By Michael O’Hanlon & Federica Saint Fasanotti
While world leaders remain confused and divided and, most of all, usually indifferent over the future of Libya, its municipal leaders point the way forward.
Aided by nongovernmental organizations like Humanitarian Dialogue, they are doing what outside powers have so far failed to do in coming up with a realistic agenda for the country of six million, eight years after the overthrow of Qaddafi left it in chaos.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization had a major hand in that operation to depose the former strongman, while outside powers in Europe and the Middle East continue to do more harm than good today, since they support opposing actors within Libya, stoking more conflict and instability.
For its part, the United States under President Trump oscillates between supporting the Government of National Accord under Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, which is anything but that, though it does at least have backing from the United Nations, and the forces of General Khalifa Haftar and his equally misnamed Libyan National Army.
European countries including Italy, France, and Germany meanwhile attempt to organize grand national conferences on Libya within their own countries, but such convenings wind up being more like boondoggles than serious international attempts at conflict resolution.
What is needed in Libya, by contrast, is a realistic model for governance and security that builds on current realities on the ground.
Focusing too much on the central government, such as it is, or the other central government of Haftar, such as he would have it, will not work. Nor will a regional approach that creates a system like in Bosnia of autonomous areas based on the three traditional subentities of Libya.
Rather, the action should be at the city level, where the meaningful action has been for years, as a combination of brave patriots and dedicated foreign assistance workers have kept the country afloat by doing what they can one town or city at a time.
A new framework for Libya should seek to harness this local energy and governance, formalize it, and take it to the next level of effectiveness. That is the best way to help Libyans. It is also the best way to protect other countries from mass migration and terrorism that at times emanate from Libya.
Starting this spring, the recent tradition of numerous militia battles in Libya has coalesced into a fight between the two main groups noted above.
Forces led by Sarraj have strengthened and come together in the face of an acute threat posed by Haftar, such that a stalemate in and around Tripoli has resulted.
The spring offensive by Haftar gained steam by taking advantage of the disaffection of many in the south with their meager share of oil revenues being provided by Sarraj. His efforts to portray all his opponents as Islamist extremists persuaded President Trump to lend him rhetorical support in the spring.
Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, provide Haftar material support, with most parties effectively ignoring the United Nations arms embargo.
What can be done?
Here is what we propose, building on a report on Libya led by the Brookings Institution, “Empowered Decentralization,” to which we contributed earlier this year.
Outside powers should pressure Haftar to pull back forces from Tripoli. They should also enforce the United Nations arms embargo.
There is an opportunity here for Saudi Arabia and other supporters of Haftar to improve their international reputations with such an effort at peace.
The focus of outside assistance, and internal Libyan governance, should shift to local municipalities.
This recognizes that the most effective political unit today is cities across Libya, more so than the national government or three main historical regions, as recent dialogues involving dozens of mayors and other local leaders have proven.
This approach requires a fair distribution of oil revenues and aid flows to major municipalities in Libya provided they used those funds effectively and transparently, with oversight provided by a board composed of Libyans and technocratic foreigners so as to inspire confidence and trust.
This approach has considerable promise in Libya, which has significant oil supplies and therefore wealth.
While militias and political actors do sometimes have tribal proclivities, they generally lack the kind of toxic ideological or sectarian motivations that can worsen cycles of violence in much of the region.
They are driven more by competition for their share of state wealth, as well as control of the neighborhoods and cities that matter to them. There are good reasons to think they can be incentivized to cooperate because doing so is in their own financial interests.
The prospects for such a strategy would also be enhanced by the authorization and deployment of an observation force approved by the United Nations, assuming a request for such a force had been issued by key Libyan actors.
Given Libyan national pride and patriotism, that force must focus on the protection of specific assets, institutions, and locations, and monitoring of the agreed pullback of forces and ceasefire accord.
Because the situation in Libya today seems so hopeless, little thought is being given to how the current crisis might in fact be turned into an opportunity.
Nothing is guaranteed, of course, and ultimately Libyans will have to be willing to take the brave steps necessary for such a strategy to have a chance, but there is now a realistic chance for peace.
Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, specializing in defense and foreign policy issues.
Federica Saini Fasanotti is a nonresident scholar in foreign policy. Foreign Policy, Center for 21st Century Security at The Brookings Institution.