Libya deserves better

Friday 25/09/2015

Libya is a country in big trouble but there is still hope it can find its way out of the morass.

Three years after national elections suggested that Libya would enjoy a demo­cratic future, the situation in Benghazi is chaotic, tribal tensions led to violence in the south and only recently has the west begun to stabilise, due primarily to the exhaustion of Misratan and Zintani militias.

Libya has two parliaments and two governments. The interna­tionally recognised government is based in Tobruk and Bayda with support from militias gathered in a coalition called Dignity. The other is based in Tripoli with support from militias in the Dawn coalition.

Now there may be some hope, as the UN mediator, Bernardino Leon, announced a framework agreement on September 21st. The agreement would create a Government of National Accord (GNA) with the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), elected in June 2014, as its legislature and a State Council drawn mainly from the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC).

But the power-sharing being proposed is not entirely sym­metrical. The Tripoli-based GNC would become advisory and that’s the main sticking point. The GNC has proposed instead that it become a second house of a bicameral parliament, with virtually equal powers to the HoR.

That demand may be a deal breaker but there is another way out of the impasse. The GNC may be able to make up some of what it loses in the bargaining over deciding who sits where: the positions of prime minister, deputy prime ministers and the two ministers who will be part of the Presidency Council are particularly important.

That the bargaining has gotten to this stage is a good sign, though no guarantee of success. But even success will be no more than what US State Department insiders are calling a “70% solution”.

Khalifa Haftar, who commands the Libyan National Army on behalf of the Dignity coalition, is not likely to sign on. Nor will hardliners associated with Dawn. Moreover, a 70% solution without international peace­keepers is a risky proposition. A lot of spoilers reside in that outstanding 30%.

The key to success will be security arrangements, espe­cially in Tripoli. Those arrange­ments have not been made, though some militias have begun discussing them informally.

Even under the best possible scenario that will take time, as building the confidence of HoR members required to get them to move to Tripoli will not be easy.

Italy has signaled a willingness to lead a peacekeeping team designed to secure Tripoli; however, it is vital that the request for peacekeepers come from a legitimate Libyan govern­ment only after Tripoli is stabi­lised and the HoR has moved there. And Arab participation, which won’t be easy to arrange, is important.

That still leaves a perilous transition period. The Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate in Libya is second only to the caliphate in Syria and Iraq in posing a threat to US interests. Though chased recently from Derna by other extremists, ISIS has established itself in centrally located Sirte.

ISIS despises both Dawn and Dignity and will try to destabilise any Government of National Accord, meaning that those who back the GNA must be prepared to fight ISIS.

The United States has a role to play if the 70% solution goes forward. Washington must be prepared to press the parties in Libya to adhere to the UN-bro­kered agreement. This could include sanctioning recalci­trants.

Washington must help ensure that Libya’s neighbours back the 70% solution. The Tunisians and Moroccans, who have hosted negotiating sessions, are on board. The big question mark is Egypt, which under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has backed Dignity and in particular Haftar. Informed sources say the Egyptians are ready to abandon that support.

Washington should also support an international peace­keeping mission with air and sea logistics, intelligence and, if necessary, air strikes. And Washington should offer to train Libyan forces, especially in counterterrorism. This is more controversial than it sounds because a previous US-supported effort to train a General Purpose Force (GPF) in Libya failed due to misbehaviour of the Libyans involved. Some refused to return to Libya. Others did worse.

The training will be expensive and dangerous. To be effective, the United States should be prepared to spend as much as $600 million over three to five years. That will be a hard sell.

US policymakers must decide whether they are serious about defeating ISIS. A failed UN political agreement in Libya could give ISIS an opportunity to quickly expand and take over territory. Libya is an enormous country with a small population — only 6.4 million when every­one is at home, likely no more than 5 million or so today. Its hinterland would be ideal as an ISIS safe haven, giving it strategic depth as it loses territory in Iraq and Syria.

The Libyans deserve better, in particular if they sign on to the UN-brokered agreement. The United States should be prepared to support their efforts.