By Edward P. Joseph & Jeffrey A. Stacey
Libya is among the most intractable conflicts in the world today. Despite UN Secretary General Guterres’s global appeal for a cessation of violence during Covid-19 conditions—and the initial positive response from Libya’s chief combatant General Khalifa Haftar—intense fighting continues.
Can the Berlin Process be rescued and put Libya on the path to reduced tension and dialogue?
The answer has three dimensions: the balance of forces now playing out near Tripoli; the several flaws and limitations in the Berlin agreement itself; and the wider dynamics in Libya that are unaddressed by the agreement.
WAs in any dynamic conflict, there are inherent challenges to attaining a durable ceasefire. Whichever side perceives it has momentary advantage, often seeks to press that advantage, just as the temporarily vulnerable side wishes to abide by the ceasefire (potentially to resupply and recuperate in order to reattack). The situation at the moment is too fluid to predict.
Dramatic battlefield developments on developments – could introduce new political dynamics that might create brief openings for further diplomacy. However, it is unlikely that the UN, alone, is in a position to seize the advantage of any fleeting opportunity. The UN’s inherent weakness was on full display last April, as Haftar launched his surprise attack –shortly after meeting with the Secretary- General Antonio Gutteres.
The Berlin agreement itself presents additional challenges to Salame and his colleagues in trying to convince the sides to return to the truce:
o The absence, by design of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Salame, of the parties themselves from Berlin. While this aided the talks, and put the onus on the outsider enablers of the Libyan belligerents to accept their own responsibility, it softened any obligation of the parties to abide by the terms.
o The absence, by lack of political will including within the UN, of any outside ceasefire monitoring force. With no third-party present to call out violations, the truce relies principally on the good will of the parties and variable pressures of their sponsors.
Given the proximity of the front lines, and the anxiety of each side about one side or the other – or the fear of such sudden tactical moves by the other (often driven by the arrival of new armaments), self-enforcement is unlikely.
o The absence of any concrete way of achieving essential goals of the Berlin communique. For example, the document repeats the LPA’s call for disarmament and demobilization of militias – the existence of which is among the single biggest drivers of instability in Libya. Yet there is no indication that any of the signatory countries would step up with on-site assistance to the parties in achieving this critical and daunting measure.
o The absence, again due to lack of political will, of any enforcement mechanism for the otherwise high-minded pledges of outsiders towards “non-interference” or respect for the arms embargo. The EU has long had a mechanism for enforcement of the arms embargo yet did not stop a single vessel (non-Libyan.) Libya’s geography, with the enormous, wide open borders with Egypt, also defy enforcement. The idea that the very parties who deny they are violating the embargo – in the face of clear evidence to the contrary – would suddenly restrain themselves is highly unlikely. Just as the parties on the ground do not trust each other, so it is with the outside sponsors – each of whom is driven foremost by fear of ceding advantage to the other. For example, the importation of foreign fighters by Turkey drives anxiety in Egypt and the UAE.
o The exploitation of the belligerents themselves, particularly Haftar, of the anxieties of the sponsors. Even though he is almost wholly dependent upon his outside patrons in Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Moscow, (and to a lesser degree, France), for support, Haftar can afford to shrug off their advice and even their demands, knowing that a catastrophic setback of the LNA is not an option. Haftar could afford to take the risk of his reckless assault on Tripoli, based on faulty intelligence that militias in the capital would “switch sides,” knowing that his backers could not afford to see his forces collapse.
o The fact that the outside sponsors show no signs of exhaustion and no signs of political rapprochement. Indeed, the breakdown in Syria between Turkey and the Russian-backed Syrian regime is likely to increase Ankara’s incentives to thwart Moscow’s new client, even as it weighs on Turkish capabilities. Likewise, there is little evident rapprochement between the UAE and its rivals Qatar and Turkey, each 10o of whom is highly invested in their respective Libyan clients and determined not to allow their rival to claim victory. As for Egypt, it has an enduring, active security interest in Libya regardless of any regional competition with Turkey and Qatar. It also has the greatest ability to intervene directly, with its own ground and air forces. None of these weaknesses outweigh the vital consensus attained in Berlin on the pathway to peace. Paradoxically, the high-stakes fighting now raging near the strategic airport location is the best opportunity for Western powers – the U.S. and European allies – for a breakthrough ceasefire and, critically, a withdraw of forces to defined lines.
On the European side, this is problematic. In one sense, Berlin was an ideal host for the Libya parley since the Germans have no direct interests in Libya, unlike their European Union partners France and Italy. But the absence of German interest also translates to the absence of German influence. Meanwhile, Paris and Rome see Libya quite differently. The French are deeply concerned about extremists in Fezzan (southern Libya), as it continues its struggle against the same scourge in the Sahel.
This inclines Paris to back Haftar, who also can be helpful in protecting French oil and gas interests in Libya. By contrast, Rome sees its interests protected by Tripoli, both on oil and gas, and in stepped up control of trans-Libyan migrants seeking to get to Italy. Rome is also severely burdened by the country’s brutal colonial past in Libya.
Haftar and his main counterpart, GNA Prime Minister al-Sarraj, and their respective foreign sponsors are well aware of the partisan leanings of France and Italy, neither of whom can serve as a decisive outside actor in the conflict. Russia’s interest and investment in Libya, while growing and dangerous, cannot be compared to its endeavor in Syria. As a partisan acting principally on one side, Moscow, too, lacks decisive influence. Rapidly mounting tensions with Ankara also disqualify Moscow for a central peacemaking role.
