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Libya is on the brink of descending further into chaos. The latest round of the UN-sponsored peace process to unite the country’s two rival governments is getting nowhere, fighting in Benghazi and across the country continues to escalate and Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) is consolidating its foothold along the Mediterranean coast. Often overshadowed by Syria’s raging civil war, Libya’s political crisis has been festering for four years and, in the process, has become ever-more complex and intractable.
It is nigh on impossible to keep track of the many political groups and armed militias that are vying for power and influence in the country. Notwithstanding smaller actors with local agendas and the shifting nature of alliances in the country, four broad camps can currently be identified.
The first two comprise the rival parliaments and governments that are supposed to be reconciled in the UN peace process. The House of Representatives (HoR) and its internationally recognised government, led by Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni, are based in Tobruk in Libya’s eastern regions. They have joined forces with General Khalifa Haftar, who commands Libya’s official military and has formed the ‘Dignity’ coalition with a number of other militias. The country’s other government, led by Prime Minister Khalifa Al-Ghawi, is based in Tripoli and is drawn from the General National Congress (GNC). The GNC consists primarily of Islamist-leaning groups that lost out in the elections for the HoR in June 2014. Tripoli’s parliament and government are members of the ‘Dawn’ coalition led by militias from the country’s capital and Misrata.
The third and fourth camps consist of rival jihadist groups which coalesce around Daesh and Al-Qa’ida. These groups are fighting each other and are generally hostile to the governments in both Tobruk and Tripoli. Daesh, in particular, has exploited the power vacuum ensuing from years of political wrangling, using it to establish a significant foothold in the country. The group has controlled Sirte since June and has consolidated its hold on approximately 200 miles of the surrounding coastline. The following month, it made advances on the eastern city of Ajdabiya, as well as Libya’s oil infrastructure at Ra’s Lanuf. In Benghazi, it is locked in a three-way battle with Ansar Al-Sharia and the Libyan army. Despite its overall success, Daesh has experienced a few setbacks, such as in Derna; the group has nearly withdrawn from the city after offensives by the Al-Qa’ida-linked Mujhedeen Shura Council.
For the past year, the international community – working through the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) led by Spanish diplomat Bernardino León – has been trying to broker a power-sharing agreement between the rival governments in Tobruk and Tripoli with the aim of forming a government of national unity (GNU). On 8 October, León presented his supposedly last attempt at breaking the political deadlock. Under the proposal, the HoR would become the more powerful chamber in a new bicameral parliament; the GNC would be transformed into the second tier and have an advisory role. León nominated Fayez Sarraj, a GNC member, as prime minister in a cabinet drawn from both houses.
However, neither the HoR nor the GNC had even held a vote on the proposal prior to the ratification deadline of 20 October. Members of both parliaments, as well as some militias, have indicated their support for the GNU but their voices are being drowned out by hardliners seemingly bent on rejecting any power-sharing agreement. Most importantly, some of the most powerful military forces on the ground, including Haftar’s army, have dismissed the GNU proposal and expressed their determination to fight on regardless of what the politicians decide.
In the last week of October, the political process suffered two further blows. On 23 October, twelve people were killed and dozens injured in Benghazi when as yet unknown assailants fired several mortar rounds at a protest in the city’s Al-Keesh square. The demonstrators had gathered to reject the proposed GNU, illustrating how months of international diplomacy have failed to engage many ordinary Libyans. A few days later, on 27 October, several officials and military commanders belonging to the Tripoli government were killed when their helicopter was shot down close to the capital.
Both incidents led to sharp upturns in violence, showing how far the diplomatic process is from bringing peace to the country. In Benghazi, all sides blamed each other for murdering the unarmed protesters and ramped up their efforts to take control of the city – killing more civilians and destroying more homes in the process. In the west of the country, the Tripoli government accused the Warshefana tribal militia, allied with Haftar, of shooting down the helicopter. This led to fierce clashes around the town of Al-Zawiya and the fighting could escalate into another round in the civil war between the Dawn and Dignity coalitions.
Meanwhile, UNSMIL is trying to keep the diplomatic process alive. León is moving on to a highly controversial appointment as head of a diplomatic academy in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – one of the staunchest international backers of the Tobruk government – and will be replaced by veteran German diplomat Martin Kobler. However, it is difficult to see how the next round of talks can deliver tangible results. For over a year, the two parliaments have paid lip service to the diplomatic process, sent delegation after delegation to León’s negotiation sessions and even offered concessions. However, whenever it comes to actually signing an agreement, they have stalled, and accused the other side of trying to monopolise power and dominate the country, only to then send new delegations for further negotiations.
