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Why talking with the wrong Libyans won’t help

Now is the time to play diplomatic hardball; when the Thursday deadline for an agreement passes, the civil war is likely to intensify.

By Brian Klaas

Published: Tue 16 Jun 2015, 9:06 PM

Last updated: Wed 8 Jul 2015, 3:15 PM

In today’s world, internationally recognised governments do not always control their countries. Libya, which is embroiled in a multipolar civil war, is one tragic example.

Rival administrations — one in Tobruk, one in Tripoli — claim to be legitimate nationwide rulers even though neither actually governs the splinters of territory it claims to control. The real power lies with militia commanders and local councils.

All efforts to broker peace have failed. The Tobruk-based administration - having grown spoiled by a surfeit of international support - walked away from United Nations-sponsored negotiations last week, flatly rejecting the latest attempt at a power-sharing plan. Its leaders have hinted that they will resort to a military solution if a political one fails.

Now is the time to play diplomatic hardball; when the Thursday deadline for an agreement passes, the civil war is likely to intensify.

This chaos is dangerous, but not only for Libya. Since late May, Daesh has been on the march — taking over a key airport, overrunning a military base and accepting the surrender of various tribal groups in central coastal Libya. And every day, barely seaworthy boats depart with human cargo toward Europe from Libya’s coastline, which has become an unpatrolled, lawless sieve.

This smuggling of migrants (and, occasionally drugs and jihadists too) is lucrative. It enriches and empowers criminal and militia groups in Libya, which have no incentives to build peace but plenty to prolong the low-level civil war.

Libya’s further collapse is a pressing threat to Western security. But so far, all internationally led diplomatic efforts to stabilize the country have been doomed because they are guided by a narrow anti-Islamist and counterterror ideology.

The political logjam has not been broken because Western diplomacy remains focused on who we want to have in power rather than who actually wields it.

In law enforcement, when hostage negotiators attempt to stave off tragedy, they talk to whoever is holding the hostages, not his distant cousin 500 miles away. Yet Western negotiators in Libya have ignored this approach.

The two biggest threats to Western security in Libya are ISIS and the endless flow of migrants, including some jihadists, toward Europe. Both of these threats are centered around Tripoli and west-central Libya. The Tripoli-based administration, and its coalition partner in Misrata - Libya’s third largest city - have the ability to restrain ISIS’s recruitment efforts and military advance.

The United States and its Western allies urgently need to engage the power blocs and militia commanders that could actually make a meaningful difference in forging a lasting peace. Instead, the West insists on recognizing and engaging predominantly with the Tobruk-based administration in the East - which has little to no control over what happens in most of the country - especially in the areas from which migrants are departing.

The Tobruk-based House of Representatives currently enjoys the perception of being Libya’s sole internationally legitimate authority. That’s because it is, unlike the Tripoli-based administration, largely anti-Islamist - a key asset in a world where Western powers typically back anti-Islamists; despite the policy’s tendency to repeatedly backfire, it remains the prevailing dogma in Brussels, London and Washington. Moreover, the Tobruk-based faction won deeply flawed elections last June, prompting Western diplomats to erroneously assume that it had genuine democratic legitimacy.

For far too long, the Tobruk administration has convinced the United Nations and Western powers to keep Tripoli and its coalition of supporters out in the diplomatic cold. Just last week, Tobruk officials insisted they would reject any plan to stop the flow of migrant boats if European negotiators engaged with any other power brokers, including the local militias who have de facto control of the coastlines in question.

At least Col. Muammar Gaddafi, the deposed dictator of Libya, could actually control events. He would encourage migrants to sail north and then demand diplomatic concessions from Europe. As soon as his demands were met, the migrant flows miraculously stopped.

Gaddafi’s successors in Tobruk and Tripoli are attempting to mimic him. The Tobruk-based faction boasts that it can secure Libya, defeat Daesh and stem the flow of migrants - in exchange for strong Western backing and the lead position in a power-sharing unity government. The Tripoli-based faction does the same, using its more-credible leverage against ISIS and migrant flows to squeeze Europe into legitimizing the gains it has made by brute force. Neither side is likely to live up to its boasting.

To end these charades and bring peace, Western policy in Libya must change radically. If this round of negotiations fails to lead to a successful national unity government, then neither Tobruk nor Tripoli should enjoy international legitimacy or recognition. The mandate from the flawed election that gave the Tobruk faction an edge is set to expire in October; after that, Tobruk should not be put on a diplomatic pedestal.

International recognition is a precious commodity that, when revoked, can catalyse sparring groups to find common ground. Giving one preferential treatment to the detriment of the other will damage Libyan politics for decades to come.

By withholding international recognition, cutting access to the international banking system and applying a raft of multilateral sanctions against disruptive actors - on all sides - the West could begin to remove roadblocks to peace.

But ultimately, Europe and America will have to engage directly with the militias, especially the powerful Misratan bloc, which can actually contain jihadists and flow of migrants. If they do not, Libya will remain paralysed by political stalemate, drenched in the blood spilled by ISIS and haunted by the ghosts of helpless migrants drowning on Europe’s doorstep.

Brian Klaas is a Clarendon scholar and researcher at the University of Oxford, focusing on democratic transitions and political violence. Jason Pack is president of Libya-Analysis.com and an affiliated analyst at Risk Intelligence.

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