Since the Arab Spring began four years ago whole swathes of the Middle East have been transformed from authoritarian police states into ungoverned, and ungovernable, spaces. In Iraq and Syria, the vacuum left by the receding state has been filled by various Islamist movements. Yet even in these countries, the national governments still retain sovereignty and control over their capital cities.
Not so in Libya, where rogue militias conquered Tripoli in August and set up rival political institutions, forcing the internationally recognized House of Representatives to relocate to the eastern town of Tobruk. Since then, Libya boasts two administrations both claiming to be sovereign.
To preserve a semblance of neutrality, the Libyan Central Bank pays salaries to the militias and bureaucrats of both warring blocs. For months, both sides had clung to hopes of scoring a decisive victory and riding off with the country’s considerable oil wealth. As that prospect waned and the costs of prolonged conflict grew ever greater, moderates of both factions met for peace talks in Geneva. Progress at the negotiating table has led to a conditional cease-fire.
The West’s approach to this crisis has relied on an oversimplified narrative, which sees a legitimate anti-Islamist government in Tobruk facing off against an Islamist administration in Tripoli. This obscures reality: It is local leaders and militia commanders, and not the politicians of both administrations, who hold power in Libya. Moreover, the fighting had descended into a zero-sum grudge match unrelated to religion, with each side ruthlessly attempting to destroy its opponent’s key infrastructure. In response, businessmen and civic leaders urged their political and militia representatives to embrace dialogue. Some hard-line politicians have balked; they are now being left behind.
The coming negotiations should not merely include rival parliamentarians. They should also bring to the table local civic and militia leaders from different tribal and regional blocs, all of whom are seeking to save Libya from destruction while strengthening their positions in a post-conflict settlement.
All parties know that these talks are the last chance for a nonmilitary solution. If dialogue fails, the country will be de facto partitioned and the war over resources will resume with increased intensity. If that happens, Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, has threatened to push for a peacekeeping force.
If the international community wishes to give both sides the right incentives to reach a lasting deal, Western democracies must reconsider the logic behind their policies. The Nov. 6, 2014, ruling by the Tripoli-based Libyan Supreme Court provides the perfect pretext. It stated that the constitutional amendment giving rise to the House of Representatives was procedurally invalid, that the June 2014 election should never have happened, and that consequently the ensuing body cannot be vested with sovereignty.
Western nations have barely responded — meekly pointing out that they are studying the decision and that the court’s ruling was made under duress. But Islamist militia pressure on the court does not necessarily invalidate its carefully worded opinion, which states that neither the House, nor its opponents, nor the expired Parliament, are to be considered Libya’s sovereign authority.
Western governments are reluctant to acknowledge the implications of the Supreme Court ruling because many of them are secretly cheering for the Tobruk faction to either reconquer the country or dominate a national unity government. After all, the Tobruk government claims to be fighting Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi — the very same group that killed the American ambassador, Christopher Stevens, in 2012.
Perversely, the West’s ability to act as a neutral party and promote compromise is hindered by the fact that it has already recognized Tobruk as Libya’s sole sovereign. This aligns the United States and Europe with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which are backing Tobruk militarily out of a desire to defeat the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region. Conversely, Tobruk’s opponents receive significant support from Qatar and Turkey.
The door is still open for Western nations to formally withdraw their recognition of the House of Representatives in light of the Supreme Court decision. Because the Islamist-aligned “government” in Tripoli is fracturing by the day and possesses an even more tenuous claim to legitimacy than its rival, such a move would leave Libya without any sovereign authority.
Western nations should make clear that they will not recognize any sovereign authority if negotiations fail to produce a national unity government committed to completing the constitutional process. They should also take strong steps to prevent regional interference while simultaneously inviting both sides’ external patrons to the table.
Once denied outside assistance, the legal trappings of sovereignty, or the possibility of acquiring either via force, both warring blocs would run out of cash and face strong incentives to compromise.
And with oil prices at historic lows, the incentives for rogue actors to smuggle pirated oil would be marginal. Finding buyers, even among Russian mafia syndicates or the Libyan factions’ Gulf patrons, would be challenging.
Critics argue that withdrawing recognition of the House of Representatives would be a reward to rogue militias for their brutal takeover of Tripoli and their ongoing support of jihadi elements. They also claim that it would provide an incentive for the Islamists to make the talks fail. Both assertions are false. If the West pledges that it will only recognize a Libyan government committed to a transition to constitutional governance, that would effectively stifle the dream of many Islamists that seek to capture the Libyan state and its resources by force.
The war in Libya is not about religion or ideology; it is about greed and vengeance. By not lending our tacit support to either side, and firmly preventing meddlesome regional actors from helping their clients, we could remove the poisonous injections of cash and weapons that drive the conflict.
Jason Pack, a researcher at Cambridge University and president of Libya-Analysis.com, is the author of the Tony Blair Foundation’s Libya Situation Report.