By Jason Pack
For the last five years, the international community has tried a range of different approaches to mediating the Libyan civil war. All have failed.
Leverage and How to Deploy It
Prior international attempts to help in Libya’s post-uprisings reconstruction (2012-13), to avert civil war and the fracturing of the county’s institutions (2014), to reunify those institutions and create a pathway to elections (2015-18), and to halt the offensive against Tripoli (2019) have all failed because the international community has not deployed the leverage or goodwill that it possesses effectively.
The UN and most Western nations have relied on press releases and diplomatic carrots, while the regional powers, which support spoilers, have deployed hard power in the forms of arms, mercenaries, and cash.
This trend has become exacerbated in the current battle for Tripoli.
Western nations must finally threaten to use their stranglehold on international economic institutions and transactions to force Libyans to the table and to penalize outside actors that offer perverse incentives to militia leaders.
The easiest Western leverage to deploy is on Western “allies” like the UAE or Turkey.
The Berlin conference’s express purpose is to propose concrete penalties to those nations which violate the UN arms embargo by supplying drones and mercenaries.
Once the Libyan armed factions lose their most important foreign backing, then a mutually hurting stalemate will likely take hold.
Simultaneously, genuine naming, shaming, and sanctioning of spoilers must be applied multi-laterally and comprehensively against all sides. There must be no picking of favorites.
Recent UN Sanctions Committee reports and U.S. congressional legislation provide the information and the teeth to do this.
The U.S. and UK are viewed on the ground as relatively neutral actors, even if the UN is not.
With these sticks in place, even previously recalcitrant Libyan technocrats might prove quite eager to participate in the IFC.
Once they express that willingness, they need to be protected. Spoilers who benefit from the status quo war economy will likely attempt to hijack the process.
They will be unable to do so if foreign support to such spoilers is profoundly penalized and boxed out and key militia leaders involved in Libya’s economy and willing to participate are given a real seat at the table, rather than being treated as elephants in the room, as in previous negotiation processes.
Conclusion: Avoiding Another “Oil-For-Food” Fiasco by Having a Genuine Libyan-led Process
Financially and diplomatically, Libya’s civil war is among the most complex and globalized of the 21st century’s major conflicts. As such, international policy must finally come to reflect the reality that the devil is in the details.
No one actor can dominate the country.
No single military or political event can cut the Gordian knot of corruption and bad incentives.
It is for this reason that the conditions that allow this mess to persist must be studied in depth and untangled bit by bit — by diagnosing drivers of conflict and chokepoints to progress and then systematically eliminating them.
The easiest such drivers to eliminate are subsidies, the dinar rate, and the blocking power of vested economic players who allow the current morass to persist.
Once those are out of the way another layer of spoilers, militia chokepoints, and command and control blockages will need to be dealt with.
The IFC process can achieve the requisite degree of specificity, research, implementation, and pooling of political will.
Britain and America must lead the efforts (giving personnel, operating budgets for international staff, and precious executive will) to establish the IFC, to protect the courageous Libyan stakeholders keen to work with the IFC from militia violence, and push the international community and the Libyans to reform the country’s macroeconomic structures.
The approach outlined in this paper will not be easy and it will face difficulties of implementation, perception, domestic buy-in, and of major international players’ political will.
Nonetheless, as the author’s interviews have made clear, it is the only model that Libyan stakeholders and retired senior Western diplomats believe has any chance of success.
It can be framed as a consensus international approach to dealing with Libya’s ongoing civil war deriving from Libyan political leaders and semi-sovereign institutional heads, who will request it and facilitate buy-in and transparency.
For the IFC to work, lessons must be learned from the Iraq “Oil for Food” debacle, which scarred a generation of UN and P5 diplomats.
The main lesson which must be applied to Libya — as told to the author by retired diplomatic participants — is to focus on transparency (both of financial flows and of decision criteria) while having Libyan institutions and stakeholders call for the IFC rather than having UN fiat decree it upon them.
