominally supporting the Libyan Political Agreement, it has made clear that it sees a convergence of interests with Haftar in the fight against terrorism. This support further diminishes the incentive for Haftar to strike a power-sharing agreement, within or outside of the Libyan Political Agreement.

In this potentially difficult environment in which neither the US nor Russia are likely to be particularly helpful, it is all the more important that Europeans coordinate. The four EU countries sitting on the UNSC from January 2017 (the UK, France, Sweden and Italy) should create a contact group. Its main policy should be to preserve the ‘architecture’ of resolutions and agreements negotiated by the UN and approved by the UNSC over the past two years with the support of the US, Egypt and Russia. All of these countries might now adopt, or already have adopted, an approach different to the Europeans’ and contrary to European interests. The individual sanctions and the arms embargo regimes should be defended along with the Libyan Political Agreement, which should be amended but not scrapped altogether. These may all be imperfect tools but the situation without them would be even worse.

There is no doubt that these actions will be difficult, both in light of the likely priorities of the Trump administration, and because of the domestic problems of some of Europe’s larger players on Libya: the UK is focused on Brexit, the presidential election is approaching in France, while Italy is experiencing a renewed period of political uncertainty in the wake of December’s referedum.

But this is Europe’s moment: the EU and its member states have to address the issues described above because no one will do it for them. And the EU and its member states, when working to support positive trends among Libyans, can make a real difference. Defeating ISIS in Libya runs the risk of complacency, of thinking ‘job done’. But the problems of migration flows and security, which are live issues across the EU, will not disappear once ISIS does. They will only be properly addressed if Europeans can help Libyans to avoid new conflicts, create more functional state institutions, and support the economy.

After the caliphate: What should Europe do?

As difficult as they have been, the military operations to take on ISIS may turn out to be the easier part of the struggle.  The initial focus of the Global Coalition against ISIS has so far focused disproportionately on the military dimension. While in the past year Libya has seen parallel political efforts, these have made only limited progress. Now that ISIS is on the ropes, the political track should be moved to the heart of the struggle against the cycle of violent extremism that gave birth to groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.

If Europe neglects this political track, it is likely to find itself at risk of another wave of regional instability and power vacuums on its eastern and southern borders.

An important lesson learned from the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 Libya intervention is that the post-conflict political process must be locally owned. However, the ISIS takeover of Mosul, and the group’s subsequent spread to Libya, also showed that the West cannot give up on regional political engagement. In the future, the EU and member states can and should be doing more to encourage the post-ISIS political transition in a direction that resolves the underlying issues.

In Iraq, a clear political opening will present itself after the military operations against ISIS wind down in Mosul. EU member states should be prepared to act quickly in providing security and economic aid to the Iraqi government in return for progress on a political roadmap which adequately represents and balances local needs. Moreover, the EU and its member states should be open to actively assisting the central government and local actors at a time when they appear to be more receptive to serious political engagement than at any time since 2003.

In the case of Libya, Europeans, particularly if they do manage a degree of policy convergence with the US, enjoy a decent degree of leverage over the warring factions. Achieving stabilisation and economic power-sharing should remain their priorities. There is now an ‘architecture’ of UNSC resolutions that includes the Libyan Political Agreement, an individual sanctions system, an arms embargo, and resolutions protecting the independence of financial institutions and preventing any single faction seizing oil resources for itself. This ‘architecture’ was built with the approval of all the other relevant powers, including UNSC members Russia and Egypt, which are currently supporting Haftar, the main rival of the UN-backed government. Preserving this ‘architecture’ should be one of Europe’s priorities.

Aside from the aforementioned Iraq- and Libya-specific recommendations, European policymakers should develop longer-term strategies on the post-caliphate territories, following four over-arching recommendations.

Build social and political coalitions

In the immediate aftermath of regaining formerly ISIS-held territories, social and political coalitions are needed to support de-escalation of local conflicts and build effective, inclusive governance on the ground.

In the past year, Libya has avoided full escalation because of a de-escalatory strategy carried out by the US, the EU and its member states. In Mosul, as the counter-ISIS operations draw to a close, the Global Coalition against ISIS is looking to similarly come together with the UN, the Iraqi central government and the KRG to sustain a contact group that can agree on how best to formulate and implement the post-ISIS governance and stabilisation efforts.

There is now a window of opportunity for the EU and its member states to contribute to stability by assisting with the development of decentralisation models that EU member states (like Germany, the UK and Austria) have grappled with already. This should include: devolving power to peripheries while strengthening the ‘social contract’ around central governments; working on reconciliation and on the sharing of economic resources; and mediating between different political, military and ethnic groups.

