In Libya, No Unity without Security


In late January, Libya’s internationally recognized parliament overwhelmingly rejected a slate of candidates to lead a proposed national unity government. Several days later, the rival parliament reportedly expelled eight of its own members for supporting the plan. The actions of both bodies undercut the U.N.-brokered attempt to end to the country’s civil war. They were also predictable. The biggest obstacle to peace is not that Libyans cannot find common ground, but that they dare not trust each other to share the same ground at the same time.

Recent months have seen a growing urgency surrounding negotiations to resolve the Libyan civil war and form a unity government between the House of Representatives (HoR), the nationalist-leaning and internationally recognized parliament based in Tobruk, and the General National Congress (GNC), the Islamist-leaning parliament based in Tripoli. The urgency is fueled by U.S. and European fears that Libya is emerging as the most dangerous home to the self-proclaimed Islamic State outside of Syria and Iraq, a concern illustrated by President Obama’s recent direction to the National Security Council to provide him with options for confronting the group’s rise in Libya. Over the past year, the Islamic State has expanded its presence over areas of central Libya in fighting against HoR- and GNC-aligned forces. Its fighters have launched audacious attacks against the country’s largest oil terminals and staged suicide bombings across the country. Libya is also a key departure point for migrants heading to Europe and policymakers in Brussels hope ending the conflict can help to stem the human tide.

The peace deal struck in December certainly gets several factors right. First is the wise distribution of cabinet posts among members from the two governing blocs. Eastern and Tripoli-based interests would be represented. Given the atomization of Libyan politics, any eventual national government will have to be sufficiently representative of the various factions to have any hope of survival. Second, the utility of international diplomatic legitimacy cannot be overlooked, nor the eagerness of outside financial interests to reinvest in the oil and governance sectors ignored. Such pressures surely provide some incentives for prominent Libyans to sustain a semblance of national unity, even if those incentives are personal in nature.

An even more hopeful sign was that the negotiations, which stopped and started for more than a year, actually produced a useful blueprint for an eventual power-sharing structure. This was not a mere artifact of diplomatic coercion. Major players on both sides recognized early in the conflict that neither possessed the military strength needed to prevail outright. Moreover, the conflict is not primarily about sectarian, ethnic or tribal divisions, but a contest for control of political power and resources. Although the belligerents are separated geographically, with the HoR and its allies stronger in the east and the GNC and its associates stronger in the west, neither has aimed to achieve secession or partition. Libya’s factions instead are complex, opportunistic, and feeble coalitions of political parties and militias straddling the vast Mediterranean country’s many national, regional, and local cleavages. Politics and compromise are not as alien to Libyans as many outsiders fear.

Yet the drawbacks of the new plan seem likely to overwhelm the incentives for unity. Most important is the lack of underlying security arrangements between the factions. The U.N.-brokered agreement in Libya is ambiguous on specific post-war security arrangements: There are no explicit arrangements for how the parties will control, disarm, demobilize, or integrate the multitude of military forces, militias, and armed groups that have waged war against each other for the past year and a half.

Disagreements over post-war security have already emerged. In addition to rejecting the cabinet, the HoR objected to a provision through which the Presidency Council would assume the functions of the supreme commander of the Libyan army. Last year, the HoR gave the position to Gen. Khalifa Haftar — a divisive military commander reviled by the Islamists and their allies. A mere meeting between Haftar and the head of the Presidency Council, Fayez al-Sarraj, at the end of January was enough to cause a key GNC-aligned member of the Presidency Council to suspend his participation. Within the deal itself, great ambiguities surround whose military forces will emerge as the legitimate Libyan military, which side’s officers will command the military, how and when militias will disarm and demobilize, and whether they will be integrated into national or local security forces. Contention over these issues will threaten to unravel any diplomatic progress toward peace.

But immediate geographic obstacles precede long-term issues like demobilization and demilitarization. If a unity government is to function at all, it must be physically seated where Libyan leaders from all sides can travel and meet. While the agreement calls for the government to sit in Tripoli, the city remains under the thumb of a host of well-armed hardline Islamist militias aligned with the GNC, who are mostly ambivalent, if not outright hostile, toward the deal. Libya’s other major cities are also carved up between the various factions. The HoR is sheltered by Haftar’s forces in Tobruk near the Egyptian border. Benghazi remains a warzone where HoR-aligned military forces fight groups like Ansar al-Sharia and the Islamic State. The Presidency Council is based in temporary exile, previously in neighboring Tunisia and now in Morocco. Once the unity cabinet is formed, it cannot govern from beyond Libya’s borders without dealing a fatal blow to its own legitimacy. Absent smart security arrangements, the only way ahead for a unity government is for Libyan leaders to gamble their security on the graces of their enemies. It is clear that this is no way ahead at all.

One solution to the security dilemma in Libya would be for a third-party military power to step forward and reassure Libya’s factions. Yet at this writing, no one has volunteered to fill the role of peacekeeper in Libya. Talk of a European-led mission has not developed into an actual proposal. Even as U.S. officials consider how best to combat the growing presence of the Islamic State, the White House has ruled out any large-scale ground presence.

Yet it is in Europe’s and Washington’s interests to help the Libyans build centralized security institutions loyal to a unity government. The best way forward is for Libya’s international partners to strike a careful balance between diplomatic pressure and security assistance. Such an approach would coax the parties into cooperative security relationships while reducing their mutual vulnerabilities. The controversial Libyan army, if it is buttressed with assistance and a plan for cross-faction integration, could still serve as the foundation of a politically unifying national security force. This could be done through phased integration of certain militias into the Libyan army and the gradual disarmament of others. For instance, the army could pledge to remain outside of certain cities and localities such as Misrata, which are capable of securing themselves with their own forces. For these guarantees, select Misratan militias that want to fight the Islamic State, like the 166 Brigade, could be incorporated into the Libyan army and provided materiel and intelligence assistance. Other militias could be induced to gradually disarm by being allowed to maintain defensive capabilities like small arms and other weaponry, while transferring items like tanks and technicals used to project power outside of their home cities and towns.

Among policymakers, there is a timeless debate about the first ingredient in a lasting peace: political settlement or security? Lasting security accommodations between the parties will take many more detailed and technical negotiations and will not happen in one omnibus agreement. But they are the necessary components of a peaceful equilibrium in Libya’s heavily armed, heavily suspicious environment. National unity cannot be achieved in any meaningful sense if all of the factions retain independent armed formations ready to continue fighting at the first sign of tension. The next step for Libyans and outside negotiators must be to design a unified security architecture. Only when the parties are assured of their safety and survival under the new regime will that regime stand a chance of surviving itself.


Alice Hunt Friend is a Senior Affiliate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for a New American Security and was Principal Director for African Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2012 to 2014. Anthony Bell is a Research Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and worked on Libyan security issues in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2014 to 2015.


Photo credit: BRQ Network

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