As Libya enters its third week of renewed conflict, the outline of a potential resolution is becoming clearer. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has conducted a military offensive towards Tripoli; but this has not led to any sort of clear victory, and it will not do so. What it has done is create the prospect of sustained conflict, further destabilising intervention by outside parties, and the re-emergence of security threats to the wider region, including Europe. The international community remains divided over whether to support Haftar, but the United Nations is taking steps to piece together a multilateral coalition that might reduce the threat of escalation and eventually restart a political process.
Countries such as Russia, France, and the United States appear reluctant to adopt a stance before the likely winner become clearer
Libya’s grinding conflict
Haftar’s hope of entering Tripoli to a hero’s welcome now appears, at best, far-fetched. This phase of the war is proving the old cliché that there is no military solution to Libya’s conflict. Haftar’s advance has stalled and, while the old general may yet have a few tricks up his sleeve, his original goal of taking Tripoli now seems well beyond reach. Haftar can continue a long war of attrition, but he cannot win it.
The motley crew of militias that are resisting Haftar are similarly limited in terms of what they can realistically achieve. If their current momentum continues, it is entirely possible that they can expunge Haftar’s presence from the west of the country. But it is difficult to see how they could meaningfully advance much further than that, as the they would face similar difficulties moving east as Haftar has found moving on Tripoli.
Prospects may look grim for either side’s ability to achieve a resounding victory, but that has not dampened anyone’s enthusiasm for a fight. Both sides still have forces in reserve, both feel existentially driven to continue the struggle, and both have friends abroad that are willing to help them continue. So far, in a pleasant change from the usual, regional actors have kept this phase of Libya’s civil war a largely local affair: Haftar continues to receive regular arms shipments, but his Emirati and Egyptian backers have yet to physically intervene and provide him with the air superiority he usually enjoys. Nevertheless, given their level of investment to date in the Haftar joint venture, it is doubtful they would allow him to fail. The Turks and the Qataris, who have supported those resisting Haftar, would similarly not allow him to ride a wave of Emirati air strikes to victory and would likely renew their logistical and material support in response.
Unfortunately, the longer this civil war continues, the more it will destabilise the region. The morass of militias from Sudan and Chad that exploit Libya’s lawlessness to enrich themselves pose an increasing threat to the stability of their home countries. Meanwhile, the chaos of civil war allows extremist groups like the Islamic State group (ISIS) to return to the offensive. Finally, Europe’s own migration demons risk returning as space opens up for new smuggling gangs, and as the financial strain of prolonged warfare makes restarting Libya’s human conveyor belt an increasingly enticing enterprise.
An outside solution
Despite the ever-growing list of problems that Libya could export to the wider world, most international actors have made little response to Haftar’s offensive. Countries such as Russia, France, and the United States appear reluctant to adopt a stance before the likely winner become clearer. They have limited the international response to feebly worded statements.
A new resolution for the UN Security Council currently being circulated by the United Kingdom could reverse that approach. If the British can negotiate a resolution that calls for an immediate ceasefire and accountability for any party that should escalate further, then the conversation can at least move forward. If the language of the resolution does not explicitly support or blame any of the Libyan factions, it should be uncontroversial enough to avoid a veto. Passing this resolution would allow for discussions over more practical issues, such as: options to enforce Libya’s long-abused arms embargo; language to objectively define escalation; and sanctions that could be applied on individuals or parties responsible for any escalation. These are small steps, but the practical discussions that the resolution would open could create effective leverage over the warring factions.
Aside from what can be a frustrating UN experience, a more unified European Union would have other possibilities that might create a meaningful ceasefire and provide Europeans with greater control over whatever new political process could then come to pass. The common position between the UK, Germany, and Italy on this issue represents the start of a European coalition that could take in other partners and then use that collective power to direct proceedings.
France would represent a natural and necessary addition to this coalition given its involvement in Libya. France wants to play a central in resolving Libya’s crisis, but recent events should have made clear that its support for Haftar is not a path toward that resolution. If France can come to see the light, it would allow the creation of a new, uniform European position on the need for a ceasefire.
From that solid base, the European partners could seek to encourage an increasingly transactional White House to take a stand, perhaps by reminding them of the threat Libya could pose to oil markets and the prospects of finalising victory over ISIS. The Europeans would also need to convince Russia that the only way to fulfil its goal of helping to broker a resolution in Libya is to dial back its dalliance with Haftar. A reasonably unified position among these actors would have a realistic possibility of tempering regional interference and forcing Libyans to the table.
Of course, this is far easier said than done, but after years of failing to formulate a coherent policy for Libya, few options remain on the table. If Europeans do not lead on this issue, they will find themselves observers as Libyans slug it out and regional actors provide the fuel for escalation. They will instead have to deal with the consequences from Libya’s devastation.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.