What the United States should do about Libya

Sunday 19/02/2017

Rival factions in Libya visited Cairo for an attempt by the Egyptian government to facilitate a political settlement. The meeting between Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the unity government formed by the UN-backed Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army, was facilitated by Egyptian Army Chief of Staff Mahmoud Hegazy and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.
However, Haftar reportedly refused to meet face-to-face with Sarraj, forcing Hegazy to go back and forth between the two parties.
Despite that setback, a loose transitional agreement was reached. A joint committee is to be formed with 15 members each from the LPA’s High Council of State and the House of Representatives, which largely backs Haftar.
The committee is to discuss amendments to the structure of Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) and a negotiated balance of power. Following approval of the amendments, parliamentary and presidential elections would be in February 2018.
The feasibility of the plan remains unclear. No formal agreement was signed in Cairo and Haftar’s refusal to directly meet with Sarraj suggests Haftar may be biding his time by minimally engaging in negotiations while simultaneously attempting to expand his power beyond the east of the country while the GNA is weak.
Indeed, Haftar’s snub of Sarraj reflects the weakness of the GNA in being able to push for a negotiated political agreement. A spokesman for the GNA ahead of the Cairo meeting said that it could lead to a “180-degree turn” in the conflict between the two sides. Given Haftar’s rejection of the meeting with Sarraj, such a comment seems like wishful thinking.
Haftar’s actions in Cairo reflected badly on the Egyptians, who have been supportive of his fight against Islamists in eastern Libya as a matter of national security. Haftar’s decision to somewhat throw a wrench in the process in Cairo may rankle some in Egypt. This suggests the strongman may be betting that the United States will abandon its support of the GNA in his favour.
Some have suggested that this shift may occur given US President Donald Trump’s assumed affinity for strongmen and a possible warming of relations with Russia. Moscow appears to support Haftar despite official rhetoric that it claims to “work with both centres of power in Libya” to reach a compromise.
Yet Russia has its hands full with the conflict in Syria and, while Russia has demonstrated a desire to expand its influence in the Middle East, particularly through the establishment of a foothold in the Mediterranean, it is unlikely that it has the resources to fully back Haftar should the field marshal attempt to wrestle power from the GNA through military force.
The Trump administration has yet to indicate where it falls on the issue of Libya’s internal conflict. The crisis in Libya is certainly not high on the agenda of the US administration. It would be unwise for the United States to shift support to Haftar, who has yet to take full control of Benghazi even after a 2-year campaign. Rather, the United States should make its support for a negotiated political settlement clear by taking specific actions.
First, the United States has a critical leadership role to play in pressuring regional allies engaged in Libya to end the pursuit of their own self-interests and fully support the LPA.
The agreement does need to be amended to reach a negotiated political settlement but that cannot happen until all sides in Libya agree to fully and honestly engage in the process. Until now, some regional and European allies have nominally backed the LPA while at times indicating support for Haftar. The United States is the only actor that can pressure these actors to support a negotiation process.
Second, the United States should urge Haftar to meet with Sarraj face-to-face as a demonstration of goodwill and pledge support for a mutually agreed political settlement to the conflict. Haftar may believe that with US or Russian support, he can use force to expand his power throughout Libya.
However, the United States must make it clear there is no military solution to the crisis in Libya. Resorting to force would cause the country to sink further into chaos. The United States should communicate to Haftar that, while it recognises the necessity of his role in any discussions regarding the future of the country, any solution to the quagmire must be political rather than military.
The loose road map agreed to in Cairo may provide Libya with a way out of the crisis. However, it is dependent on the willingness of all parties in Libya to engage in good faith in a political negotiation process.
As the United States assesses the situation, it should be wary of the consequences of further deterioration in Libya and put its resources behind marshalling international support for a more responsible way forward.