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What will the US and Europe do when the Libya dialogue fails?

What Europe and the current US administration, in its last year and a half in office, will choose to do is still an open-ended question

It’s clear that talks in Libya will fail. Now it’s just a matter of what to do next.

I say when, not if, because there is every indication that the UN-sponsored dialogue in Morocco and elsewhere will fail; and every official and non-official I spoke with knows that.

The few US officials who are following the Libya conflict are now busy preparing options for a new policy on Libya to be adapted in a matter of weeks. This will take place as soon as it becomes clear that the efforts of the UN Special Envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, will not produce a sustainable peace agreement between the warring groups in the Libyan conflict.

Of course, actual failure to reach an agreement will not mean that the UN will announce it or that it will abandon public efforts. That never happens. For reference, see the ongoing optical illusion of the international community’s ostensible attempt at “continuing efforts” in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and every hot spot in the world, none of which are working and can drag on for decades. There is never a time that the UN will stand up publicly and say, “We give up,” even if that simply means holding meeting after meeting.

The US and European countries, however, are preparing for a shift in strategy, if not to solve the Libya conflict, at least to try to manage it and mitigate its negative impact on their interests in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the African Sahel belt.

How do we know that Leon will fail?

There are several factors indicating that Leon will not succeed at negotiating a sustainable peace agreement.

1. Leon has opted so far simply to keep talking, trying to convince the warring militias that they can divide the pie between them instead of tearing it apart. Unfortunately, he has chosen to use only carrots and no sticks.

2. Leon has so far refused to deal with all the parties to the Libyan civil war for what they are: equal parties in a civil war. He has instead chosen to maintain a fig leaf of international recognition to one side over the others, and in doing so, ensuring that they become far more intransigent and insistent on trying to exclude others in the process. Meanwhile, that so-called internationally recognised government denied him the simple courtesy of receiving him in Tobrouk a few days ago. They went so far as to prohibit him to step off his plane, and instead sent one of their officials to meet him as opposed to the anticipated reception hall.

3. Despite pretending to engage in peace negotiations in Morocco, the forces of this internationally recognised government bombed the Tripoli airport of Mitiga on the very day the talks started, which is a war crime, while forces from the other side, the Libya Dawn, engaged in their own war with rivals, and are still insisting on the authority of their make-believe government in Tripoli.

4. None of the participants in the peace talks have any real authority over the armed groups ostensibly backing them and controlling the ground. In fact, even the individuals negotiating do not represent everyone involved in the conflict, most notably the more than one million former Gaddafi supporters living in exile since 2011.

5. The negotiating parties have not addressed any real mechanism to separate the warring factions using neutral forces. This leaves the unaddressed issue of who would guarantee the peace as well as the proposed political framework and institutions.

6. Libya’s money and oil revenues are divided between two authorities and central banks without any clarity as to who is really in control of it and where the money is going. The irony is that money is the very funding source that is financing and paying the salaries of the various militias fighting on the ground.

7. The factions talking in Morocco about dividing up the country under a new set of conflicting and overlapping institutions and committees, such as a new presidential committee, a new national security council, a new advisory council, and the like, will only ensure that conflicting interests will intensify, and will tear apart any agreement as soon as the ink dries.

Basic options

What will the West do?

There are so far two basic options, with variations, being discussed in Washington and European capitals with voices in favour of one option or another.

1. The first option is to close up Libya by withdrawing international recognition of any government, freezing Libya’s assets and reserves around the world, blockading oil terminals to deny warring groups any revenues, and relying on the usual counter-terrorism measures, such as targeted drones strikes to hit terrorist groups when needed. The reasoning behind this proposal is straightforward and simple: deprive terrorist groups and warring factions from funds, and wait until they all run out of money and come back to the international community begging for a negotiated settlement and re-engagement.

2. The second option is to subcontract the Libya conflict to the Arab world, and let willing and able Arab countries, particularly neighbouring states, intervene and take ownership of the problem directly. This would be akin to what happened in the Lebanese civil war when Syria was given the green light to enter Lebanon and impose some sort of an occupation, operating from behind the curtain of a weak and willing local government.

Both options, however, are not ideal from the perspective of the US and Europe and carry significant costs.

The first carries the obvious costs of continuing the destabilising impact on neighbouring countries and the Mediterranean, as well as the significant humanitarian crisis that will surely affect the Libyan population as a whole, squeezing them economically even more than they are now and forcing them to rely on humanitarian aid.

The second will run the risk of widening the conflict by drawing in countries that will support one side or another, and even the riskier blowback effect, especially given all the other fires in the region from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, on top of the ongoing Iranian nukes and Palestinian-Israeli problems.

What Europe and the current US administration, in its last year and a half in office, will choose to do is still an open-ended question. The one sure thing is that a choice will be made in a matter of weeks — not months — and the Libyan people themselves will face far more hardship than they have so far.

— Hafed Al Ghwell is a senior non-resident Fellow with the Rafik Hariri Centre at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC and former adviser to the Dean of the Board of Executive Directors of the World Bank Group.

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