How Joe Biden must view Libya
How should the new administration with Joe Biden think about Libya? That country has tried for a decade to create some semblance of stability in the aftermath of the fall of Muammar Gaddafi almost a decade ago. There has been some positive movement by the various parties in Libya as of late. In Geneva this fall, after more than a year of talks, the two main groups in the country reached a ceasefire that, if honored, may be the first step toward peace. There remains a difficult road ahead since the text of the ceasefire accord leaves space for many divergent meanings.
It would have to be fully backed by the competing power centers in Tripoli and Tobruk. The first is the formal but weak coalition in the west known as the Government of National Accord, which is led by Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, while the latter is the number of militias under Khalifa Haftar in the east known as the Libyan National Army. The first group is backed by the United Nations, Turkey, and Qatar, and the second group is supported by the United Arab Emirates, Russia, France, and Egypt.
Libya has money to pay for its own needs, in the form of oil, if the way can be found to keep it flowing. Libya needs one formula that most or all major parties can accept for how to divide the revenues. The country is situated at the core of the Mediterranean basin, just in front of Italy, with ports and the chance to control a significant area of the sea. For all the chaos in the region over recent years, the people of Libya do not face the kind of mass starvation or other woes seen in many conflict zones.
The two groups in Libya have decided the foreign military groups active on the ground, including the Syrian militias, Turkish militias, the Wagner Group from Russia, and the Sudanese and the Chadian units for both the Government of National Accord and the Libyan National Army must leave. This action would allow better control of the local militias and the chance for them to return weapons. At the moment, however, neither Turkey nor Russia seem like they will leave. A strong vision for Libya to be run by its people is needed if outside actors are to be in line.
Building on a task force report by the Brookings Institution, we advocate a transparent system where the considerable oil revenues in Libya could be distributed fairly among the groups that provide local services in the cities across the country, which includes groups with the militias, provided their behavior met modest standards for fairness and nonviolence. In our view, and that of some of our coauthors, a United Nations observation mission can assist by monitoring the oil facilities, infrastructure, and demarcation lines between the territorial zones of certain militias.
It can also monitor the fledgling Libyan Coast Guard, an institution that foreign donors can think about bolstering. Other observers, such as the development specialists on the ground, would confirm if and when the resources were used correctly and in a way that justified the resources from central coffers to the cities. Over time, those local centers for the activities from the various militias can be developed, not to establish a national defense unit, as had been tried almost a decade ago, but to let one emerge as the collection of local security forces.
Fortunately, Haftar has been pushed back to the east half of the country, after making threats toward Tripoli for the last two years. But he remains influential and given his strength a mixed model may be needed. Perhaps this method based around cities for security, governance, and sharing of oil wealth still has relevance. However, it might have to be promoted first in the west and the south while Haftar retains a certain amount of control in the east, in the face of the realities on the ground.
The people themselves will insist on working on the specifics of any such power sharing deal like they should. The critical issue is to get the broad concept right and start some real talks. This is a hard lift but not one that takes boots on the ground or large doses of dollars or euros. As the new administration looks to reinvigorate multilateralism and diplomacy after these last four years, Libya is not a bad place to start.
Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow and Federica Saini Fasanotti is a nonresident scholar in foreign policy with the Brookings Institution.
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