That, of course, leaves only one viable outside actor: the United States. Indeed, across the spectrum in Libya, and among key regional actors, there have been vocal, consistent calls for Washington to take a leadership role. Underscoring Washington’s surprising, continuing appeal—in light of it having effectively sat out this conflict, in spite of having interests in stability there Libyans have put aside their disappointment at the Trump Administration’s harsh visa requirements. Washington brings the perceived fairness of the UN along with the clout that it lacks.
Unfortunately, Washington has shown little appetite for serious engagement in Libya.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the Berlin meeting, but otherwise revealed no vision to lead the follow-on effort. Somewhat like the Obama Administration, the Trump Administration has stood back from Libya, ensured that Embassy staff are based in Tunis, well 11clear of Tripoli, and focused mainly on counter-terrorism efforts through US AFRICOM (of course, the U.S. led the 2011 allied war—backed by both NATO and the UN Security Council—that defeated former Libyan leader Colonel Qaddafi’s army and prevented widespread bloodshed among civilian Libyans, although preferring to “lead from behind” it left any post-conflict stabilization efforts to European allies, who failed to muster the will to intervene as they initially pledged to do). USAID also operates from Tunis and has only a limited portfolio in the country.
Nominally, the U.S. stands with the UN and allies in backing the GNA in Tripoli. However, President Trump held a phone conversation with Haftar shortly after the LNA commander had launched his assault, widely seen at the time (but misinterpreted) as an expression of full American support.
Otherwise, the State Department has been studiously cautious in its approach.
The U.S. Ambassador recently visited Eastern Libya to encourage Haftar to pursue a political settlement along the process set out in Berlin, but there is no indication of an all-out effort by the Embassy to press both sides to halt the fighting. Indeed, the Embassy noted that Ambassador Norland would visit Tripoli only “when security conditions permit.”
With the fighting at a critical stage, now is the time for the US to step forward and finally play the leading diplomatic role that only Washington can play – and that the Libyans want the US to play.
Salame’s departure paves the way for a senior American to succeed him as Libya envoy. This could be Stephanie Williams, Salame’s able American deputy, or the Administration could reach out to a more political appointee. What’s imperative is that Washington accept the need to make sure Salame’s replacement succeeds. This will mean a
more sober, realistic grasp of Libya’s deep divisions. A new concept will have to be created for Libya, one grounded in the notion that:
◼ The LPA cannot be resurrected.
◼ The GNA cannot demand central control of the Libyan defense and security, as long as it is itself dependent upon unregulated, unaccountable militias for security.
◼ The East, including the LPA, will have to make irreversible concessions to agreed- upon national authority.
◼ At a senior level, ideally appointing a special envoy for Libya. The idea would be to seize the opportunity created by the sound Berlin process along with the temporary balance of fear playing out in Tripoli.
Absent a stepped-up American role, or a decisive development on the battlefield, it is hard to see how the situation in Libya will improve. Indeed, even with a durable ceasefire, the U.S. will still have to do some heavy lifting behind the scenes to help the UN-led process. What is often overlooked in Libya is that the conflict now raging is driven by more than personal animus of the parties. Outsiders tend to zero in on the problematic personality of Haftar. But even if the aging and somewhat infirm commander were to suffer his demise, there is no guarantee that this would propel the sides into agreement.
Among the major differences and challenges that would survive Haftar:
o The historic regional tension between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, that Haftar expresses, not that he created.
o Resentment in the East over the control and maldistribution of oil revenue.
o Rejection of putting Eastern security forces under the control of a civilian government in Tripoli that is dependent on militias – that it cannot control, that have dubious influences, including in some cases of an Islamist nature, and that threaten the government itself.
o The lack of an agreed interim Constitution to serve as the foundation document for government, including for relative distribution of power. The parties are still at odds over the draft Constitution produced by the elected Constitutional assembly, a reflection of the deeper conflict at play in Libya.
o The lack of an electoral law as the prerequisite for holding elections to replace the current set of leaders (who share an interest in perpetuating their hold on power).
o The lack of transparency in Tripoli in virtually all major facets, especially related to oil and gas contracts, disbursements, issuance of letters of credit.
o The absence of functioning institutions in both the East and West.
o The mountain of unsustainable debt in the East. It is important to discern the real lessons from the well-intentioned, ill-fated intervention, lest the major take-away become the simplistic and misleading, “never go in.” As the still-unfinished war Syria has shown, staying out of Syria (except for the support to the Kurdish-led fight against ISIS and limited intervention over the use of chemical weapons), has not spared Syria, the region, Europe or even the U.S. the consequences of conflagration. Allowing Bashar Assad to remain unopposed by the West has yielded carnage in the hundreds of thousands (perhaps a half-million deaths) and led to a political crisis in Europe.
Edward P. Joseph is a foreign policy professional, commentator, author, professor and Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins SAIS, president of multiple foundations, and former Deputy Ambassador of the OSCE.
Dr. Jeffrey A. Stacey is a UN lead consultant, former State Department official in the Obama Administration, Managing Partner of Geopolicity Inc., and Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins SAIS. He is author of “Integrating Europe” and the forthcoming “Rise of the East, End of the West?”