There is plenty of blame to go around in Libya
For the third time this year, violence returned to the streets of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, as prevailing tensions between the North African country’s two parallel authorities boiled over.
This repeat pattern of flare-ups and hostilities is an inevitable development following more than a decade of political gridlock, pervasive foreign meddling, aggressive politicking and deadlocked UN-led multi-track transition dialogues in pursuit of an as-yet-undefined “permanent” solution.
Over time, the seizure of the capital has become a major strategic goal for the eastern-based parallel authority that is seeking to gain control of Libya’s lucrative oil revenues, which are now a principal source of funding for the vast networks of patronage responsible for maintaining the status quo in the west of the country.
Oil production — and by extension the revenues from exports — has long had strategic, political and economic significance to the multitude of actors active in Libya. Local militias, for example, often resort to disrupting oil extraction and production activity as a rather blunt, double-edged weapon in an attempt to outmaneuver rivals in zero-sum machinations that take a huge toll on the battered and fatigued Libyan public.
At a regional level, the prolonged instability in a country with about 48 billion barrels of proven oil reserves is a welcome reprieve for oil-exporting competitors in the vicinity who are seeking to profit from European energy insecurity and the resultant search for alternatives to Russian crude.
As a result, even when chances arise to convene the warring Libyan factions for constructive dialogue, to engage in “good faith” interventions, or to at least support the hobbled UN-led efforts, other countries in the region have often demurred despite the raft of challenges arising from a perennially unstable neighbor.
At the wider international level the calculus is not much different, even after this latest episode that claimed nearly three dozen lives and left more than a hundred injured.
The dogged pursuit of narrow self-interest at the expense of all else in Libya will only intensify, especially among European nations that are currently in the throes of an energy crisis as they anticipate a harsh winter. To them, every single barrel of untapped oil and every cubic foot of natural gas from North Africa has gained much greater significance of late, necessitating that they double down on a status quo that can eke out at least 1.2 million barrels a day, rather than push for more concerted efforts to find a permanent settlement that risks the outbreak of all-out war and the complete disruption of Libyan crude output.
Years of practicing this kind of “moral flexibility,” coupled with the undermining of UN-led interventions, has tragically only served to nurture what are now implacable, hybrid entities in Libya that equate political power or influence with the size and variety of their arsenals.
In the past six to 12 months, for instance, various armed groups have steadily amassed sufficient ill-gotten funds and political influence to become significant players, in between violent episodes of the tense east-west standoff, adding new twists to Libya’s near-incomprehensible dynamics.
Even if there were a will to reengage with the Libya file, in light of last weekend’s hostilities or the shifting geopolitical landscape as a result of the conflict in Eastern Europe, it would still be a one-sided, top-down affair that has to ignore harsh realities on the ground to manage a semblance of constructive engagement.
Before we even get there, however, the simple truth is that there is very little bandwidth in Western capitals for efforts to revisit the situation in Libya, even when considering it in conjunction with other issues such as migration, terrorism, arms trafficking or transnational organized crime.
As Libyan factions reorient themselves and plan their next moves, international efforts remain rudderless and devoid of any sense of urgency.
In addition, more than a decade of unsuccessful UN-led engagements and mediation have proven that it is impossible to unify the staggering number of rival actors, entities, interests and ambitions vying to exercise some level of control over Libyan affairs.
The third eruption of violence in just over six months points to a disturbing trend as the two main factions resort to escalations, using the multiple armed groups and militias — better described as “mafias” — allied to each of them in an attempt to break the ongoing stalemate.
Unfortunately, frequent flare-ups and subsequent shifts in allegiances — or, at least the perceptions of them — will eventually upend fragile military dynamics presumably being held in check by a now meaningless October 2020 ceasefire agreement.
In other words, as the increasingly familiar clashes and pitched street battles between these “mafia” families continue to happen, they could convince remaining holdouts that the only way to move forward in Libya is through all-out military confrontation.
Regarding last weekend’s skirmishes, even though forces aligned with Fathi Bashagha failed to unseat Abdul Hamid Dbeibah’s Government of National Unity, the embers are yet to settle as an uneasy truce prevails. Merely fending off this latest violent challenge is no cause for celebration among an emboldened Dbeibah family coalition because it is unlikely the newly humbled Bashagha will give up and nor will his backers.
If anything, Tripoli must prepare itself for further escalations, disruptions to oil production and uncompromising postures in ongoing dialogue as the Haftar-Saleh-Bashagha camp looks to press its advantages, real or imagined. Additionally, adopting such a hard-line stance could discourage retaliation from Tripoli in the form of slashing or freezing lump-sum payments to Khalifa Haftar’s forces, given that the capital retains control of the national purse.
As Libyan factions reorient themselves and plan their next moves following the events of last weekend, international efforts remain rudderless and devoid of any sense of urgency or ability to rise to the occasion and perhaps jump-start stalled peace processes, or kick-start new ones, in order to preempt future troubles.
Repeated missteps and ineffectual countermeasures have seriously eroded the UN’s credibility and legitimacy, as well as any confidence in its ability to manage the multifaceted crisis in Libya, leaving the organization trapped and insisting on outcomes that are diametrically opposed to the interests of several external actors.
In essence, the international community has not only engineered the deliberate failures that are stifling progress in Libya, it has also become numb to the tragic consequences. Take for example the mass graves discovered in Tarhuna; no persons or groups have been held accountable for the deaths of nearly 300 people whose bodies were exhumed there.
Meanwhile, those who were involved in last week’s hostilities — and will participate in those that are inevitable in the future — are likely to receive even greater political recognition and, with it, impunity for their past human rights violations and other contributions to Libya’s woes.
Clearly, the same cast of characters, the same tactics and the same old refrains have only served to steer Libya to a point where a massive extraterritorial military confrontation just a stone’s throw from Europe’s southern shores can no longer be ruled out. After all, the status quo is simply unsustainable.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also a senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington, and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell