Libya: the regional war and the West’s awkward moment

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Western officials dealing with Libya today have a daunting and unattractive task. Crunch time to avoid the crisis probably passed over the summer when hostilities grew in intensity and forced the official government to abandon Tripoli. Now, what’s at stake is the more modest but nevertheless urgent task of containing the spillover, establishing a ceasefire and having just one government in place. In other words, it’s not about the vaccine but about the length of recovery – if any. This is amid a growing rift between French and Italian strategies to solve the crisis.

Since May of this year, Libya has witnessed a growing confrontation between two alternative military operations: “Dignity” which grouped together members of the official army along with revolutionary militias from Zintan; “Dawn”, a tactical alliance between the revolutionary militias from Misrata and Islamist groups.

The elections held on June 25th were meant to at least solve the crisis of legitimacy of Libyan institutions, with the hope that a new parliament and government would be able to avoid the escalation. Unfortunately, the opposite occurred: elections took place without a national unity deal and amid widespread insecurity which lead to low turnout and made electing 12 out of the 200 MPs impossible. The climax of the fighting was in July and August when Tripoli’s international airport, controlled until then by the Zintan militias, was attacked by groups from Misrata and eventually destroyed.

The fighting in Tripoli between the two militias also led to the hasty evacuation of the official government which now operates in Tobruk. Most Western embassies along with the UN and EU missions were closed and now operate either from Tunis or from Malta, with the notable exception of the Italian embassy which is still in Tripoli.

Libya is part of the wider regional confrontation between Turkey and Qatar on one side and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council along with Egypt on the other side. The narrative of the Dignity coalition fits very well with this confrontation: the Libyan army and the militias from Zintan that are the biggest components of this faction fight against what they see as the Islamist threat posed by Ansar al-Sharia, the Muslim Brotherhood and the militias from Misrata. Air raids were conducted by unidentified planes in Tripoli in August and were later attributed to the UAE with Egyptian logistical support. These strikes were in support of the Zintan militias that were defending the airport. Eventually, they decided to withdraw from the airport which was then captured and burned down by Misratan militias.

On the other hand, the Dawn coalition does not define itself as “Islamist” but rather describes its fight as one against the remnants of the old regime. While some of the political and military leaders of Dignity may have served under Gheddafi in the past, their role in the 2011 revolution is hard to deny. The “Libyan army”, which was mobilized by General Khalifa Haftar in May and is now under the control of Chief of Staff Abdel Razzak Nadhuri, is made up of units of the old army which defected from the Gheddafi regime early on in the revolution.

Consistently with the regional war, the two coalitions have adopted a “winner takes all” approach. For starters, the old parliament (the General National Congress, GNC) approved the Political Isolation Law in May 2013 which effectively ousted and excluded from public life the then Speaker of the House (and acting head of state), Mohammed Magariaf, along with Mahmoud Jibril, the leader of Libya’s largest political party, the National Forces Alliance. Conversely, when in May of this year renegade General Haftar started his Dignity operation, his goal was nothing less than the eradication of Islamists and terrorists from the country.

The country now lives in one of the most peculiar situations. Two governments and two parliaments are in place: on one side, the internationally recognized parliament (the House of Representatives) and government in Tobruk; on the other side, the old GNC together with the Omar al-Hasi cabinet in Tripoli. The Dignity operation has declared his allegiance to the new Chief of Staff appointed by the Tobruk parliament while the GNC is dominated by the militias and groups in control of Tripoli.

Both the Al-Hasi government and the cabinet headed by Abdullah al-Thinni in Tobruk are politically weak, divided and ineffective. The Tripoli government controls the largest part of Libya, although divisions between Ansar al-Sharia and the Dawn coalition make this control quite ineffective. Conversely, Al-Thinni enjoys electoral and international legitimacy but controls a shrinking portion of land in Benghazi along with the Tobruk area and the city of Zintan.

Reaching a compromise between the two governments (and the coalitions behind them) is complicated by regional dynamics with countries such as Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates pursuing their agendas. Nevertheless, parts of the two coalitions have, at different times, expressed to international negotiators their willingness to compromise. The deal has never materialized because hard-liners within each camp have prevailed, specifically within Misrata which thinks it has the upper hand militarily.

A settlement will have to start from a neutral location for parliament. The Dawn coalition refuses Tobruk because it is located in the heartland of operation Dignity. The constitution says the House of Representatives should meet in Benghazi, which is not feasible for security reasons and also because it is where Ansar al-Sharia mostly operates. Alternative locations can be found with the help of the international community. Conditional on a true ceasefire agreement between the parties, the West could also guarantee the security of the parliament premises which in the past were repeatedly assaulted by rival militias.

Neutrality of institutions is generally the key but it is hard to achieve. Since being appointed by the Tobruk parliament, the new Chief of Staff paid two visits two Egypt and one to the UAE, just weeks after the two countries were accused of conducting air strikes in Tripoli. This element alone shows how hard it will be to achieve neutrality of institutions and improve security. Unfortunately, the convergence between regional dynamics, lack of coordination between international actors and a number of domestic factors pushes for increased confrontation.

In this context, France has repeatedly indicated its willingness to intervene, more recently with statements by its Minister of Defense Jean Yves Le Drian who called for international intervention to avoid Libya becoming a “hub for terrorists”. This emphasis on fighting terrorism dovetails well with international efforts in the region as well as with the narrative of the Dignity operation and of the Tobruk government.

At the end of the day, Western intervention is still unlikely but Arab intervention may continue beyond the air strikes conducted by the UAE.

The West is facing the awkward choice between two Libyan governments, one in control of land and the other enjoying legitimacy. The odds are clearly favoring the Tobruk government and its fight against “terrorists”. It remains to be seen whether European capitals - especially Rome and Paris - can find a common position in their search for a modicum of stability and an effective interlocutor in the country. Non-intervention seems to be the default position, despite France's apparent readiness to contemplate more forceful options.