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The State of Libya and what NATO should do about it

The State of Libya and what NATO should do about it


By Onur Anamur 


The word ‘state’ means a condition of being, as in ‘a state of shock.’ Yet, the word ‘state’ is also used to describe a body politic. This second usage derives from the first and dates to the Middle Ages. It is easy to see how this definition evolved. Consider that American presidents’ annual address to Congress is called the ‘state of the union’.

This etymology illustrates the approach to be taken in thinking about foreign policy. The state of affairs in a country defines the country, the state, so much so that we use the same word. Therefore, when embarking on a course of action, rather than applying a general view—interventionism versus non-interventionism, or the purpose, mandate, or effectiveness of an instrument, in our case NATO—one must first take stock of the conditions there. This paper first takes account of the state of Libya. It then considers what NATO should do about the situation there and how it should go about doing it.


The Situation in Libya

Gaddafi’s Libya

The current state in Libya began after the fall of Colonel Gaddafi and his Jamahiriya. Jamahiriya is a reputedly difficult term to translate.

At its onset Gadhafi’s regime was based on a revolution statedly for the people. Jama’ means multitude—and jama’at means congregation. By jamahiriya, Gaddafi meant his regime was for the rule of the masses. This makes the closest single-word English equivalent ‘democracy.’ But remember that for Aristotle democracy meant mob-rule, liable to be taken over by a tyrant, a tyrant who would stress his popular credentials. Thus, the course of Gadhafi’s regime for the people is a well-known phenomenon: it was a textbook example of a tyranny, known as far back as Ancient Greece.

Such was Gaddafi’s rule: a dictatorship that attempted to legitimize itself by claiming that its actions were for the people. This was not all hypocrisy. Gaddafi’s welfare programs were popular and did some good for the Libyan people. But, nonetheless, his regime was a dictatorship, one inimical with the world at large. In parallel, other statedly socialist countries like those in Europe’s past have restricted liberty. They too expressed the same or a similar aspiration as in jamahiriya— a republic of, by, and truly for the people, not some section of it or a monarch. Consider examples of past ‘people’s republics’ and ‘democratic republics’ like the Polish People’s Republic, the official name of Communist Poland.

In 2011, Gaddafi was slain in his hometown, Sirte. A new Libya was proclaimed. The Jamahiriya was abolished. The prerevolutionary flag replaced Gadhafi’s green banner—just as the old tricolor flag replaced the red Soviet flag in Russia. Forebodingly, the new name adopted was simply the ‘State of Libya’. What sort of state it would be, put colloquially, was up for grabs.

A provisional government, the transition council, was established. Gadhafi’s old justice minister, Mustafa Abd al-Jalil, headed it. He had resigned from the justice ministry during the civil war. In 2012, there was the first peaceful transition of power in Libyan history, from this council to a parliament elected with a sixty percent turnout in elections widely considered free and fair. That parliament’s duty was to define postwar Libya. Yet, it could not accomplish the task, and its mandate ran out in 2014. The new elections took place in a tense atmosphere with only 18% turnout. Then, the Libyan Constitutional Court claimed that the elections were invalid. The newly elected House of Representatives protested this, moving to Tobruk, in Cyrenaica.

Libya has had two distinct regions since antiquity: Tripolitania in the west, where Tripoli is, and Cyrenaica in the east, where Tobruk is. The two regions are isolated from each other. Between them is the southernmost extremity of the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Sidra. The connecting southern shore is all desert, with one road connecting them. The two regions had indeed not been governed as a united entity until Mussolini consolidated them into one Libyan colony. Tripoli, however, is by far the more populated of the two, and in Tripoli, members of the previous parliament formed their own provisional government, given that the previous elections were considered invalid.


What is the split about?

The House of Representatives in Tobruk, the Cyrenaicans, are more secular; the Tripoli government is more Islamist. The Tripoli government has a sizable Muslim Brotherhood presence—though reportedly, they should not be expected to win more than 20% of the vote in Tripoli in December.[i] However, both the Cyrenaican and Tripolitanian sides enjoy support from Salafi militias that hold influence over certain municipalities. IS had a presence in Libya, holding Sirte for about a year until it was expelled. There is still some low-intensity activity in Fezzan, Libya’s remote mostly desert southwest where, however, there is oil. The Cyrenaicans are more of a continuation of the Gaddafi regime than the Tripolitanians. Indeed, one of the most divisive actions that led to the current war was a bill supported by Tripoli Islamists that would prevent old high-ranking officials under Gaddafi from taking posts in the new regime.