Fortunately, top Libyan political and economic officials frequently request increased U.S. and UK engagement in their country and have stated in London and Washington that they are willing to publicly request more engagement.
Moreover, relative to Iraq in the 1990s, the current information technology and its broad penetration in Libya means that transparency is arguably easier now than it was at the time of “Oil for Food.”
Today, it is possible to engage in diplomacy directly with the Libyan people by publishing in real time the workings of the commission on the internet and social media and making the reformation of the Libyan economy a collective nation-building project.
Libya is filled with economic opportunities. At present these economic assets and the economic needs of the Libyan people are being used to enable corruption.
These assets and needs can be turned into even greater opportunities to release the productive capacity of the Libyan people and to connect Libya with the Western private sector for skills transfer.
This can only be accomplished if a neutral caretaking technocratic commission creates new institutions and agrees on the rules of the economic game prior to the free-for-all power grab of elections or jockeying for position in a post-civil war appointed government.
For the last five years, the international community has tried a range of different approaches to mediating the Libyan civil war — sometimes via the UN, while at others via one-off summits convened by major states.
At different times, these mediation efforts have emphasized political, stakeholder, and security-focused tracks, as well as electoral or population-centric approaches.
Most have offered major carrots for success, while some have threatened minor sticks against spoilers. All have failed.
Most nations and observers not actively fueling the war with weapons, money, training, and mercenaries now see that halting these destructive flows is critical to bringing the rival militia factions to the negotiating table.
The current UN arms embargo is now being openly flouted by several nations to the point that they publicize and hold parliamentary votes on some of their violations.
The Berlin conference slated for February 2020 has the creation of an effective arms embargo as its stated primary goal.
As challenging as that will be, it is potentially achievable with concerted diplomacy and the imposition of genuine penalties for violations by the U.S., Britain, and others to dissuade the Emiratis, Egyptians, Turks, Qataris, Sudanese, Chadians, Russians, and others from further meddling.
However, merely meeting this challenge will not be enough to stem the violence or solve the conflict. Once militias are cut off from external sources of military support, the core economic issues that gave rise to the conflict will still remain.
Only a new approach empowering Libyan economic reformers, while reworking the Libyan economic system’s role as a driver of conflict, can fix the dysfunction.
And yet, even courageous and far-sighted Libyan technocrats will not be able to implement the necessary reforms themselves, as long as they are effectively held hostage by the militias that benefit from the current system.
International actors need to facilitate and support the establishment of a Libyan-requested, Libyan-led International Financial Commission (IFC) vested with the requisite authorities to completely restructure the economy.
This will require including the militia commanders who wield real power in Libya.
Such horse-trading with powerbrokers can only succeed in an environment where these commanders are already cut off from the foreign intervention which appears to hold out the promise of allowing them to conquer the entire country without negotiating.
Fortunately, the Berlin conference is already scheduled to include an economic track.
Rather than it being relegated to the status of a side show or parallel approach to complement political engagement, the economic track should directly support the immediate priority of securing a functional arms embargo by demonstrating to foreign supporters of all factions that a non-zero-sum solution is possible, and indeed preferable, to their destructive efforts to secure the illusory goal of total power for their favored faction.
The most meddlesome foreign powers are often motivated by economic issues including securing payment for old contracts — so the fallacy of zero-sum economic or political thinking drives both the Libyan militias as well as their external backers.
Furthermore, properly tying economic reform to conflict resolution can develop momentum for creation of the IFC.
Any agreement stopping damaging foreign intervention in Libya is unlikely to hold without a new, constructive mechanism for foreign powers to secure their important economic and security interests in the country via positive-sum mechanisms in a way that would benefit the Libyan people and international stability.
Jason Pack is a consultant, author, and commentator with over two decades of experience living in, and working on, the Middle East. He created “Libya-Analysis LLC” and founded “Eye on ISIS” in Libya. He is the Senior Libya Analyst at CRCM North Africa, a German strategy firm. He served as Executive Director of the U.S.-Libya Business Association for 2 years.