Libya’s Complicated Search for a Leader

The United Nations-brokered political transition plan for Libya, known as the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) or the Skhirat Agreement, signed December 17, 2015 in Skhirat, Morocco, remains enmeshed in several political, security, and economic dilemmas. The newest special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, and his United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) team hosted a week-long round of talks in late September in Tunis with representatives of Libyan entities as well as the two centers of power: the 2014-elected House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk, which promoted General Khalifa Haftar (in September 2016) to the rank of Field Marshall to lead the Libyan National Army (LNA) against Islamist groups in Benghazi; and the Government of National Accord (GNA), which emerged in Tripoli in March 2016 under the LPA to be led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Still, Salamé gave a mixed assessment of the outcome: “After a week of joint work, we have reached consensus on a number of important issues that need to be amended so that this agreement corresponds to developments in the situation in Libya,” adding that other “points that are still outstanding” will await a follow-up meeting.

This open-ended cycle of negotiations adds to the uncertainty and frustration felt by most Libyans. It also deepens their skepticism about the “feel-good” meetings and the feasibility of Salamé’s other objectives: holding elections and moving forward to a new constitutional referendum within a year. However, the rivalry between Prime Minister Sarraj and General Khalifa Haftar is marred by disputed legitimacy and growing suspicion, especially after Haftar widened the scope of his control of the so-called “oil crescent,” including Ras Lanuf and Es Sider, and declared he would seize Tripoli by the end of 2017. The reality is that Libya faces an uneasy distinction between a fragile state and a failed state. It has fallen between the cracks of a dispute over legitimacy, struggle for power, and control of key energy infrastructure amidst competing strategic interests of neighboring and international stakeholders.

Indeed, the international community is clearly concerned. For his part, French President Emmanuel Macron continues to be hopeful about his “cause of peace” diplomacy after hosting Haftar and Sarraj in the Élysées Palace in July, subsequent to their initial meeting in May in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE). The question remains whether they would honor their ceasefire commitment and pave the way to a new election in spring 2018.

Like many Libyans, most politicians are less hopeful regarding the feasibility of elections next spring. There is a sense of diplomacy fatigue after holding scores of meetings in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and elsewhere; and none of the signed agreements have been fully implemented. There have been recurring themes of “promising” dialogue and “imminent” reconciliation, proposed by five consecutive UN special envoys: Ian Martin (2011-2012), Tarek Mitri (2012-2014), Bernardino León (2014-2015), Martin Kobler (2015-2017), and Ghassan Salamé (June 2017-present).

The lack of diplomatic progress showcases an ironic showdown between two lines of international recognition bestowed on leaders like Sarraj in the west and some institutions like the HoR in the east, and the exercise of power—legitimate or otherwise—on the ground. It is noteworthy that demonstrators marching in the streets of Misrata this month called for the merger of armed forces between the east and the west, establishment of a police apparatus, and containment of armed militias.

Libya’s Complex Equation

There is an open window for renewed confrontations with the aim of “legitimate” targets under the pretext of counterterrorism imperatives. Haftar and Sarraj committed in Paris to a ceasefire and “to refrain from any use of armed force for any purpose that does not strictly constitute counter-terrorism.” With the support of the United Nations, the Skhirat Agreement tasked Sarraj to form a unity government, a seven-member Presidential Council, and a High State Council (HSC)—an advisory body comprised of several members of the General National Congress (GNC), which emerged in Tripoli in protest against the outcome of the 2014 elections and was dissolved in April 2016. The HSC is chaired by Abdulrahman Sewehli, an influential political figure from Misrata.

Sarraj’s aspirations toward a unified Libya have been subjected to Libya’s east-west inherited animosity. He lacks a security force and his Presidential Council has not made real progress either in disarming armed groups or securing full implementation of the Skhirat Agreement, under which the House of Representatives in Tobruk remains the sole legitimate parliament that was supposed to recognize the Government of National Accord. Now, Sarraj is perceived to be driving an idle political machine. As one Libya analyst put it, “al-Serraj and his GNA are helpless between the mighty militia blocks, with no real possibility of influencing developments on the ground.”

Haftar has the reputation as Libya’s “renegade general” with an ambitious army. He remains a powerhouse in the militarization of the conflict and a bulwark against Islamist groups with growing external support. He managed to secure arms and maintenance for his army equipment despite the UN arms ban on Libya. Haftar plays the role of savior of post-Qadhafi Libya with the trajectory of assuming the presidency, while maintaining a pivotal role in any peace or war proposition. He has also positioned himself as the key figure in confronting migration and has implied the possibility of a deal with the Italians. “For the control of the borders in the south,” he proposed, “I can provide manpower, but the Europeans must send aid, drones, helicopters, night-vision goggles and vehicles.”

