World powers still have no Libya strategy
It has been nearly five months since Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) was announced yet the internationally backed new regime has not been endorsed by the rival Tobruk-based House of Representatives nor has it exerted influence on the ground.
Political divisions and the challenge of the Islamic State (ISIS) remain the two greatest barriers to Libyan unity. Also, five years after their intervention to depose Muammar Qaddafi, world powers cannot claim to have a Libya strategy.
Foreign ministers from 21 countries on May 16th announced two interrelated policy changes on Libya: exempting the GNA from the UN arms embargo and expressing readiness to answer requests to train and equip the newly formed Presidential Guard.
At the centre of Libya’s political divide is the question of who oversees a supposedly non-partisan national military to restore security across a lawless country. After the GNA appointed one of its army commanders, Mahdi al-Barghathi, as Defence minister, the head of the Libyan army in the east, General Khalifa Haftar, called him a traitor and vowed to prosecute him in military court.
Keen not to provoke Haftar, the GNA made assurances that the Presidential Guard was not an alternative to the divided Libyan armed forces and is meant to be a protective force. However, it is not clear how the role of this new unit will evolve and whether it will be the nucleus of an army, as Haftar remains more defiant than ever.
Haftar’s precondition to cooperate with the unified military command, recently set up by the GNA to coordinate the fight against ISIS, is to dismantle the militias in the west that are an integral part of that command structure. Haftar also sent a message to the international community on May 20th when he said that arming his troops would ensure defeating ISIS “definitively and quickly”.
The United States has intensified talks with Cairo about Egypt’s military and political support for Haftar and has requested Saudi assistance to mediate between the numerous Arab countries with conflicted interests in Libya. The Saudis, however, said they prefer to monitor the diplomatic efforts. This divide persists as well on the international level, not only between the United States and the European Union but among the Europeans themselves.
There are three competing Western interests in Libya: Containing ISIS, reducing the flow of migrants to Europe and restoring oil production. Rushing to advance these interests, the Western-backed Libyan political agreement reached in December did not fully address the military and political dynamics in the country. Instead of being on the road to recovery, Libya is gearing up for a prolonged deadlock between two governments that could potentially lead to a new civil war.
The Tobruk government recently announced it is back in business while waiting for the GNA to gain an elusive confidence vote. Both governments have printed local currencies to deal with cash shortages. Only a last-minute coordination between the two Central Bank governors avoided a devastating currency war.
Both sides are claiming the anti- ISIS mantle to earn the recognition of the international community and are simultaneously advancing towards the ISIS stronghold in Sirte without coordination. Their forces could be on a collision course if and when the town is liberated.
The world powers’ policy of sanctioning Libyan politicians who are not cooperating with the GNA and of providing arms to the GNA without having an endgame for the political impasse is not an element of a viable strategy.
Speaking at a conference at the Middle East Institute in Washington, Wafa Bugaighis, the charge d’affaires of the embassy of Libya in the United States, argued that Western support should focus on political reconciliation and on developing functional institutions in her country. World powers, however, are not interested in a nation-building project; they are more invested in short-term fixes and in debating technical differences on how to best provide security assistance.
At the same conference, US Special Envoy to Libya Jonathan Winer acknowledged the steadfast support of Washington and the international community, yet he implied that Libyans “are difficult”.
Indeed, if regional and international powers failed to reach a comprehensive deal on the way forward, the “difficult” Libyans should not be armed to resolve these disputes themselves. Libya’s stability hinges on having one legitimate inclusive government and the only way to achieve that goal must be a political solution.