Europe’s options on Libya: no easy way out

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In the first two months of 2015, Libya has rapidly climbed in the list of the top foreign policy priorities of many European capitals. Even for non-Mediterranean EU member states, Libya now comes right after Ukraine and Syria/Iraq as it includes two threats that resonate in the Western European domestic debate: the first is jihadism and ISIS, particularly felt after the Paris and Copenhagen terrorist attacks; the second threat is uncontrolled migrations, which in connection with the fear of Islamism create a high level of concern beyond the boundaries of populist parties. Since the beginning of the new civil war in Libya in May 2014, European policy-makers have struggled to find a solution to the crisis and they are now faced with the old dilemma of choosing between diplomacy and war.

The rise of Daesh (as ISIS is known in Arabic) in Libya is as recent as it is dramatic. The first group to openly take center stage, based in the eastern city of Derna, swore allegiance to the so-called Caliphate in October. Since then, the organization has conducted attacks almost everywhere in northern Libya: in Tobruk as well as in Tripoli, where an attack against the Corinthia Hotel on 27 January (which resulted in the death of a US and a French citizen) started to cause alarm. A further escalation originated from the release of the video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptians, most of them Christian Copts, on February 15. This sparked a reaction by Egypt which conducted several air strikes in Libya in coordination with the air force of the internationally-recognized government sitting in Tobruk.

Meanwhile, key members of the Italian government, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Defense, had stated that Italy was ready to intervene militarily in Libya and go as far as sending ground troops. This seemed to dovetail with Egypt’s simultaneous diplomatic offensive at the UN, aimed at getting a UN mandate for an intervention in Libya against Daesh. Egypt’s request at the UN Security Council seemed enjoy particularly strong support from France.

This potential alignment in favor of a new international intervention lasted less than 24 hours. Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi back-tracked on the Italian role and a few hours later a joint statement by the US and major European countries (including Italy) pushed back against the military option and promoted a UN-led dialogue as the only solution to Libya’s problems. Even the second Egyptian diplomatic attempt, namely a Security Council resolution aimed at lifting the arms embargo on the Tobruk government, hit against a joint European and American push-back.

For all the talk of European disunity in the Middle East and North Africa, the events of  16 February showed a remarkable European ability to find common ground both among large member states and with the US. This European unity came on the heels of an EU Foreign Affairs Council held a week earlier in which a shared and comprehensive plan emerged. The EU agreed to put all its weight behind a political agreement, stating its readiness to work with and assist the national unity government that would result from such an agreement while preserving the neutrality of economic institutions so that none of the warring parties could control Libyan finances in order to sustain the fighting. The EU has also formalized its readiness to issue individual sanctions against Libyan warlords boycotting dialogue, without waiting for a Security Council decision in this sense. Last but not least, the EU promised a Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) mission, which would include a peace-keeping force to guarantee the implementation of an agreement.

None of these European and American efforts was enough to boost dialogue for the moment. The UN-led negotiations are stalling. The Egyptian intervention gives no incentives to the Tobruk government (with which it is coordinated) to strike a power-sharing deal with its rivals in Tripoli. ISIS, which has openly declared its opposition to both governments, doesn’t seem to be enough of a threat (at least for now) to unite them in a common battle. The past ambiguities towards Islamist terrorists of Libya Dawn, the military coalition behind the Tripoli government, contribute to the distrust of the other side.

Ultimately, more than one actor in Libya seems to be waiting for the political process to fail so that the military option remains the only one on the table. If a negotiated settlement is to stand a chance, the political track needs to be the only option available, not the option that must be exhausted before resorting to armed intervention. And recent events demonstrate that a political agreement among the main Libyan factions in order to fight ISIS and end the civil war cannot be achieved without active support from Europe’s Arab allies.

The European (and American) emphasis on the political track responds to a specific logic: only a national unity government resulting from negotiations can effectively fight ISIS, restore a modicum of security, restart oil production and control illegal migrations through Libya – in other words, guarantee Western interests. Nevertheless, pursuing the political track does imply a commitment to use military force (with a specific mandate) and for a long time: if a national unity government is formed, a UN peacekeeping mission will have to be deployed to guarantee the ceasefire until a neutral Libyan security force is formed – and that usually takes 10 to 15 years in crisis-torn countries.

A peacekeeping mission of this kind is not in the cards now. What Arab allies of the West (particularly Egypt and the UAE) want is a second option: international support, whether direct or through the supply of weapons, to the Tobruk government in the name of the fight against ISIS. This would mean accepting the continuation (and possibly the escalation) of the current civil war in order to fight “terrorism” – but Egyptians and their Libyan allies have a very wide definition of this which goes well beyond Daesh.

It will be important for the West to resist option two (as happened at the UN) and pursue option one: a political deal with a commitment to provide troops for a peacekeeping mission. This will be all the more difficult given that in the meantime it would be in Daesh’s interest to escalate: attack Westerners within and outside of Libya in order to “call in” Europeans and further polarize Libya in a battle between “us” and “them”.

Resisting provocations is part of statecraft but this should not diminish the sense of urgency in solving the Libyan crisis. ISIS has a relevant potential in Libya and the more terror and insecurity grows, the more this will affect flows of human trafficking towards Europe - mostly through Italy. An escalating civil war would contribute to both ISIS' growth and massive migrations in the Mediterranean (with the related death toll). This is why pursuing the end of the civil war through a negotiated solution should still be the number one priority for Americans and Europeans alike, provided the right incentives and disincentives to the parties are put on the table without delay.