By Ethan Chorin & Dirk Vandewalle

French President Emmanuel Macron struck a raw nerve last week by calling NATO “brain dead” and urging its membership not to rely on the United Sates for direction (which in any case is unlikely to come soon).

Macron’s comments followed President Trump’s sudden and unilateral decision to remove U.S. troops from the Syrian-Turkish border, which allowed Turkey— a NATO member— to overwhelm Syrian Kurds, key Western allies in the fight against ISIS. 

While Turkish actions in Syria are of immediate concern, Libya should be at the forefront of discussions at the current NATO Summit in London. 

For what happens next in Libya is immediately relevant to core NATO interests including combatting terrorism, addressing Europe’s migrant crisis, curbing Russian opportunism in the Middle East, and assuring the long-term viability of the Alliance itself. 

Libya has been in turmoil since the NATO-led intervention in March 2011 that ousted Libya’s nearly 42-year dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

In launching Operation Unified Protector, NATO and the U.S. appealed to an aspirational international humanitarian norm, the “Responsibly to Protect” (R2P). 

Many then hoped that Libya would be a bright spot among the Arab Revolutions. But the hands-off approach by the U.S. and NATO encouraged states like Turkey and Qatar to steer national elections in Libya in favor of parochial groups and Islamist minorities. 

This development, once it was apparent, was deeply opposed by most Libyans, who were powerless to stop it. 

This was the immediate context for the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, drove the West out of Benghazi, and facilitated the city’s takeover by Al Qaeda and then, the Islamic State.  

Promising to deliver Benghazi from Islamic extremists, former Gaddafi-era general Khalifa Heftar created the Libyan National Army, which through a bloody war of attrition freed Benghazi from the ISIS-Al Qaeda grip in 2016.

Although Heftar’s actions were popular within large parts of Libya, the international community has spurned Heftar as yet another authoritarian strongman and backed a U.N.-built political agreement, which arbitrarily took authority from an elected government and put it in the hands of an unelected, and still unratified body, hoping it would rubber-stamp Western air attacks on the emergent Libyan franchise of the Islamic State, and solve the migrant issue. 

It did neither: U.S. strikes were largely ineffective, and the refugee crisis eased only when Italy paid human traffickers – operating in the shadow of the Tripoli government – to keep migrants in Libya, under appalling conditions.

More recently Heftar and the LNA have taken the fight from Benghazi and Libya’s East to Libya’s capital of Tripoli, where they are waging another war of attrition to break the militia stranglehold.

And here is where the extent of internal NATO discord is most obvious: France is widely seen to back Heftar; Turkey has ramped up efforts to back the Tripoli militias against Heftar, while the U.N. continues to call for an unconditional cease fire that would allow the militias to regroup.

A number of Arab states, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, form a pro-Heftar front.

As in Syria, it is unclear where the United States stands, as House Democrats, with some Republican support, have recently put forward a hodgepodge Libya bill that smells more like partisan politics (opposing President Trump’s apparent recent nods to Heftar), than coherent policy. Meanwhile, Russia and radical groups continue to exploit the power vacuum to advance their own interests.

The authors warned at the start of the conflict in 2012 that NATO would have to deal with the Gordian knot of the Libyan militias sooner or later. 

And while many in the West realize it, few are willing to state the obvious: Heftar has been doing NATO’s dirty work. 

Turning a blind eye to this reality, now as in the past, carries significant risks: if Heftar manages to take control of Libya, the popular assumption will be that this was the West’s preferred outcome all along, and NATO and the West will have limited leverage over what comes next.

Heftar has done his part to keep Libya from one side of the abyss, but Libyans are unlikely to acquiesce to a Sisi-like rule after years of bloody internal conflict.

Nor is it clear what exactly Heftar’s end game is: So far, he has deferred to Libya’s elected government-in-exile, and insists that he will hand over control to a civilian government once Libya has been stabilized. He must be held to these commitments. 

Waiting encourages events on the ground to dictate larger outcomes.

Within this chaos, and assuming NATO is capable of projecting a unified front (indeed, this was the essence of Macron’s challenge), NATO has an unconventional opportunity to leverage Heftar’s momentum to stabilize Libya, address the migrant crisis, and deal with terrorism and Russian expansionism without creating new fissures. 

The first step would be to put strong and specific conditions on Heftar’s advance.  NATO could, for example, offer to broker and enforce a cease-fire that provided combatants on all sides safe passage and immunity from all but war crimes, but in return for immediate disarmament. 

It should censure Turkey for its destructive actions in both Syria and Libya, and prevent the additional flow of arms and fighters into the country. 

And it should help Libya form an interim, technocratic government, pending a new national election and in accordance with a provisional constitution (a quasi-internal consensus seems to have emerged regarding the relevance of the country’s 1963 Federalist constitution to a longer term process of national integration and reconciliation).

This would have the added benefit of effectively ending, once and for all, the fiction that the United Nations’ Government of National Accord (GNA) is a viable framework for solving Libya’s ills.

Further, NATO should help safeguard Libya’s oil and gas resources, crucial to both Libya’s and Europe’s economic well-being, and encourage regional states to invest in the diversification of Libya’s regional economies into areas like maritime services, tourism and medical infrastructure.  

Collectively, these measures constitute a much-belated application of the Responsibility to Rebuild (R2R), which in original formulations was seen as an indispensable component to any R2P intervention.  

Despite its current identity crisis, NATO may be the only organization still able to make this happen, just as it was the only organization judged capable of managing a complex, multi-party military response to Gaddafi in the first place. 

And paradoxically, by working through the obstacles to a unified position on Libya, NATO may be reminded of its raison d’être, while its traditional lead, the United States, works out its own internal divisions.


Ethan Chorin is a former U.S. diplomat posted to Libya and author of Exit the Colonel: The Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution. Dirk

Dirk Vandewalle is Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and author of A Modern History of Libya.


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