At a time when Libya urgently needs help from its allies, most countries, including the United States, are evacuating their embassies or drastically downsizing. Weeks of inter-militia fighting have killed hundreds in Tripoli and Benghazi while disrupting food, water and fuel supplies to civilians.
While diplomatic security is understandably a top priority, representatives of the international community must not leave the country. Instead, they must maintain contact with Libya’s major political actors — the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Forces Alliance, and the leaders of the warring militias from Misurata and Zintan — if they wish to mediate a solution to the conflict.
The violence gripping Libya is due to a political struggle between groups that could broadly be characterized as Islamists and anti-Islamists. Since their collaboration in toppling Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, these factions have been squabbling over the spoils of victory, rendering Libya’s economy and politics dysfunctional.
To break the impasse, a renegade former general, Khalifa Hifter, launched a campaign in May vowing to eradicate Islamists from eastern Libya. He militarized the political divide by lumping together all Islamists, ranging from moderate to radical, and declared them his enemies. Most non-Islamists sided with General Hifter, thus signaling to the Islamists that they are all considered radicals who might face the same fate as their fellow Islamists in Egypt — to either be entirely marginalized from politics or exterminated. Facing this existential threat, Islamists have relied on their ongoing military advantage to ensure their survival.
A full-scale battle broke out over control of Tripoli airport in mid-July. From the Islamists’ perspective it had two main objectives: to obstruct the newly elected Parliament from meeting and carrying out its responsibilities, and to control the main roads to Tripoli and divert the movement of people and goods into the Islamist-run Maitiga airport.
Both General Hifter and the Islamists believe they can win militarily. With both sides convinced of long-term victory, nothing has forced them to the negotiating table. This makes the role of the international community essential in mediating the conflict or it will drag on.
As traditional efforts at tribal mediation have failed, the Libyan government — which is neutral, largely powerless and exercises no real control over the country — has formally called for international involvement. The foreign minister, Mohamed Abdulaziz, has asked in particular for “trainers” to support the feeble Libyan security forces. This could be a first step but it is hardly sufficient.
A combination of threats followed by limited international intervention and mediated negotiations is far more likely to succeed. This three-pronged approach should begin with a threat, issued by the United States and European countries, of a limited military intervention to force the warring sides to withdraw from the two major cities and cease firing upon civilians and installations; militias that disobey the order should be targeted with airstrikes.
Second, the international community should deploy a peacekeeping force to protect civilians, government institutions and vital installations, such as water reservoirs, electricity grids and oil fields.
Third, the United Nations must aggressively mediate negotiations to reach a grand political bargain. This would involve the formation of a national unity government and a mutually agreed-upon roadmap to disarm the militias, restart the economy, and allow the political transition process to continue, including the convening of the newly elected Parliament.
These three steps would restore physical security and help create an environment conducive to a comprehensive national dialogue. Once the warring parties start negotiating, a committee that was elected in February could finally begin work on drafting a constitution.
Despite the gravity of the situation, there is not much appetite in Western capitals for a military response to the current crisis in Libya. This reluctance is largely based on fears of anti-Western sentiments among Libyans, particularly heightened in light of the September 2012 attack on the United States mission in Benghazi. That perception is misguided. On the contrary, the Libyan people respect the United States for playing a major role in supporting Libyan independence in the 1940s, opposing Colonel Qaddafi’s dictatorship for most of his reign, and assisting rebels during the 2011 revolution.
Now, like then, the international community has a stake in Libya’s future. The humanitarian disaster unfolding in the country could easily become a major problem for Europe, which has already seen a large influx of migrants who have crossed through Libya’s vast, unmonitored territory. Moreover, a failed Libya dominated by extremist militias would constitute a security threat to the region and the West by becoming a sanctuary for terrorist organizations from which they could easily launch operations against targets around the world.
Libyans have demonstrated little capacity to keep their transition from derailing; representatives of Western governments and international organizations must now demonstrate that closing diplomatic shop does not mean they are checking out.
Karim Mezran is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.