Deal or Déjà Vu? Libya’s Post-Conflict Political and Security Governance Dilemma
Libya’s competing armed factions have reached yet another critical turning point in the country’s six-year-long conflict that peaked in the battle for the capital throughout 2019 and the first half of 2020. The United Nations hosted security-track talks in Geneva in October known as the 5+5 Joint Military Council, with five representatives of the eastern armed faction, Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces backed by the House of Representatives, and five from the forces affiliated to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. It marked the first occasion in which both parties agreed to a permanent ceasefire that has been mutually respected and held — for now, at least.
Will the next phases of the security and political-track negotiation processes — where the details of security functions, political leadership, and transitional justice are hammered out and implemented — finally move beyond the east-west divide, and achieve stability for Libya?
By all present indicators, they won’t even come close. Despite the groundbreaking achievement in Geneva just weeks ago, the subsequent successes required to make a permanent shift out of conflict into a transitional authority and elected government are, most unfortunately, faltering out of the gate.
Libya has been here before. The country’s east-west political-security dilemma began in 2014 when Haftar, the eastern-based rogue general, led a military-style campaign on Benghazi. Rapid territorial expansion by the Islamic State along coastal urban areas a year later — and its potential to disrupt the stability of the entire Mediterranean region — prompted action by nervous European nations and the United States to resolve the country’s governance problems that were making it possible for the terrorist group to thrive.
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya convened select Libyans in Skhirat, Morocco, in 2015 to hurry along the Libyan Political Agreement intended to merge competing east-west political, security, and economic bodies into a United Nations-recognized, Tripoli-based “unity” government in 2016. Armed groups affiliated with the new authority, with support from U.S. and British forces, conducted effective counter-terrorism operations that removed the Islamic State from Libya’s urban areas. The United Nations and foreign governments, meanwhile, validated governing status of the new authority even though it lacked domestic legitimacy. Actors in the east key to the initial negotiation process refused to take part in the United Nations-sponsored agreement and unite with the west. The new unity government then failed to govern amid corruption allegations and rampant infighting, a combined set of realities that supplied Haftar with fodder for his rationale to launch a war on Tripoli in April 2019.
What makes the situation far different this time around — and makes it even more difficult to reach a resolution among Libya’s many players — is the depth and breadth of involvement by foreign governments in the outcome. Russia is succeeding in establishing a permanent foothold in Libya as it expands its military basing access across the eastern Mediterranean. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt seek to limit the regional reach of political Islamists, whom Haftar also claims as an enemy, while Turkey and Qatar aim to defend them and their allies in the Tripoli government. The French continue to strike a hard line on Turkey’s emboldened relationship with Tripoli, all while maneuvering to find players in the transitional phase willing to work with the eastern army in the interest of their broader regional counter-terrorism ambitions. And the United States wants to curb Russia’s reach through its continued support of the Tripoli government. All the while, Germany, the current chair of the U.N. Security Council Libya Sanctions Committee, is intent on curbing the flow of weapons into Libya and checking the reach of both Russia and Turkey in the post-conflict space. Such a convergence of international players on opposing sides with divergent interests is, to say the least, an unsound perch from which to attempt the reconciliation of the country’s endless domestic security and political entanglements.
Now that Libya has arrived at its first-ever permanent ceasefire, let us unpack each of the current steps toward post-conflict transition, beginning with the 5+5 Joint Military Council. The landmark October agreement was a start, not an end in itself, that is ultimately intended to demobilize and reintegrate the hundreds of armed groups within the two competing coalitions into a single, national force or localized policing bodies. According to the agreement, all forces in frontline areas — and the thousands of mercenary forces on Libyan soil — must withdraw by Jan. 23, 2021.
This is proving to be as arbitrary a marker as a dart thrown at a wall calendar. The Geneva agreement is holding to the degree that both parties have ceased hostilities. Yet, rather than reduce troop presence, both sides are actively reinforcing their positions on the Sirte-Jufra axis with delivery of materiel and fighters. Not only are the Libyans on either side signaling no intention to follow through with the ceasefire terms by the deadline, but their foreign backers appear keen to stick around a little while longer as well. Turkish military trainers are still churning out cadets in Tripoli. Meanwhile, Russia’s Wagner Group continues to stake a claim at the dual-use Qardabiya airbase and civilian airport on the outskirts of Sirte, the new domestic headquarters of the 5+5 Joint Military Council. Russia and Turkey will no doubt place pressure on the Joint Military Council subcommittees charged with detailing demobilization plans to act in their respective interests. Amid this reality, the Geneva agreement mandates the Council to form an ambiguously defined “limited military force” to enforce the new rules of engagement aimed at deterring frontline ceasefire violators.
The setup confounds logic. It rests on the presumption that the members of opposing coalitions will forge their own neutral force to fend off the very armed groups and foreign forces upon whose alliances they depend for their own safety. For this to work, it would not only require the highest degree of integrity and objectivity of the members of that force to meet ceasefire infractions by both sides in equal measure, but a force capable enough to defend against the disparate groups that in total may easily outnumber them. Secondly, expectations within the leadership ranks of coalitions seeking to be a part of this elite force and the benefits that come with it will be high, as will allegations of opacity and corruption. Further, those left out may feel wounded, aggrieved, and seek retribution with behavior that will challenge the new executive authority’s legitimacy and spoil the transition process. Perhaps most importantly, a special force affiliated with an unstable government bears incredible potential to act as an unchecked arbiter of justice for a corrupt regime if the democratic state-building project fails.