General Haftar, the Tobruk government’s generalissimo, was an instigator of the revolution against the monarchy with Gaddafi and Gaddafi's right-hand-man until his defection during the war with Chad. However, Tripoli is not free of old Gaddafi officials either. Fayez al-Sarraj, Tripoli’s leader until retiring about a month ago, was a housing minister under Gaddafi.

In effect, the current conflict is led by Gaddafi’s old companions who tend to be supported in different regions. While the Tripolitanians are a bit less attached to the old regime than the Cyrenaicans, nonetheless, the leaders of both sides are former Gaddafi men.


Current Ceasefire

The Cyrenaicans enjoy support from bordering Egypt and from Saudi Arabia. By the spring of 2020, they had all but won the war and were at the gates of Tripoli. However, a last-minute Turkish intervention saved the Tripoli government. Turkey’s parliament voted and sent ground troops to Libya, though not very many. Perhaps more importantly, the counteroffensive also contained a great number of drones, which proved effective. In a matter of weeks, Haftar’s forces were driven out of the great chunk of Tripolitania. The Tripolitanians were able to take some oil fields, too. However, the conditions changed following an aerial attack on an airbase[ii]—likely by Russia. This probably played a critical role in the conflict as going any farther might have cost a good deal of Turkish lives. The Tripolitanian advance was halted at Sirte, and Haftar retook the oil fields the Tripolitanians had just taken. Thus, a ceasefire was declared, making for the situation on the ground today. The ceasefire is tense but holds, and the UN is helping with negotiations.



What NATO should do

Support the Negotiations!

NATO needs to undertake firm and concerted actions to help the negotiations.

First, a firm declaration of total support for the ceasefire should be made. NATO countries should host and hold summits for the parties. More importantly, NATO should also begin a concerted effort with individual member states making overtures to both parties to get them to deescalate and begin the peace process. Most NATO allies have stayed neutral in the conflict and can mediate with both sides. Countries like France or Turkey, which are involved in the conflict, might not be able to negotiate with the other side. Yet, they can negotiate with the side they have supported in the context of this peace process. From the vantage point of the Tripoli or Tobruk government, the call for peace would resound even more if it came from their ardent supporters, as opposed to some country of no consequence in the region or a weak one from NATO itself alone. The parties should know that NATO is united and dedicated to a peaceful resolution of the conflict: that they can neither count on the tacit support of individual countries for their faction's total victory nor can they ignore NATO's remarks for a negotiated peace. NATO's exhortations must not fall on deaf ears.

Moreover, the effort should be concerted. This coordinated outreach program is about NATO countries coming up with a common plan and overall strategy for the negotiations. That means sharing information about the situation on the ground, developing negotiating tactics and strategies, and making sure that their overtures are concerted to achieve maximum effect.

The aim of this outreach should be to achieve a plan whereby the parties agree to peace and to hold nationwide elections—or independence for the two halves, though this might lead to one of them being pro-Russian. Proposing a federal Libya may expedite the peace agreement. Then all parties might be able to get what they want in their own specific area.

Once such a peace plan has been agreed, NATO or the UN may deploy peacekeepers to ensure the deal holds. The Hub for the South could coordinate it. This may be politically unpopular; such an intervention may provoke resistance. Yet, it is a question of spin and of proportion. The necessary force is extremely small. The point is not to occupy or administer the country or defeat a foe but merely to deter this or that militia from overturning the peace process. More troops could be deployed to the desert areas where they would be relatively unseen. Extremely few people live in these regions. Much of the population that lives here, many of them oil workers, are foreigners anyway. Troops, rather than entering from the populous North, could come in quietly from Chad, where NATO member state France already maintains some troops. Such a force would not be disruptive but could go a great way toward enhancing Libya’s deterrence. In this scenario, NATO could protect this area so that neither faction could seize the country’s oil supply, which would provide them the financial resources to continue waging war.


The Role of the Hub for the South and Organizing the Effort

The Hub for the South, with its technical expertise and knowledge, is a great forum in which to develop negotiation strategies, or at least help. The Hub is expressly there to coordinate NATO’s efforts in the South.

For instance, there is little information about the character of the persons running the two Libyan governments, much less on the firmness or militancy of their views. There are merely their public declarations to examine, and it is hard to separate political rhetoric from reality. Staff from the Hub for the South might prove useful in determining what is rhetoric and what is real and use that information to set up negotiations and develop which tactics should be used. After all, officials from NATO countries have met these actors and can continue to meet them. One can only guess that the negotiations should be carried out kindly but firmly so to impress upon the parties that NATO is seized of their concerns and is willing to help them safeguard what they hold dear, but also that NATO is adamant on a peaceful solution and contrary moves may have negative consequences on the faction’s relationship vis-à-vis NATO and the individual member states.