A common European framework for this engagement becomes even more necessary at a time when the new US administration is likely to take a step back from leading on political engagement.

In this light, existing positions of strength should be examined. In preserving the UN ‘architecture’ on Libya, for instance, the four EU member states on the UNSC should coordinate closely. If one also looks at Iraq, Germany should be added to the list to ensure that positions are coordinated and, where possible, European leverage is increased. Despite its own new realities in the aftermath of the EU referendum, it is in the UK’s interest to lean towards a European framework that focuses on political tracks. Furthermore, this is something in which the UK has unique expertise.

Maintain military involvement

While recognising the need to place greater focus on the political roadmap after ISIS loses territorial control, Europeans will also need to continue ongoing military involvement and counter-terrorism efforts to boost local security. This will include support, assistance and training for local forces in order to maintain the defence lines against ISIS as well as against other extremist groups.

Commit to a decade-long framework for stabilisation

To bring lasting stability in countries that were formerly partly occupied by ISIS, the EU and its member states should commit their financial backing and diplomatic weight to a decade-long framework for stabilisation.

This long-term framework should entail economic support contingent on progress in governance and reconciliation efforts. It should be devised in close collaboration with central governments and local leaders to address unresolved problems such as endemic youth unemployment, the distribution of oil wealth, and post-conflict reconstruction. In the case of Libya, European economic ‘investment’ would be minor when compared to the size of the country’s economy as a whole. But if harnessed through sustained political and diplomatic efforts, it could turn Libya’s economic assets into a resource to promote development in North and sub-Saharan Africa (the assets of the Libyan sovereign wealth fund are estimated to be worth $67 billion).

Set out and defend European interests

In undertaking such actions, Europeans could find themselves at odds with their regional allies who, for different reasons, see the post-ISIS situation as an opportunity to further their zero-sum agendas rather than as the decisive moment to bring about stabilisation.

But Europe needs to draw a line in the sand regarding its own interests. The fact that the new US administration cannot be taken for granted in these efforts is one more reason to put a European strategy in place. No one will defend Europe’s interests except for Europe itself. This option becomes all the more realistic if it is combined with a convergence with the new US administration in all relevant forums.

Lessons for Syria

Finally, a positive political trajectory in the Iraqi and Libyan theatres is not only a necessary component for the stability of each country, but also for the wider success in the battle against ISIS elsewhere. This is pertinent in Syria where over the past year ISIS has also been squeezed by coalition forces, US-backed Syrian Defence Forces, Turkey, Russia and the Syrian Arab Army. Just as in Iraq and Libya, this has resulted in the loss of territory for ISIS and a land-grab between competing fighting forces in Syria.

A post-ISIS Syria is a more distant prospect than in Iraq or Libya. But it will likely happen eventually, and, in the case where opposition forces and the Assad regime continue to escalate violence, Europe’s choices will be limited. While the principles outlined above will be very difficult to apply in the case of Syria, Europe can begin preparing a strategy to pursue for post-conflict stabilisation based on these broad principles, developing them in response to the changing facts on the ground in Syria.

In this endeavour, the EU and member states engaged in the International Syria Support Group should press for meaningful political discussions to be restarted. This should entail a focused effort to understand the stances of local actors in Syria – ranging from the regime in Damascus, to the Kurds and rebel groups – on the questions of stabilisation and devolution of power. This can be the starting point for serious political negotiations in the aftermath of the military phase of the conflict in Aleppo.

Iraq, Libya and Syria each need bespoke strategies. Yet there are clear overlaps in the types of challenge presented by their post-ISIS future, including actions that can be useful in preventing state breakdown and extremism in the region. If Europe is serious about playing a more effective and relevant role in a conflict-ridden region on its doorstep, it needs to step up its political and economic engagement with all relevant local leaders. This ought to be done with a sober acknowledgment that getting the politics right in the post-ISIS period requires long-term commitments.


Hayder al-Khoei is a visiting fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations where he focuses on post-ISIS political and security challenges in Iraq. He is also Research Director of the Centre for Shia Studies in London.

Ellie Geranmayeh is a policy fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). She focuses on European foreign policy in relation to Iran, particularly on the nuclear and regional dossiers in addition to Iran’s domestic politics.

Mattia Toaldo is a policy fellow for ECFR’s Middle East & North Africa programme where he focuses on Libya, Israel/Palestine and migration issues. He is a member of the Council of the Society for Libyan Studies and of the scientific board of Limes, the Italian review of Geopolitics.


Libya, Sirte, Benghazi, ISIS, Stabilization, Political Coalition, Decentralization, Reconciliation, De-escalation,

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