By Geoff D. Porter
Dear Dr. Gorka, So I hear you’re interested in being Donald Trump’s envoy to Libya.
You even sketched a plan on a napkin to partition the country. The plan would divide Libya into three provinces that date back to the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, and thereby solve Libya’s current crisis. If it were only that simple.
But it’s not. Libya’s ongoing conflict is complicated. It has to do with the legacy of four decades of brutal dictatorial rule under Muammar Qadhafi that obliterated any semblance of functional governmental institutions and pitted Libyan against Libyan.
It has to do with lack of rule of law and poor governance that has allowed the democratic process initiated after the 2011 revolution to be perverted and then aborted. And it has to do with regional proxy powers intervening both openly and clandestinely in Libya to make sure that they have an oil-rich ally on the Mediterranean when the dust settles.
The current mess in Libya is layers upon layers, with multiple bodies in different cities claiming to be the country’s true government. And then there are the fence-sitters—not yet with this side or that but waiting to see where the chips fall. And all of these groups are armed. We’re not talking about just small arms, but armor, artillery and air power.
Also, let’s not forget the Islamic State, which was only recently ousted from its stronghold in Sirte. Many of those fighters who fled likely linked up with clandestine cells throughout the country. But let’s put all this aside for the moment and focus on why your plan is a clunker.
For starters, your plan is predicated on the notion that the Ottoman division of Libya into three provinces (Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east, and the Fezzan in the south) “worked.”
Well, let’s review a little history. (Yes, I too have a Ph.D.) The Ottomans first conquered and created Cyrenaica, today’s eastern Libya, in 1517.
It took them another 34 years to conquer Tripolitania, the region closer to Tunisia. The Ottomans only conquered and created the Fezzan, Libya’s vast and mostly empty desert south, 300 years later. And this glosses over the fact that Istanbul lost control of Tripolitania for more than a century in the intervening years. These were not happy, seamless times.
But how did these Ottoman provinces function? For starters, the borders between the regions were primarily for the purposes of tax collection to be paid to Istanbul, not for the full remit of governance that we would require today.
People moved back and forth and families and interests spanned different regions. Law enforcement, such as it was, devolved to the local level.
But all this was before oil—which wasn’t discovered in Libya until 1957. Had oil been discovered in Libya during the Ottoman era, would Istanbul have divided it the way it did? Wouldn’t we then be sketching different borders on different napkins?
But for the sake of argument, let’s say we do divide Libya according to 600-year-old borders (regardless of whether this is what Libyans want or not). Oil is Libya’s lifeblood. It pays for everything from food to water to public-sector salaries. Without oil revenue there is no Libya.
The problem is, borders on the ground don’t always neatly line up with the oil reserves in it.
In Libya’s case, most of the oil is in the east, in what would be Cyrenaica. The Fezzan would have some too. There is considerably less in what would be Tripolitania, the region that contains the capital, Tripoli.
Recreating Ottoman divisions then would ultimately cut a future Tripolitania’s revenue by more than two thirds. Making matters worse, the oil fields that Tripolitania would lose would be just across the border in neighboring Cyrenaica—so close that Tripolitania would be forgiven were it to be tempted to fight for them.
And while the Fezzan would end up with some oil, it has no access to ports and would have to pay Tripolitania transit tariffs to get its oil to market. Given how much revenue it would have lost, you can bet Tripolitania will extract a pretty penny. Plus, the Fezzan would end up a landlocked country.
The United Nations and the World Bank have ample statistics demonstrating how fragile landlocked countries are.
But the Libyan conflict is already about oil and about controlling the revenue that oil generates. This became abundantly clear last month when militias allied with the Government of National Accord in Tripoli seized four oil export terminals that had earlier been captured by the military allied with the eastern government in Tobruk, which in turn had captured from a separatist cum gangster.
(Are you following along, Dr. Gorka?) Even though the Tobruk government had continued to allow oil revenue from the ports under its control to keep going to the government in Tripoli after it captured them in September 2016, some political leaders in Tripoli were uneasy with that “gentlemen’s agreement” and felt they needed to take the oil terminals “back,” not only to undermine their opponents in the east, but also to guarantee oil revenue for themselves in the future.
They managed to do so briefly in March, but the Tripoli government was able to hold the terminals for only a few days before the government in Tobruk took them back. Now that it has taken them back, the Tobruk government is exploring ways of selling oil on its own.
Meanwhile, the government in Tripoli is trying to figure out how to exert more control over oil revenue, likely to deprive that revenue of going to the government in Tobruk.
Further south, other groups are also leveraging oil, periodically shutting down a pipeline leading from two large southwestern fields to deprive the government in Tripoli of revenue and force it to bow to their demands.
Libya’s current conflict, though, is also about more than oil. It is about former Qadhafi regime members trying to reclaim what they lost in the 2011 revolution. It is about Islamists—no, not radical Islamic terrorists—trying to preserve the political gains they made during Libya’s brief democratic interlude in the aftermath of the revolution that ousted Qadhafi. It is about former political dissidents—some who were imprisoned, others who were exiled, trying to gain some political power for the first time in a country they call their own.
And into this mix add jihadi terrorists organizations like the Islamic State; the remnants of Benghazi consulate attackers Ansar al-Sharia; and some components of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a regional terrorist group with a large presence in the south.
None of these groups fits neatly into Ottoman-era borders. Which new country would you give to the Islamists? Which one would the former Qadhafi henchmen get? Who ends up with the bulk of the terrorists?
Despite all of this, perhaps you still think creating three new countries is a good idea. But you don’t have to look very far to find instances where this approach has been a disaster.
This is especially the case when oil is involved. Case in point: South Sudan, which not only fought a calamitous 20-year war for independence from Sudan that reignited over oil less than a year after winning independence, but is now engulfed in a civil war of its own and failing.
Do we really want to be flirting with the prospect of more failed states in the Sahara? After all, failed states are hothouses for jihadi salafis who are already abundant in Libya and the Sahara. We should be working to limit their areas of operations, not creating new ones for them.
Finally—and this is a big one—despite having two governments and being on the cusp of civil war, most Libyans still think of themselves as “Libyan.” They don’t think of themselves as Tripolitanian or Cyrenaican or Fezzani.
The solution for Libya’s crisis is to foster this sense of “Libyaness” as a way of countering the zero-sum mentality that is driving the current crisis. The National Oil Corp. recognizes this. It has consistently maintained in the face of all sorts of confrontations that Libya’s oil is for Libyans, east and west, north and south.
The challenge now is to spread the “Libya for Libyans” mentality to other governmental institutions. Admittedly, a plan for doing this doesn’t fit on a napkin, but neither would any plans for dealing with the mess created by divvying up Libya into borders from a bygone era.
Geoff D. Porter
Geoff D. Porter – is president of North Africa Risk Consulting.