By Azeem Ibrahim
Though it continues to be overshadowed by the conflicts in other parts of the world, the civil war in Libya is still going strong.
And like many such conflicts in marginal countries since WW2, the conflict is sustained in no small part by the power exerted by outside forces.
The conflict is a multi-faceted, multi-front affair between a range of actors ranging from tribal militias, sectarian militias, the local ISIS chapter, militias associated with the former Qaddafi armed forces and intelligence services, and so on.
But the two leading parties are the Tobruk faction in the east, dominated by the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar, a former Qaddafi army officer, and the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli in the West.
Roughly speaking, the GNA has UN and Western backing, but its authority and military power in the country are rather lacking, while Haftar’s LNA has the backing of Moscow, is in control of the majority of the country’s oil resources and is militarily the strongest faction in the civil war.
Unlike the situation in Syria, however, there is a way to resolve the conflict if the international community, and particularly Europe, are willing to make certain difficult compromises. The GNA has had something no other faction in the conflict has enjoyed: international legal legitimacy.
But this month, that legitimacy is coming into question. The GNA has been established through the auspices of the UN with a mandate to bring the warring parties in the Libyan conflict together. Crucially, that mandate was originally stipulated to last one year, and could only be extended by one more year. This month, the two years have elapsed.
General Haftar has already pointed out that the GNA mandate has elapsed, and therefore it has no better legal standing than any other warring party in the civil war.
He is thus urging the supporters of the GNA to rally around him and the Tobruk parallel state he has been building over the last few years, as the authority most likely to be able to reunite the country, pacify the tribal and sectarian militias, and drive ISIS out of Libya.
Problem is, he has a point. All the facts on the ground seem to confirm that if anyone can impose order and peace in Libya, it is him. Regardless of the fact that there is every chance he will become a military dictator in the mould of Egypt’s al-Sisi, if not quite as extreme as Qaddafi, and regardless of the fact that he is aligned with Putin, the fact of the matter remains that he is the best chance there is for peace in Libya.
So the West now has a dilemma:
do they continue to support the GNA beyond its UN mandate and prolong the civil war, and with it, the refugee flows through Libya? Or
do they concede and grant Libya to Haftar at the risk of giving Putin another strong ally on Europe’s border?
Haftar, for his own part, has already proposed that he will stop the refugee flows to Europe if he gains control of Libya’s western sea coast. That should appeal to Europe at least.
The US is unlikely to change their position, but Europe could easily flip to back Haftar.
The moral question
The moral questions about such a decision are hard enough. We do not know quite what kind of leader Haftar will turn out to be if he is let loose on Libya.
But would a Qaddafi or Qaddafi-style military dictatorship not be preferable to the ongoing civil war, as far as the people of Libya are concerned?
To say nothing of the fact that it would ultimately be us in the West who end up answering that question, and not the Libyans themselves.
But as far as Europe is concerned, the geopolitics of this might be significantly more straightforward.
Moving swiftly and decisively behind Haftar could help end the civil war and secure the Libyan sea border from the refugee flows.
And if done well, it might even attract Haftar out of Putin’s sphere of influence, if Haftar’s new Libyan administration is given due support and access to Europe’s energy markets.
Whether Europe’s leaders will be as quick to pursue this window of opportunity as they were to bomb Libya during its Arab Spring uprising against Qaddafi remains to be seen.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College.