Libya has rarely been so important to German foreign policy and German policy makers certainly have many other issues nearer the top of their agenda at the moment. Libya has fallen down the list of foreign policy priorities for Germany in the midst of the refugee crisis, but it might, in fact, be the place that Germany should be focusing its attention. Libya is the veritable conflagration in the ring of fire surrounding Europe. Not only does the ongoing unrest in Libya compound the effects of the refugee crisis, but it helps to provide a safe haven to the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). This is why the German minister of defence recently stated that Germany is ready to play its part in the fight against Islamic State in Libya.
When thinking about Libya, it is important not just to look just at the diseases it is beset with, be they terrorist groups or illegal migration, but policy makers should also focus on the metaphorical patient – the Libyan state itself. Since the 2011 military intervention (which Germany did not join) the country has been marred by growing levels of anarchy and violence. It now lacks a functioning central government. The economy has suffered, meaning that it is currently living off its reserves, but the Libyan Central Bank has repeatedly warned that these will be depleted soon. In a few months, the current humanitarian crisis could become an irreversible economic crisis as reserves dry up, oil production continues at an extremely low level, the currency declines and government salaries stop being paid.
Libya was the first gateway for large flows of migrants and refugees into Europe long before the 2011 intervention and the Arab uprisings, and will probably continue to be so for some time. In the last two years, 300,000 people arrived in Europe from Libya and this was the first destination many Syrians arrived at before the route from Turkey to Greece was opened.
There is an ongoing political progress, coordinated by UN special envoy Martin Kobler to put an end to the anarchy and give Libya a central government that can deal with these problems (which by extension are Europe’s problems too). Kobler is facing immense challenges as he has to mediate between several different stakeholders, all of whom lack strong leadership and have unclear chains of command. To complicate matters further, regional powers – particularly Egypt – have been meddling in the turmoil, often providing weapons to factions that were already heavily armed.
For months, the international community has been deluding itself that this UN-led process might deliver a credible government with which the West could agree a policy against illegal migration and on fighting Islamic State. Yes, Libya may soon have a prime minister and some other ministers, but at the moment it is unclear not only whether they would sit in the capital Tripoli but also whether they would be able to sit anywhere in Libya.
Under the leadership of the UN, the Libyan Political Agreement was signed in Morocco in December. According to this text, the new government is due to be approved by the parliament in Tobruk and will then sit in Tripoli, which is now controlled by the rival factions. Ultimately, we could have a Libyan government in name but not one that governs – rather a government in exile.
While international actors work with Libya to form a government, there is also a military process underway, as more and more policy makers in the West talk of intervening in Libya against Daesh. In parallel with the political process, several countries at the EU level also talked about engaging in a training mission to support the security forces of the nascent unity government. However, such talk has become moot, because, owing to the dynamics described above, the government is not really nascent anymore.
An informal war is already being waged against Daesh and jihadists on the ground. The US already conducted two air strikes last year. One against Abu Nabil, the leader of ISIS in Libya, and the other against Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a prominent Qaedist leader in North Africa. The US has also admitted to having special operations forces on the ground while a similar European military presence is widely reported in the Libyan media. The US does not require any international authorisation to extend its drone war to Libya. What matters, however, is that the Pentagon has already asked for $200 million in additional funding to do so, and its Africa Command has published a list of its five priorities, with Libya occupying the number two spot. The goal to “degrade and destroy” ISIS sounds awfully familiar.
In fact, there is an increasing pressure to go one or two steps further this time. The next step would be to upgrade the “informal war” to a formal one and extend the efforts currently underway in Syria and Iraq to Libya. Any sort of “emergency” situation in Libya, be it from a terrorist attack or an ISIS advance on a strategic location (oil fields), could help to push this scenario further down the line. Crucial decisions on these matters would be taken far from Berlin, and Germany should be under no illusion that participating in these operations would give it any kind of say.
We might not be at the stage yet where there is a pretext for upgrading stage one to stage two or three, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact, or deny, that we are in stage one – an informal war – and we should be aware of the dangers that this fact implies. These are the dangers of military intervention without a clear political strategy. ISIS’ ideology, as well as smuggling networks, thrive in Libya because of its vast ungoverned spaces. In the end, we have to answer the question of who governs the ungoverned spaces if we want to fight both terrorism and illegal migration.
A foreign intervention against ISIS would leave Libyan warlords free to continue their squabbling, deepening the de facto fragmentation of the country. The “informal intervention” and the public talk about an imminent Western operation in Libya has legitimised air strikes by unidentified fighter jets both in Derna and in Sirte. In the first case, civilian casualties occurred while ISIS was dozens of miles away from the targeted area. Why is it that the West seems to have the right to intervene in Libya and not Egypt or the UAE?
Germany has a lot to lose if the situation in Libya turns sour. After all, things may yet get much worse for the country. A new humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean with related refugee flows is the last thing Germany wants. At the same time, Germany has a lot to gain if one of its best diplomats, Martin Kobler, is given the support to succeed, but at the moment declarations of support are simply not enough.
Yes, Germany must do its part to fight ISIS in Libya, but it should focus on the patient rather than just the disease. Many things can be done to strengthen the political dialogue mediated by Martin Kobler and start to contain Daesh. First, Europe can facilitate a meeting of the Libyan parliament in a neutral location and not in the fiefdom of one of the warlords, as it is now. This would allow for the return of the dozens of parliamentarians who have been boycotting the House of Representatives for almost two years. A truly representative parliament would be in a better place to endorse a unity government. Secondly, Europe can facilitate a wider gathering (an assembly) of all strands of Libyan society, starting with municipalities and including civil society and tribal leaders, to promote a common effort against Daesh – this requires a political process rather than weapons alone. Finally, because this fight does need weapons and a military response alongside the political process, Europeans can promote joint operations between themselves and the Libyan factions that have an interest in fighting ISIS. Outside support should forcefully promote cooperation rather than being a driver of further fragmentation.
Ultimately, the fight against Daesh and people smugglers is in the interest of Libyans and it should be a Libyan effort. The West should support and provide whatever is needed to achieve these goals, but it should not think that strategies decided elsewhere can be imposed on Libya.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.