However, criminal liability is lurking around Haftar as he eyes a presidential bid next year. The International Criminal Court recently issued an arrest warrant against one of his close subordinates, Mahmoud Mustafa al-Werfalli, who “is alleged to have directly committed and to have ordered the commission of murder as a war crime in the context of seven incidents, involving 33 persons, which took place from on or before 3 June 2016 until on or about 17 July 2017 in Benghazi or surrounding areas, in Libya.” In addition, there is an unsettled controversy surrounding Haftar and his military machine and the trajectory of the political and military support he has secured from countries like Egypt, the UAE, and Russia.

Libya’s Other Strong Men

The ongoing political battles in Libya should not be oversimplified and understood solely in the context of the influence pursued by Haftar and Sarraj. Other politicians in Tripoli and Tobruk still mobilize their networks of backers and orchestrate their shadow politics. Sewehli, head of the High State Council, remains proud of his legacy in opposing Qadhafi and sympathetic to his fellow members of the ex-GNC. Although he embraced the Skhirat Agreement, Sewehli and several Misratan militia leaders are not pleased by Haftar’s expanding sphere of power, the status of the National Oil Company which wants to maintain its independence from the GNA, and other dynamics.

Sewehli has increased his international exposure as one of the movers and shakers in Libya. He is considered the strong man of western Libya in all political issues. During his recent talks in Rome with Italy’s foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, the focus was on the tragedies of death in the Mediterranean as hundreds of refugees are smuggled on frail boats toward Italian shores.

In Tobruk, Aguila Saleh Issa is one of the interlocutors who have called for reconsidering the LPA. He assumed the speakership of the HoR after the 2014 election and had the authority to bestow the command of the Libyan National Army on Haftar. Both men still benefit from their political marriage of convenience, and Aguila was urged by Haftar “to prevent the ratification of the GNA — for which Saleh has been sanctioned by the United States.” As former US envoy to Libya Jonathan Winer points out, “Everybody in Libya who’s got a position wants to maintain their position and increase the power and authority of that position without having to give anything up. That’s a zero-sum game and it doesn’t work, but it doesn’t stop people from trying.”

Libya’s Nightmarish Outlook

The crossfire lines between the various factions for control of land and oil have undermined the prospects of any political settlement for six years now. In fact, oil revenues have shrunk significantly this year. The chairman of Libya’s National Oil Company, Mustafa Sanalla, cautioned that the company has received only 25 percent of the budget it requires for 2017. He also predicted a downturn in oil production if there is not enough investment in Libya’s oil infrastructure. This grim outlook was the conclusion of a two-day meeting of the group aiming to safeguard Libya’s oil revenues.

The humanitarian situation, however, is of profound concern. Between 2014 and 2016, 5,871 individuals were killed and more than a half million remain internally displaced. Thousands of refugees, mainly Africans from the Sahel to the south, live in tragic conditions in detention centers amid growing concerns over human right abuses. For example in Sabratha, three detention camps are controlled by the Amu brigade, a 500-men strong gang led by Abu Dabbashi who exploits Europe’s need for migrant control in the country. Indeed, human smuggling to Europe has flourished off the Libyan shores, and another 600 migrants were recently rescued by SOS Mediterranee near Sicily, Italy. Between August and September, the influx of migrants, mainly from sub-Saharan countries, rose from 3,914 to 6,288. Rome has allocated a €6 million humanitarian assistance package to the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration to help deal with human suffering in Libya.

US-Russia Asymmetry in Libya

Russia projects a good chance to expand its influence into Libya after Syria and its recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. It has invested diplomatically in potential future leaders, mainly Haftar, whose military campaign, “Operation Dignity,” was initiated in May 2014 against the Islamist Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries. It moved west to capture oil field areas from the grip of the Islamist militias in coastal regions like Zueitina and Marsa el Brega in recent months. During his most recent visit to Moscow in August, Haftar was received “like a foreign leader already in office, arranging meetings with high-ranking ministers as well as security officials….”

Moscow has adopted a two-part strategy. The first is to empower Haftar and provide logistical and technical support for his Libyan National Army. While avoiding any apparent violation of the UN arms embargo, some reports have indicated that Moscow “could send weapons through Egypt, a pro-Haftar neighbor that borders the Haftar-held parts of eastern Libya and is said to have hosted Russian Special Forces.” The second strategy is to help secure a future government in Libya where Haftar would have the final word in military issues and arms deals. Moscow has maximized its efforts in mediating between Haftar and Sarraj by hosting them in May. This trajectory seems to have more appeal in Moscow than counting on the probability of celebrating Haftar as the new president. Lev Dengov, head of the Russian working group on Libya, explains that “neither Haftar nor Sarraj could realistically govern Libya alone. We do not wish to be associated with either side of the conflict.”

