Saving Libya, Again

A fuel tank in Tripoli burning after being hit by militia rocket fire last August. Credit Hani Amara/Reuters

The 11 special envoys who met in Paris late last month to discuss the crisis in Libya issued a final communiqué with predictably anodyne recommendations: support for the formal government, suggestions for making it more inclusive, a call for the militias to withdraw and a proposal that the United Nations spearhead a comprehensive dialogue among the warring parties.

What Libya needs instead is a European peacekeeping force that would shield the fledgling government from the various armed groups currently contesting its power, and one another, and allow it to rebuild state institutions.

The security situation in Libya deteriorated rapidly after the ouster of Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011. Some hope surrounded the July 2012 election of a first parliament, called the General National Congress, which propelled to power a coalition of liberal parties headed by Mahmoud Jibril, one of the leaders of the 2011 uprising. But soon tensions rose between them and an alliance of Islamic parties, including the Justice and Reconstruction Party, and their affiliated militias, like Libya Dawn.

When the Islamist parties fared poorly in the election in June for the G.N.C.’s successor, the House of Representatives, fighting flared up in the western part of the country. The Islamist militias, emboldened by several military advances, including their overtaking the international airport in Tripoli in August, have proclaimed that the G.N.C. would remain Libya’s rightful legislative body.

The country is now divided between two competing governments: the old one in Tripoli, and the new one in Tobruk, in eastern Libya. Each side has its own prime minister, cabinet and legislature, and its own set of militias.

The Central Bank is one of very few neutral institutions left, and it, too, is in danger of falling to the Tripoli-based militias. This would be hugely destabilizing. Irrespective of ideology, all the militias currently receive extensive state subsidies via disbursements from the Central Bank. The government in Tobruk funds even the Islamist militias that are hell-bent on its destruction: The buyouts are an attempt to rein in those groups, discourage them from overtaking the country’s oil fields — all the parties’ main source of revenue — and eventually destroy the Tobruk government. Were the G.N.C. in Tripoli to gain control of the Central Bank, it could disrupt this bizarre status quo, especially by halting the flow of funds to non-Islamist militias, which would almost inevitably mean a ratcheting up of the fighting.

Libya is on the edge of civil war, and the chaos there risks destabilizing the region by inviting a war of proxies inside the country. While Qatar has openly supported some Islamist militias, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have bombed several of their positions around Tripoli.

Dialogue is moribund, and no amount of diplomatic cajoling can revive it. Several Western countries, including the United States, as well as the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, which was established in 2011 to guide the country’s post-Qaddafi transition, have made various efforts to bring the factions to talks. These have repeatedly failed, however, because no one can offer the militias, which are flush with weapons and money, enough incentive to cooperate.

Only the presence of an international peacekeeping force can make a difference today. The U.N. support mission was never meant to be such a force; it was designed to help build institutions of governance. And the United Nations Security Council cannot expand its mandate. Russia, which accused the West of wrongfully extending the U.N. support mission’s ambit beyond the protection of civilians during the 2011 conflict, would veto any resolution calling for the mission’s transformation into an intervention force. The United States government, for its part, has no appetite for sending more American boots on the ground, particularly as it pulls troops out of Afghanistan and struggles to forestall the advances of Sunni Islamists in Iraq.

The responsibility for creating a peacekeeping force for Libya falls squarely on European states. Considering their longstanding economic and political interests in North Africa and their concerns over immigration, it is they, after all, that have the most to lose from Libya’s collapse. Libya is part of the European Union’s soft underbelly.

Europeans were at the forefront of the intervention in 2011, with logistical and intelligence support from the United States, and they must spearhead any action now. France’s president and defense minister have openly called for international intervention, most recently in September. While I was testifying before an Italian parliamentary commission on foreign affairs in Rome on Oct. 24, I was struck by how frankly some members were arguing that only a European-led force could provide a way out of the current impasse. The original notion some European politicians held — that a beefed-up U.N. mission was needed — has lost its appeal.

The model for this intervention should be a version of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force that was created to stem the Taliban in Afghanistan, supplemented with intelligence and logistical support from the United States. Its initial mandate would be to buttress the internationally recognized government in Tobruk by protecting vital infrastructure and state institutions, keeping militias apart by preventing them from traveling to rival territory and controlling the flow of arms. Although Libya’s territory is vast, most of the new force’s operations would be confined to the coastal strip, where the main government institutions are located, necessitating only a few thousand soldiers.

Since the end of the 2011 conflict, the various Libyan governments have been reluctant to invite international help. They thought they could manage on their own and feared that outside assistance would undermine their legitimacy with the Libyan people. But recently the ground has shifted dramatically. Members of both the House of Representatives in Tobruk and the rump G.N.C. in Tripoli told me privately late this summer that the situation is desperate, and that outside intervention may be the only way to keep Libya together as a single nation.

Establishing a peacekeeping force is a difficult undertaking for Europe — politically, financially and economically. But the alternatives are worse. Standing by or encouraging more fruitless talks would almost certainly mean a conflict of attrition among Libya’s government and the militias, destabilization in the Maghreb and the Sahel, massive smuggling and unchecked illegal immigration toward Europe. For European governments the choice is stark: Move in decisively or deal with another failed Arab state on their doorstep.

Dirk Vandewalle is an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College.

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