However, because the Hub for the South is not a diplomatic body, it might not be able to carry out this whole effort alone. As stated, the solution should be tailored to the situation. A peace initiative has different stages with different requirements; persuading sides to uphold a ceasefire is a different negotiation than persuading them to sign a constitution. Executing this operation should require both coordination of NATO’s own efforts on all fields as well as an awareness of the economic and political situation on the ground, of how the broader population would react to a given initiative, and military intelligence—such as whether one side is building up troops, how strong they are, and if they are receiving military support from another country.

It seems best to create an ad hoc department with staff coming from the Hub for the South, to provide situational awareness of civilian affairs. Staff could also be drawn from NATO’s Political Affairs and Security Policy division (PASP). The PASP division acts much like a foreign ministry for NATO and provides advice for the Secretary General for internal, external, economic, and security affairs. These staff members could enable diplomatic coordination and advise on general policy. There is also some need for military men, intelligence officers, logistics, and even negotiators. Sending soldiers to negotiate with people who fight civil wars, that is soldiers, might prove more effective than sending civilian diplomats. Indeed, the mindset needed is not one of monitoring an ordinary department but of active project management. So, staff might even be recruited for certain stages of the work—but it is quite important that the people in the project now know all about the developments and information discovered in previous stages. They must be on top of things. NATO’s effort can be accompanied by the efforts of individual member states. NATO’s efforts and those of member states can all be coordinated through summits, meetings, and correspondence of the leaders of the member states.  

This seems to be a decent way to organize the effort, however, one should be flexible. The point is to do what needs to be done, not how that is organized. Indeed, the precise form of organization might naturally differ between different stages of the peace initiatives. The key to organization is what the precise, overall goal being tried at that stage in the negotiation process—and such macro-policy is decided on by leaders of member states anyway. 


Why support the negotiations?

Negotiated peace saves blood and treasure. With it there is no need for military campaigns where people are shot or bombed. This is the great humanitarian reason to support the negotiations in Libya. Holding conferences is also much cheaper than arming one side, the other, or both.

Negotiations are also expedient because there is currently a military standstill in Libya. Haftar cannot take Tripolitania because of the Turks, and the Tripolitanians cannot march into Cyrenaica because of the Russians. Thus, a military solution is difficult. A NATO intervention for one side or the other is unimaginable.[iv]

Moreover, a negotiated peace is a stable peace. Both factions enjoy popular support. There are Libyans who support more religion in politics and those who support less. There are Libyans who like Al-Sarraj and those who like Haftar. An all-out victory by either side, whereby the other side is completely defeated, could lead to an inherently unstable situation; partisans of the other side would most likely be effectively disenfranchised—though perhaps not strictly legally—if not repressed and persecuted. This is sure to garner resentment from partisans of the losing party—a simmering pot left to boil over. A negotiated peace is also an effective and probably final solution. Libyans are not so vehemently or militantly divided that they cannot live together. The war is a dispute among post-revolutionary leaders who tend to be supported in particular regions. If they and their militias make peace, so should the people.

NATO involvement should also be much more effective than the current Berlin Conference. The communiqué signed at the conference, though it is signed by the key foreign actors, is not so much a concrete plan as a mere exhortation. They merely call for peace, declare state terrorism is a threat, and encourage the Libyans to work together. NATO member states do not invest themselves in anything and can tacitly go on supporting their preferred side. The Berlin Conference also gives a stake to non-NATO powers, like Russia.

The two NATO countries that have supported one side or the other in Libya are France[v] and Turkey. French support has been tacit and somewhat half-hearted. Reportedly, “The dominant view in government circles in Paris is that strongman solutions are the only way to keep a lid on Islamist militancy and mass migration.”[vi] France also has some financial interest in Libya, much of it to do with the raw materials sector, where it competes with Italy for resources.

 This belief in strongmen in the context of regional order combined with the requirement of physically defending its assets naturally leads France to supporting the Tobruk government, which may be less democratic but is more secular and militarily stronger. From a French perspective, it is not important that the French position aligns with Russia; Russia’s nearest military frontier with NATO is on Lake Peipus in Estonia, over 1,500 kilometers from France.

France should distance itself from this policy for the peace plan in this paper—indeed, it seems to have distanced somewhat, opening an embassy in Tripoli. French financial interests, which are not too strong, can be safeguarded through negotiation.

