Another conference on Libya? Enforce the arms embargo instead
Five months into Libya’s latest civil war, the violence continues unabated. Since Khalifa Haftar launched his attack on Tripoli in April, the war has left more than 1,100 dead and over 100,000 displaced. The nature of the fighting has transitioned from a largely ground-based assault to one relying on air attacks from a combination of outdated Libyan aircraft and imported drones.
Instead of reducing collateral damage, the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) most likely are responsible for mass-casualty attacks against civilians. A ceasefire or a return to political negotiations between the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) seem as far off as ever, despite frequent calls from the international community urging peace.
Most recently, the Group of 7 (G-7) leaders declared their support for a “long-term ceasefire” in Libya and the need for a “political solution.” Such routine international proclamations have become empty rhetoric.
Equally problematic is the time-honored tradition of holding international conferences intended to create momentum for peace talks. The French-led G-7 statement pressed for holding another such “well-prepared international conference to bring together all the stakeholders and regional actors relevant to this conflict.” French foreign minister Jean-Yves LeDrian echoed his intention to put together such a conference in an Aug. 29 speech.
Since Emmanuel Macron was elected president in 2017, he has hosted two such conferences on Libya — and that was before the latest civil war. France’s approach to Libya, mainly engaging Haftar, deeming him an essential political actor and aiming to bring him into the political fold, has failed. Another international conference with the same strategy, whether in Paris or at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly in New York, will repeat the same empty promises. For a conference to achieve a concrete result, it should focus on addressing one of the primary causes of the latest civil war: the blatant arming of both sides by outside actors in violation of a long-dormant U.N. Security Council-imposed arms embargo.
The Security Council imposed an arms embargo as part of 2011 intervention in Libya. It remains in effect only on paper. No enforcement mechanism exists to check ships or flights for transporting potential weapons shipments. Even worse, this happens in plain sight as armored vehicles are unloaded on docks and armed drones, clearly from outside Libya, hover in the skies. As the war continues, each side is relying on outside suppliers to match the other side’s increasingly sophisticated arms and systems.
As U.N. special envoy Ghassan Salame told the Security Council in late July, “Armed drones, armored vehicles and pick-up trucks fitted with heavy armaments, machine guns, recoilless rifles, mortar and rocket launchers have been recently transferred to Libya with the complicity and, indeed, outright support of foreign governments.”
On one side, Turkey — who has never joined an international consensus calling for a ceasefire — reportedly has provided armored vehicle and drones to GNA forces. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), however, claims publicly to support a ceasefire but long has supported Haftar’s forces, built a military airbase in eastern Libya, and provided the LNA with Chinese-made UAVs, armored vehicles and additional materiel.
France, whose support for Haftar was revealed in 2016 when three French special forces members died in a helicopter crash in Benghazi, recently had forces accompanying the LNA in its offensive against Tripoli. Their presence was revealed by the discovery of French anti-tank Javelin missiles after GNA forces drove the LNA out of the strategic town of Gharyan. France explained that the U.S.-origin Javelins were there for force protection, essentially acknowledging they deployed forces to aid Haftar. Yet, France consistently calls for a ceasefire and a return to political negotiations — at least nine times since Haftar’s offensive — in various multilateral formats.
Convening yet another conference on Libya is a recipe for continued political stagnation, unless it addresses concretely the issue of illegal arms imports. Neither warring side has reached the point where it will prefer a political compromise to ongoing war, especially given the increasing divisiveness in the country. Therefore, the only way to alter the potential for renewed political negotiations is to begin draining each side’s source of weapons and materiel.
Washington is best positioned to lead such an initiative. Since Egypt, France and the UAE agreed to “prevent destabilizing arms shipments” to Libya on July 16, the U.S. should call them on that commitment and invite them to discuss devising a mechanism to enforce the arms embargo. If these allies agree, doing that would isolate Turkey and expose them to potentially uncomfortable arms interdictions. A limited enforcement mechanism would not require a large international inspection team on the ground or a naval deployment.
To start, the U.S. can provide declassified imagery analysis to expose the use of armed drones by either side. Starving Haftar of his air assault capacity will significantly limit his ability to continue an offensive in the west. Deterring Turkish shipments would similarly reduce the GNA’s forces from rearming.
The U.N. Support Mission in Libya remains the ideal convener of a renewed, enhanced political dialogue among all Libyans, not just the warring parties. But without the support of the international community and a concerted effort to ground UAVs and halt weapons supplies, the U.N. has minimal leverage to renew peace talks and aid Libya’s long-stalled political transition.
Ben Fishman is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served from 2009 to 2013 on the National Security Council, including as director for North Africa and Jordan. Follow him on Twitter @fishman_b.