UNSMIL does not have any real tools to force Libya’s politicians to adopt a more serious approach. León, despite his close relationship with the UAE, deserves credit for his tireless (and undoubtedly frustrating) work to keep the discussions open. However, in order to break the unproductive cycle of negotiations and rejected agreements, the international community needs to do more than direct words of encouragement or admonishing statements at the two sides.
One step could be to impose sanctions, such as asset freezes and international-travel bans, on individuals in Tobruk and Tripoli who are obviously spoiling the process. On both sides, small groups of hardliners seem determined to block the HoR and GNC from voting on the GNU proposal. Measures should also be taken to ensure that all external actors comply with UN Security Council resolutions to stop providing ever-more weapons to the warring militias. Leaked e-mails, recently obtained by the New York Times, between high-ranking UAE officials discussing arms shipments to several Dignity-affiliated groups suggest this embargo has been violated. Tripoli and Dawn, meanwhile, are said to be receiving support from Qatar, Turkey and Sudan. European governments should play a key role in improving the current situation given Libya’s proximity, its continued role as a conduit for cross-Mediterranean migration (hardly a week goes by without desperate migrants drowning off the Libyan coast) and the proliferation of extremist groups in the country.
As the state of limbo continues amid a lack of international interest, only one thing appears certain: unless Libya’s bickering politicians and feuding warlords agree to put their personal interests aside and fully commit to working together for the good of their country, the crisis will continue and potentially get worse. Even if the fighting around Tripoli does not escalate into large-scale, country-wide fighting between the Dawn and Dignity coalitions, it is unclear how much longer the two blocks could conceivably be brought together in a unity government.
Potential fractures are most obvious in the case of the Tobruk camp. The electoral mandate of the HoR expired on 20 October and although its members have voted to extend their terms, this further damages the already questionable legitimacy of the parliament. General Haftar is rumoured to be harbouring plans to establish a military council to take over from the HoR – a step that would lead to more polarisation and likely force the international community to withdraw the ‘internationally recognised’ label from Tobruk’s government. Negotiations between Haftar and the GNC are likely to be even less successful than the current ones. The GNC considers Haftar a remnant of the old regime with ambitions to become the next Qadhafi; and according to Haftar, the GNC is a collective of terrorists that needs to be destroyed.
Daesh profits most from all this chaos and uncertainty. From its base in Sirte, it is gradually expanding along the Mediterranean coast, subjecting the people under its control to its familiar form of brutal governance. Beheadings and crucifixions, often filmed for gruesome propaganda videos, are a regular occurrence.
However, Daesh in Libya also poses a threat to the security and stability of the surrounding countries. The perpetrators of the attacks on the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March and the tourist beach in Sousse in June were trained in Libya. Foreign fighters from Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Sudan and several other North African states have joined the group, freely crossing Libya’s uncontrolled borders. Several hundred members of Boko Haram in Nigeria are said to have travelled to Sirte, and there are reports that in recent weeks dozens of Daesh fighters have left Syria and Iraq in order to join the Libyan franchise.
In Syria and Iraq, Daesh has to endure air strikes by the US-led coalition and Russia, as well as attacks from Kurdish forces, rival jihadists and Shia militias. In Libya, the militants face a much weaker and even less co-ordinated opposition. Daesh’s only serious threat is in Derna where it has been under attack by a coalition led by the Mujhedeen Shura Council. In Sirte, although there have been very infrequent air strikes by the governments in Tobruk and Tripoli, the group has been left relatively unmolested to consolidate its hold on power. This situation is likely to continue and the group may even be able to expand further unless Libya’s rival factions find a way to work together under one legitimate political authority. This is currently a precondition for active Western support against Daesh in Libya.
In September 2011, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy travelled to Benghazi where they revelled in a triumphant hero’s welcome. Backed by NATO fighter jets, the Libyan rebels had just ended the decades-long dictatorial reign of Muammar Qadhafi and the two European leaders enjoyed their role as would-be midwives of a new, free and democratic Libya. Four years later, the visit is nothing more than a distant, embarrassing memory. While the mistakes of the past four years – namely a distinct lack of interest in, and commitment to, Libya’s post-authoritarian transition – cannot be undone, it is now time for the West to take stronger measures to prevent the country’s total collapse. The UK and its partners should support the mediators of the current UN process with the coercive tools they need to persuade Libya’s feuding politicians to implement a lasting solution to the current crisis.
Independent researcher and analyst of Middle Eastern security issues, and PhD candidate at the University of Exeter.