The Kremlin has been well engaged in shaping Libya’s political future and solidifying what can be termed as the “crescent of Russian influence.” This interference in reshuffling Libyan cards has triggered some skepticism in Europe. One major concern is the probability of another Russian military base in the Mediterranean Sea. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently stated that “we have seen the effects of Russian presence in Syria, how that has created an even more difficult situation in Syria. Of course we have to avoid anything similar happening in Libya.”

Russia’s interest in Libya remains noticeable on the Pentagon’s radar. Africa Command chief and Marine Corps General Thomas D. Waldhauser sent an alarm signal during his briefing in front of the US Senate by asking, “[Russia is] trying to do in Libya what they’ve been doing in Syria?” Last month, he renewed his concern that Moscow “is trying to exert influence on the ultimate decision of who becomes and what entity becomes in charge of the government inside Libya.”

The US Africa Command launched two series of precision-air strikes against the new stronghold of the Islamic State (IS), 100 miles southeast of Sirte on September 22 and 26, in “coordination with Libya’s Government of National Accord and aligned forces.” However, several Republican and Democratic Party senators have cautioned against the current political void, which invites the expansion of IS and is also “filled by Russia, which we’re seeing Russia’s engagement now in Libya.” On the diplomatic front, the State Department gave its blessing to the renewed political process in Libya, devised by Ghassan Salamé, as it “welcome[d] the September 20 United Nations announcement of an action plan to advance political reconciliation in Libya.”

These two shifts have occurred in the context of Trump’s isolationist policy after he stated, back in April, “I do not see a role in Libya. I think the United States has right now enough roles.” This minimalist view was recently echoed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he told Congress of his intention to cancel the position of special envoy to Libya. Incidentally, the former White House foreign policy advisor, Sebastian Gorka, was vying for the position with the aim of dividing the country into three provinces: “Cyrenaica in the east, Tripolitania in the north-west, and Fezzan in the south-west.”

In sum, there seems to be a gap between the White House and Congress in formulating a coherent policy toward Libya. With the potential of holding general elections in Libya within months, Trump has avoided any intervention or assistance plans, beyond targeting suspected Islamist militias.

Libyan citizens are still barred from entering the United States under Trump’s Executive Order signed in March. The HoR-backed government in Tobruk considers Trump’s decision to be “a dangerous escalation, which puts Libyan citizens in one basket with the terrorists the army fights,” and has considered a policy of “reciprocity” by preventing American citizens from traveling to eastern Libya.

The laid-back, if not uninterested, US policy in Libya, the Haftar-al-Sarraj rivalry, and the challenges of stability will give certain stakeholders some leverage to manipulate the upcoming election and referendum. Beyond the cost-benefit hypothesis of combating terrorism, stopping migration, or shifting the balance of power in the Mediterranean basin, the Trump Administration is indirectly helping not only the Kremlin’s strategic interests in Libya, Egypt, and Syria, but also in feeding the Russian nationalistic discourse that “what the United States breaks, Russia can fix!”

The Way Forward

The Trump Administration is poised to consider several timely steps ahead of the election expected next spring.

First, in addition to advocating for an inclusive political solution for Libya, Washington would do well to reconsider its isolationist approach toward a country located in a strategic position as a crossroad between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. It should also embrace the ethic of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) civilians who are treated as collateral damage. In this spirit, the State Department could rescind its decision to abolish the position of special envoy for Libya and nominate and appoint a knowledgeable hand in the near future.

Second, the White House could employ pressure tools through its relations with Egypt to urge the Libyan National Army and the House of Representatives to fully comply with the declared ceasefire agreement and support political talks under the auspices of the UN Support Mission in Libya. It can also empower the GNA government and provide effective support for the UN-brokered negotiation process. While open on all interested political parties in the country, the United States should include various Libyan ethnic and tribal groupings in its outreach to Libya and refrain from the legitimate/illegitimate categorization. This will help avoid the recurrence of further disputes over the priority of political, oppositional, religious, or tribal legitimacy.

Third, from a perspective on governance and equity, Washington should encourage a fair distribution of oil revenues among all political and tribal entities, and support a nationwide plan of development and infrastructure reform projects. Libya provides two percent of global oil production and enjoys an estimated reserve of 50 billion barrels in crude oil. It is in dire need of outside assistance in initiating various projects of peace and capacity building.

Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui is professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University and former member of the United Nations’ Panel of Experts. He sits on the Academic Advisory Board, and is a Guest Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC