By Karim Mezran
As the Trump administration assumes office, it faces a major challenge in Libya, where the country’s situation continues to deteriorate as an ongoing conflict worsens.
The Libya Peace Agreement produced in 2015 by a UN-backed process, which established a Presidential Council and Government of National Accord (PC/GNA), is floundering. The PC/GNA has failed to garner credibility on the ground since landing in Tripoli almost a year ago and it has suffered from significant infighting.
While the PC/GNA has achieved some successes, namely the rooting out of the Islamic State in Sirte by allied militias from Misrata, it faces further threats from the rival House of Representatives (HOR) based in Tobruk and its ally General Khalifa Haftar.
Tensions between the Misratan militias and Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) threaten to escalate into an all-out war. Meanwhile, the country is plagued by interruptions in electricity, price increases, a lack of fuel, and perennial clashes between Libya’s many militias, tribal groups, and criminal gangs.
Against this backdrop, Libya has become an arena for the interests of international actors to play out. The west, led by the United Nations and the United States, continues to support the PC/GNA. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and most recently Russia, while still officially supporting the PC/GNA, have supported Haftar.
Faced with the reality of the weak PC/GNA and the challenge of Haftar, the United States faces two major options. The first is to admit failure and withdraw from Libya completely, leaving Libya to the interests of other foreign powers and likely clashes between Haftar’s eastern forces and those allied with the PC/GNA. The second is to increase engagement with Libya and work towards an alternative solution that could stabilize the country.
It remains unclear what the policy of President Donald Trump’s administration will be towards Libya. In his rhetoric during the campaign and leading up to his inauguration, Trump expressed a non-interventionist foreign policy in line with his “America first” vision that advocates disengagement from overseas conflicts that do not directly involve US national security interests. Such a policy would likely mean continued air strikes on ISIS targets in Libya – which the Trump administration has indeed pursued – but the withdrawal of the United States from any role in determining the future of Libya’s political landscape. This would follow on President Obama’s little appetite for entrenched involvement with Libya and his focus on fighting ISIS in the country.
At the same time, a stable Libya is in the interest of the United States’ national security. American withdrawal from Libya would provide Haftar and Russia an opportunity to assert their influence in the whole country.
This attempt would be met with resistance, and ensuing clashes would exacerbate the existing humanitarian and migration crises and give more space to terrorist organizations to operate.
This would threaten US allies and neighboring countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, as well as critical European allies that are already reeling from a Middle East migration crisis. Ultimately, as a result of security threats, the United States could be dragged into intervening on a larger scale than it would have had it remained engaged with a peace process effort.
The United States has a significant stake in a stable Libya, as further instability and insecurity, as has been witnessed already, would not be contained within Libya’s borders.
It is in the security interests of the United States to play a positive role in the stabilization of Libya. The only way to reduce the current instability is the achievement of an agreement between the major actors in the country, namely the PC/GNA and the HOR/Haftar and each side’s respective international backers.
An engaged US approach focused on reaching such an agreement is critical. One option is for Trump to appoint a Special Presidential Envoy for Libya, who would have the authority to coordinate the actions of all the US agencies involved in Libya and ensure coherent decision making and policy outcomes.
The envoy would work closely with the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative to Libya, Martin Kobler, and European allies engaged in Libya. Such an appointment would send a strong message to international actors pursuing disparate interests in the country that the United States is committed to solving the crisis on the ground and will not tolerate self-interested actions in Libya that further weaken the international negotiations effort. There are indications that the administration is considering such an appointment.
The Trump administration may be inclined to favor the Russian-backed strongman Haftar rather than involve itself in a difficult negotiations process aimed at producing political peace on the ground.
Haftar has presented himself as an ally against Islamist forces in Libya, and Russia has ostensibly intervened in Libya on his behalf in order to counter ISIS. However, Russian intervention in Libya mirrors the Kremlin’s involvement in Syria, where the fight against ISIS has been seized upon as an opportunity to expand the Russian position in the Middle East.
While the eradication of ISIS from Libya is crucial, a complete shift to Russia and Haftar in Libya would lead to further instability and conflict and could spark another civil war that would threaten the security interests of US regional and European allies.
The new administration should be mindful of the negative consequences that a US withdrawal from Libya in favor of Russian interests would produce, not just for the Libyan people and the country’s neighbors, but for US national security interests. For those reasons, a negotiated peace settlement that includes all of the political actors on the ground is the only way forward.
Karim Mezran, Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East