At a recent conference on the situation in Libya, a speaker declared that all parties involved agree that political decentralization is the way forward in the country. This is largely true, except that none of the militia coalitions currently vying for power has articulated the slightest interest in the idea. The same goes for all of the other ideas for resolving the conflict, such as floating the currency to minimize letter of credit fraud, and eliminating fuel subsidies to curtail rampant smuggling and profiteering by armed groups.
Nonetheless, decentralization and exchange rate and subsidy reform constitute the best way forward in the current circumstances. Given the disagreements, however, it is time to take seriously the reality of the situation in Libya and expand our analysis to include the likelihood of a much-less-than ideal outcome.
The first, by now clichéd view is that there is no military solution (there was no military solution in Syria either, until there was). The powerful warlord General Khalifa Haftar might win the battle for Tripoli, or the Special Deterrent Force (RADA Brigade) could take Haftar’s side as The Economist suggests, or the Tripoli militias simply turn on each other, or suffer a string of major defeats. However it happens, it is absolutely possible that Haftar’s militias capture Tripoli.
While it is unlikely that Haftar’s troops could control Tripoli, once he is nominally victorious, his outside allies including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Russia, and Egypt could move in rapidly to cement his victory and grant him actual control of Tripoli and western Libya. Haftar would then likely establish a Qaddafi-like rule for however many years he has left, while seeking to set the stage to transfer power to his sons upon his death. It is hard to see a particularly retrograde pro-Russian dictatorship as an outcome beneficial to the Libyan people, long-term regional stability, or the interests of the United States.
Another real possibility is that there is, in fact, no military solution, and that the Libyan militias have not gotten the memo. Absent the scenario above, it is hard to see an end to fighting as long as Haftar lives. He has made it clear he will never accept anything less than total personal control of Libya. Both his militia coalition and the Tripoli militia coalition can expect generous foreign military support for as long as they want to fire their weapons at each other. “No military solution” would then mean many years of increasingly brutal civil war resulting in a traumatized and brittle society with similar challenges to Somalia, even after active hostilities cease. Obviously, such an outcome would present a dire terrorism threat both within and outside Libya.
Another possibility is that Haftar could die. In that case, his forces would likely fall into at least enough disarray to end the offensive in western Libya. The Tripoli militias would probably renew their incessant infighting, leaving Libya as a patchwork of ever-shifting militia alliances. The National Oil Company and Central Bank of Libya might very well continue to function under these circumstances, as oil revenue is doled out to all militias in the form of salaries and the aforementioned letter of credit fraud and fuel smuggling. If major militia groups could come to an informal agreement about how much each is allowed to siphon from the oil revenue, Libya could continue for years as a failed state with an operating oil industry and central bank. Quality of life for civilians would deteriorate even further and terrorists would seek to reassert themselves, but Libya existed in a version of this reality for several years since the revolution and could conceivably do so for many more.
Looking beyond Libya’s borders, both Algeria and Egypt are teetering towards instability and could collapse at any time. Neither collapse may be said to be likely, but nor can either be considered particularly unlikely. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt has demonstrated breathtaking incompetence in his leadership of Egypt. He has failed to manage the Islamic State (ISIS) insurgency in Sinai or even protect tourists in Cairo. He has delivered the economy to the military and focused instead on lavish megaprojects. His regime is now so isolated and paranoid that every average citizen on the street is viewed as a threat. Al-Sisi’s regime is much more repressive than Mubarak’s, but without an organized political opposition or military with popular legitimacy to fill the vacuum in the event of his fall.
Algeria’s notoriously corrupt and incompetent pouvoir—the ruling elite around former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika—have given no indication they plan to give up power despite massive popular demonstrations for many months now. Last time they intervened dramatically and publicly in politics, much of the public feared the Islamist opposition and viewed the military as legitimate. This time, the public is united and the military’s legitimacy has evaporated. Should one or both Egypt and Algeria fail, Libya would present a major obstacle to stabilizing them by providing an arena for insurgents or terrorists, while Libya itself would become even more chaotic and violent.
Holding another conference and waiting for Libyan militias to embrace decentralization and economic reform are likely to result in one of these outcomes or something worse. The UAE, Egypt, and Russia (who have contributed to the disarray in Yemen, Egypt, and Syria) have demonstrated records of incompetence and/or malevolence and seek to reproduce their earlier handiwork in Libya. And now Turkey is suggesting that it may send troops to Libya. As long as the US and its allies sit on their hands claiming there is no military solution, these powers will press a military course of action whether or not it solves anything.
The civil war that resulted from the NATO intervention in Libya and the profound political fallout from the murder of US Ambassador Chris Stevens has made the administration of President Donald Trump hesitant to get involved in Libya. This has created a power vacuum that is being filled by the UAE and, increasingly, Russia. The US has abandoned diplomacy and military intervention despite the fact that it has significant leverage with the UAE, and that Libya is not the UAE’s top foreign policy priority, which makes it more susceptible to diplomatic pressure. Confident and assertive diplomacy offers the real possibility of determining a strategy for Libya that limits risk, while isolationism and capitulation to Russia and weak regional powers creates space for terrorists to regroup and makes future military interventions more likely.
Official statements, discussions, and sanctions on Russia are not going result in a reasonable negotiated outcome for Libya. If the situation in Libya is of genuine concern, then the US and its allies need to take an assertive diplomatic role to push the UAE out of Libya while limiting Egypt’s involvement to the east. It should be made clear that Haftar will never rule the country outside of an electoral victory. Only then might the militias see the futility of further violence and take seriously the prescriptions of Libyan and foreign specialists. Absent such an approach, the likely outcome is that the latest project of the UAE, Egypt, and Russia can and will get much worse.
Nate Mason is a former Commercial Attaché for the US Embassy in Libya and founder of Mason Trade Strategy LLC. Follow him at @yellowtavern1.