Libya’s Nightmarish Outlook
The crossfire lines between the various factions for control of land and oil have undermined the prospects of any political settlement for six years now. In fact, oil revenues have shrunk significantly this year.
The chairman of Libya’s National Oil Company, Mustafa Sanalla, cautioned that the company has received only 25 percent of the budget it requires for 2017. He also predicted a downturn in oil production if there is not enough investment in Libya’s oil infrastructure. This grim outlook was the conclusion of a two-day meeting of the group aiming to safeguard Libya’s oil revenues.
The humanitarian situation, however, is of profound concern. Between 2014 and 2016, 5,871 individuals were killed and more than a half million remain internally displaced. Thousands of refugees, mainly Africans from the Sahel to the south, live in tragic conditions in detention centers amid growing concerns over human right abuses.
For example in Sabratha, three detention camps are controlled by the Amu brigade, a 500-men strong gang led by Abu Dabbashi who exploits Europe’s need for migrant control in the country.
Indeed, human smuggling to Europe has flourished off the Libyan shores, and another 600 migrants were recently rescued by SOS Mediterranee near Sicily, Italy. Between August and September, the influx of migrants, mainly from sub-Saharan countries, rose from 3,914 to 6,288. Rome has allocated a €6 million humanitarian assistance package to the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration to help deal with human suffering in Libya.
US-Russia Asymmetry in Libya
Russia projects a good chance to expand its influence into Libya after Syria and its recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. It has invested diplomatically in potential future leaders, mainly Haftar, whose military campaign, “Operation Dignity,” was initiated in May 2014 against the Islamist Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries.
It moved west to capture oil field areas from the grip of the Islamist militias in coastal regions like Zueitina and Marsa el Brega in recent months. During his most recent visit to Moscow in August, Haftar was received “like a foreign leader already in office, arranging meetings with high-ranking ministers as well as security officials….”
Moscow has adopted a two-part strategy:
The first is to empower Haftar and provide logistical and technical support for his Libyan National Army.
While avoiding any apparent violation of the UN arms embargo, some reports have indicated that Moscow “could send weapons through Egypt, a pro-Haftar neighbor that borders the Haftar-held parts of eastern Libya and is said to have hosted Russian Special Forces.”
The second strategy is to help secure a future government in Libya where Haftar would have the final word in military issues and arms deals.
Moscow has maximized its efforts in mediating between Haftar and Sarraj by hosting them in May. This trajectory seems to have more appeal in Moscow than counting on the probability of celebrating Haftar as the new president.
Lev Dengov, head of the Russian working group on Libya, explains that “neither Haftar nor Sarraj could realistically govern Libya alone. We do not wish to be associated with either side of the conflict.”
The Kremlin has been well engaged in shaping Libya’s political future and solidifying what can be termed as the “crescent of Russian influence.” This interference in reshuffling Libyan cards has triggered some skepticism in Europe.
One major concern is the probability of another Russian military base in the Mediterranean Sea. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently stated that “we have seen the effects of Russian presence in Syria, how that has created an even more difficult situation in Syria. Of course we have to avoid anything similar happening in Libya.”
Russia’s interest in Libya remains noticeable on the Pentagon’s radar. Africa Command chief and Marine Corps General Thomas D. Waldhauser sent an alarm signal during his briefing in front of the US Senate by asking, “[Russia is] trying to do in Libya what they’ve been doing in Syria?”
Last month, he renewed his concern that Moscow “is trying to exert influence on the ultimate decision of who becomes and what entity becomes in charge of the government inside Libya.”
The US Africa Command launched two series of precision-air strikes against the new stronghold of the Islamic State (IS), 100 miles southeast of Sirte on September 22 and 26, in “coordination with Libya’s Government of National Accord and aligned forces.” However, several Republican and Democratic Party senators have cautioned against the current political void, which invites the expansion of IS and is also “filled by Russia, which we’re seeing Russia’s engagement now in Libya.”
On the diplomatic front, the State Department gave its blessing to the renewed political process in Libya, devised by Ghassan Salamé, as it “welcome[d] the September 20 United Nations announcement of an action plan to advance political reconciliation in Libya.”
These two shifts have occurred in the context of Trump’s isolationist policy after he stated, back in April, “I do not see a role in Libya. I think the United States has right now enough roles.” This minimalist view was recently echoed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he told Congress of his intention to cancel the position of special envoy to Libya.
Incidentally, the former White House foreign policy advisor, Sebastian Gorka, was vying for the position with the aim of dividing the country into three provinces: “Cyrenaica in the east, Tripolitania in the north-west, and Fezzan in the south-west.”
In sum, there seems to be a gap between the White House and Congress in formulating a coherent policy toward Libya. With the potential of holding general elections in Libya within months, Trump has avoided any intervention or assistance plans, beyond targeting suspected Islamist militias.
Libyan citizens are still barred from entering the United States under Trump’s Executive Order signed in March. The HoR-backed government in Tobruk considers Trump’s decision to be “a dangerous escalation, which puts Libyan citizens in one basket with the terrorists the army fights,” and has considered a policy of “reciprocity” by preventing American citizens from traveling to eastern Libya.
The laid-back, if not uninterested, US policy in Libya, the Haftar-al-Sarraj rivalry, and the challenges of stability will give certain stakeholders some leverage to manipulate the upcoming election and referendum.
Beyond the cost-benefit hypothesis of combating terrorism, stopping migration, or shifting the balance of power in the Mediterranean basin, the Trump Administration is indirectly helping not only the Kremlin’s strategic interests in Libya, Egypt, and Syria, but also in feeding the Russian nationalistic discourse that “what the United States breaks, Russia can fix!”
The Way Forward
The Trump Administration is poised to consider several timely steps ahead of the election expected next spring.
First, in addition to advocating for an inclusive political solution for Libya, Washington would do well to reconsider its isolationist approach toward a country located in a strategic position as a crossroad between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
It should also embrace the ethic of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) civilians who are treated as collateral damage. In this spirit, the State Department could rescind its decision to abolish the position of special envoy for Libya and nominate and appoint a knowledgeable hand in the near future.
Second, the White House could employ pressure tools through its relations with Egypt to urge the Libyan National Army and the House of Representatives to fully comply with the declared ceasefire agreement and support political talks under the auspices of the UN Support Mission in Libya.
It can also empower the GNA government and provide effective support for the UN-brokered negotiation process. While open on all interested political parties in the country, the United States should include various Libyan ethnic and tribal groupings in its outreach to Libya and refrain from the legitimate/illegitimate categorization.
This will help avoid the recurrence of further disputes over the priority of political, oppositional, religious, or tribal legitimacy.
Third, from a perspective on governance and equity, Washington should encourage a fair distribution of oil revenues among all political and tribal entities, and support a nationwide plan of development and infrastructure reform projects.
Libya provides two percent of global oil production and enjoys an estimated reserve of 50 billion barrels in crude oil. It is in dire need of outside assistance in initiating various projects of peace and capacity building.
Mohammed Cherkaoui is scholar and practitioner of conflict resolution and peacebuilding, and teaches at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution [S-CAR] in Washington D.C. He has served on the United Nations’ Panel of Experts with particular focus on the political transition of the Libyan crisis.