Conflict within the opposing east-west coalitions and the broader instability that it could trigger is therefore not off the table. For now, the endless array of armed groups within the east-west coalitions have deferred high-level decision-making to the five individuals representing their respective nationwide umbrellas. This fragile line of deference may break as political competition heats up concurrent with the expectation that the groups demobilize. Of particular improbability is the Council’s duty to unite the Petroleum Facilities Guard, a fancy title for a dozen or so uncontrollable and competing factions scattered around the country that are more concerned with their own fuel-smuggling operations and profit margin than creating united protection for Libya’s oil infrastructure. Some of Tripoli’s armed groups — only six months ago all united to defend the capital from the Haftar’s forces — have already engaged in tit-for-tat scuffles and turf battles, while the more powerful outfits continue to leverage power with threats, intimidation, and political savvy.
This brings us to the subsequent United Nations-sponsored political-track talks held in Tunis in November, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. The 75-member invitee list drew immediate ire from a host of actors on both sides of the conflict that threw into question the legitimacy of the body and the process before even the first meeting. Many accused the United Nations of failing to include local political leaders, key tribal representation, and geographical diversity. The main criticism is of what is perceived as skewed representation of the same old players keen on repeating the same, ineffective game that benefits their own personal power interests, not those of the Libyan state. In essence, the Tunis forum is a “Skhirat Version 2.0.”
The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum consensus roadmap, similar to the Geneva agreement, is a preliminary measure meant to set in motion a perfect storm of cascading events that will lead Libya out of the quagmire. The roadmap is clear about the formation of a new presidency council to be nominated by a new prime minister and his cabinet, to be approved in rapid fashion by the eastern-based parliament by Dec. 7, 2020. That government will lead the nation’s transition to a fully elected government with parliamentary and presidential electoral processes held no later than Dec. 24, 2021.
There’s little information on the critical first steps of the process required to impart legitimacy to this preparatory phase. Most notably, the decision-making process to choose the prime minister has already begun informally in a manner that is shrouded in secrecy, even though the formal steps for this process have not yet been determined by the roadmap. Not only is the process for selection mentioned nowhere in the roadmap or auxiliary documents, but a cadre of members also signed a letter addressing bribery allegations by actors keen to influence the outcome. Early criticism of the dialogue forum’s representation, combined with the ambiguity of the roadmap components and corruption claims, has tarnished the credibility of a new executive authority before it has an opportunity to be seated. If deadlines pass without consequence, any further action taken by the United Nations to affect the security track will be toothless because it is constrained by the very divided member states that are violating its measures.
If the legitimacy of the transition process is so challenged before it is even slated for approval, the new executive authority will be as unsuccessful as its predecessor government was at governing Libya. The critical distinction is that this time around, the entire political and security landscape is compounded by far more intense and well-funded competition than in 2015. And the two major powers invested in the outcome with most to gain — Turkey and Russia — will have considerable input as to how the new governing authority behaves. Exerting power by politicking is a far less costly and more pragmatic means to ensure their long-term presence in Libya than years of drawn-out conflict.
To proceed with any efficacy on the political track, the United Nations would be better served to slow down the dialogue process to ensure that the outcomes of the political track are aligned with security-track goals. The roadmap’s timeline to approve a prime minister and executive authority — currently scheduled for a Dec. 7, 2020, deadline that is sure to be missed — should happen after or concurrent with the withdrawal of forces by Jan. 23, 2021. Seating a transitional, non-elected government in this timeframe is hyper-rushed and anachronistic, particularly given its imminent legitimacy challenges. Moreover, to transition to a hazily and hastily chosen governing body prior to the absolute withdrawal of forces from the frontlines only empowers the post-conflict position of the very security actors that the United Nations aims to demobilize. Turkey and Russia are strengthening their ground positions via their Libyan counterparts engaged in the high-stakes political and security contest, and each is placed in more advantageous position to negotiate for post-conflict payoffs. The stage is now set for a new executive authority to be pressured to act in their interests. Considering neither Turkey nor Russia have faced consequences for blatant sanctions violations thus far, neither is likely to face consequences by violating the Geneva agreement and staying in Libya. The potential returns to do so amid the current political circumstances are, on the contrary, favorable to both.
Without doubt, the import of the initial success of security-track talks in Geneva cannot be overstated. Yet the terms for ceasefire enforcement and demobilization are fast proving unrealistic, and the legitimacy of the process to usher in a new executive authority is falling far short. Most concerningly, the situation paves a path for the same level of foreign interference in the domestic political sphere — and possibly a post-conflict security order — by the very same powerful players that have no intent to depart from the conflict, or from Libya. Instead of a path forward on the country’s political and security tracks, Libya’s latest turning point out of cyclical conflict looks more like a revolving door for further discord and destabilizing foreign intervention, only now by political means rather than warfare.
Amanda Brooke Kadlec served on the United Nations Security Council Panel of Experts for Libya 2019-2020, pursuant resolution 1970 (2011). She is the founder of Evolve Governance, a platform exploring the intersection of governance innovation and the evolution of democracy. Twitter: @amandabkadlec