Libya and the Way Out of a Severe Crisis

Viktor Mikhin
LIB9422Violence has returned to the streets of the Libyan capital Tripoli for the third time this year, as prevailing tensions between the North African country’s two parallel governments have again escalated sharply. With 32 people killed and 160 injured, mostly civilians, the warring militias have not even spared hospitals in their attempts to control more territory in the hope that this will improve their future negotiating capacity. However, with the ongoing stalemate and the failure to hold elections or appoint an interim government, it is the Libyan people who continue to pay the price. Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacekeeping Affairs, told the UN Security Council that she was very concerned about the security situation in Libya.

This recurrent series of outbreaks and hostilities is an inevitable development after more than a decade of political stalemate, pervasive foreign interference, aggressive politicking in multi-stage UN-led transitional dialogues in search of a as yet undefined “permanent” solution. The crude interference of Western countries and Turkey, which is exporting oil at a low price on the blood of the Libyan people, makes the most basic prognosis for the future very bleak and depressing. Over time, the capture of the capital has become the main strategic objective of an east-based parallel government that seeks to gain control of Libya’s lucrative oil revenues, which are now the main source of funding for the vast patronage networks responsible for maintaining the status quo in the west.

Oil production – and the consequent revenues from its exports – have long been of strategic, political and economic importance to a host of politicians, parties and factions operating in the country. For example, local militias often resort to undermining oil production and manufacturing activities as a rather blunt, double-edged weapon in an attempt to outsmart rivals in a zero-sum scam that takes a huge toll on the once rich but now impoverished and weary Libyan population.

At the regional level, prolonged instability in a country with some 48 billion barrels of proven oil reserves is a welcome reprieve for rival oil exporters nearby, who seek to capitalize on energy instability in Europe and, by extension, to seek alternatives to Russian oil. As a result, even when there are chances to convene rival Libyan factions for constructive dialogue, to engage in “good faith” interventions or at least to support a weakened UN-led effort, other countries in the region often object, despite the many problems arising from an ever-unstable neighbor.  At the wider international level, the calculations are not much different, even after this latest episode, which claimed nearly three dozen lives and left more than a hundred wounded.

The stubborn pursuit of only their personal interests at the expense of all other Libyans will only increase, especially among European countries, which are currently in the throes of an energy crisis as they await the harsh winter. For them, every barrel of oil and every cubic foot of natural gas from North Africa has recently become of great, if not vital, importance. And apparently this is why they are very satisfied with the current status quo in Libya, which can export more than one million barrels a day, rather than pursuing a more concerted effort to find a permanent settlement, which they see as risking the outbreak of all-out war and a complete halt to oil supply to the West.

Years of practicing this kind of “moral flexibility”, combined with the undermining of UN initiatives, have unfortunately only contributed to the emergence in Libya of intransigent hybrid entities that equate political power or influence with the size and diversity of their military and oil arsenals. Over the past 12 months, for example, various armed groups have steadily accumulated enough ill-gotten gains and political influence to become significant players between episodes of violence. At the same time, the West’s artificially inflated tensions with the East are adding new twists to Libya’s almost inscrutable dynamics. Even if there were a desire to resume active work on resolving the Libyan crisis, given the latest military action, this would still, according to experts and diplomats, be another failed attempt. The simple truth is that there is very little scope for Western capitals, which are the real culprits of the Libyan crisis, to review the situation in Libya, even when viewed in conjunction with other issues such as migration, terrorism, arms trafficking or transnational organized crime.

Furthermore, more than a decade of unsuccessful UN-led action and mediation has proved that it is impossible to bring together a huge number of competing actors, organizations, interests and ambitions vying for some level of control over Libyan affairs. The third outbreak of violence in just over six months points to a worrying trend as the two main groups resort to escalation, using multiple armed groups and militias, better described as “mafias”, in alliance with each, in an attempt to break the ongoing stalemate.  Unfortunately, the frequent outbreaks and subsequent shifts of supporters – or at least the perception of them – will eventually erode the fragile military dynamic, presumably tempered by the now meaningless October 2020 ceasefire agreement. In other words, as the increasingly familiar clashes and violent street battles between these “mafia” families continue, they may convince the remaining dissenters that the only way forward in Libya is through an all-out military confrontation.

The latest outbreak of violence has made it clear that despite the fact that the pro-Fathi Bashagha forces have failed to topple the Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh’s Government of National Unity. Major differences, a kind of “smoldering embers” of enmity have yet to be resolved, as the truce is still fragile. Dbeibeh’s Government of National Unity, which he has led since last year and which controls the western part of the country, has been based in Tripoli since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, while Bashagha, backed by military leader Khalifa Haftar, has ruled the eastern part of the country since March this year.

The successful outcome of the latest challenge is not cause for celebration among the emboldened Dbeibeh’s family coalition, because it is unlikely that Fathi Bashagha, who considers himself deprived of his due share of the oil pie and politically humiliated, will surrender, as will his many supporters.  At any rate, Tripoli must prepare for further military escalation, oil production disruptions and uncompromising positions in the ongoing dialogue, as the Haftar-Saleh-Bashagha camp seeks to exploit its advantages, real or imagined. Furthermore, adopting such a tough stance could trigger retaliation from Tripoli by reducing or freezing lump-sum payments to Khalifa Haftar’s forces, given that the capital retains control of the national purse.

While Libyan factions are reorienting and planning their follow-up after the recent unfortunate events, international efforts by the West remain very sluggish and devoid of any sense of urgency or ability to seize the occasion and perhaps give a powerful new push to stalled peace processes or start new ones to prevent future problems.  Repeated mistakes and ineffective countermeasures have seriously undermined the credibility and legitimacy of the UN, as well as any confidence in its ability to deal with the multifaceted crisis in Libya, leaving the organization trapped and insisting on outcomes that are diametrically opposed to the interests of several external actors. In essence, the international community has not only engineered the deliberate failures that have held back progress in Libya, but also become numb to the tragic consequences.

Let us consider, for example, the mass graves discovered at Tarhuna – no individual or group has been prosecuted for the deaths of the nearly 300 people whose bodies were exhumed there. Meanwhile, those who have taken part in recent hostilities – and, incidentally, will take part in those inevitable in the future – are likely to gain even greater political recognition in the West, and with it impunity for their past human rights abuses and other contributions to Libya’s woes, of which there are many. It is clear that the same cast of characters, the same tactics and the same old prohibitions have only brought Libya to the point where a large-scale extraterritorial military confrontation a stone’s throw from Europe’s southern shores can no longer be ruled out. After all, the current status quo is simply unsustainable.

The key to success in resolving the Libyan crisis is, and this is what Moscow believes and advocates, the holding of a dialogue between all the warring parties and factions. The dialogue should produce a commitment by all Libyans not to use force to resolve their differences. They should also commit themselves to protecting civilians and refrain from any action that could escalate tensions and deepen differences. The current political stalemate and all aspects of the crisis engulfing Libya cannot be resolved through armed confrontation. These issues can only be solved by the Libyan people exercising their right to choose their leaders.