Turkey is more committed to supporting its respective side in Libya than France.[vii] Its parliament voted to send troops there.[viii] Its government has some affinity with Tripoli. Moreover, the Tripoli government has signed an agreement with Turkey to delineate a maritime border relevant to its maritime disputes with Greece and the Republic of Cyprus. Perhaps most importantly, there is a massive oil contract between Turkey and Tripoli.

Yet, currently Turkey cannot get any oil from Libya as all the fields are controlled by the Cyrenaican forces and the Eastern Mediterranean dispute can only be ultimately solved by an agreement with Greece. With a negotiated peace, Turkey might not be able to get all the drilling rights it would have had if Tripoli won an absolute victory. Yet, it could still obtain a reasonable amount and much more than it can now. Indeed, it is during negotiations that any sharing of the oil between the parties, and by extension their partners, would be decided. Were NATO in the room where peace is made, its members, including France and Turkey, could have a better platform from which to voice their interests. It would also temper Russian influence in Libya.


Global Context

Once Haftar took the oil fields in Libya, he shut off production. However, they are now producing again. NATO member states are oil consumers rather than producers. There is some production in the US, with the recent advent of fracking and some production under the UK and Canada. Yet, the only real petroleum-based economy in NATO is prosperous but small Norway.

Yet, for Russia and Iran, the price of oil is critical. Oil prices have been at their lowest in decades since the US started fracking. One would have expected OPEC to curtail production to keep prices high, yet this did not happen. While there is no publicly given reason, one guesses that US partners in the Middle East have been diplomatically dissuaded from doing so by the US or its allies. Tensions in the Gulf with Iran may also have given OPEC countries a reason of their own. Keeping oil cheap hurts Iran more than them. This may have come to an end this year with Saudi Arabia’s announcing its intent to curtail production with Russia. This makes the matter even more pressing.[ix]

Russia has no such reason to keep oil cheap. Russia’s interest is that the price rises. Why did Haftar shut off the oil in the first place? One may guess because of Russia’s critical role in supporting him. There are indeed persuasive reports of Russian mercenaries in Libya working with the Kremlin.[x]

If there is a Cyrenaican victory, the status quo continues, or conflict flares up again, there is the risk of a Russian-backed state in eastern Libya controlling that country’s oil. Russians can then again make sure the oil ceases to flow, boosting their own state, and hurting consumers in all NATO countries, except perhaps Norway and less so Canada. Ensuring the export of Libyan oil is not merely some imperialistic plan of ensuring oil supplies, though cheap energy is vital for economies after a pandemic recession. It is also in Libya’s interest that oil be used to develop the country and not ignored to support foreign powers’ interests. Even under Gaddafi quite a bit of oil revenue went into Libya’s development. To decide how to use the oil, ask the Libyans themselves. Elections are the best way to do that.

This proposed concerted and concentrated diplomatic effort by NATO allies to maintain the current ceasefire and start a fully-fledged peace process, involving both the organization as a whole and member states individually, would not just bring a stable peace to Libya—which is the primary objective—but also help NATO member states reduce Russian influence.

This may be hard to do given the tensions within NATO itself. Nevertheless, it is the right thing to do. Last year French president Macron called NATO “braindead.” This may be an incendiary and inappropriate hyperbole. He is, however, right to point out that NATO is at somewhat of a standstill, in some organization atrophy. It has been getting better—now in line with NATO 2030’s initiative—in that NATO has launched things like the Hub for the South, and NATO has demonstrated that it is quite united when it comes to Russia in Eastern Europe. However, launching small programs here and there does not really do the job. It might help, but it is not enough to project stability. NATO’s problems are naturally different in different areas, and therefore, some countries are more interested in some situations more than others. This often translates to a lack of will on the part of the Alliance as a whole. Yet, the problems will not go away with half-hearted and minimal actions. It may not be equally in the interests of all parties to project stability in the South, but fighting terrorism is clearly of interest for all members, as they all have communicated—even Norway suffers from terrorism. It then follows that NATO should do more to project stability in the South and endeavor to do something big rather than just train some troops here and there. And Libya is a country which desperately needs stability. Refugee boats in the Mediterranean often take off from Libya. It is a country in a civil war. It is a country where NATO citizens are invested. Perhaps most importantly, it is a country that deserves peace. If NATO cannot find the will or strength to actively support peace in Libya, it should try harder and find it. It might just reinvigorate the Alliance.


About the Author

Onur Anamur, a citizen of both Canada and Turkey, studies Political Science and Public Administration at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. 



[i] Karim Mezran, “Libya 2021: Islamists, Salafis & Jihadis,” Wilson Center, March 17, 2021, accessed May 1, 2021, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/libya-2021-islamists-salafis-jihadis.

[ii] Reuters staff, “Jets hit Libya's Al-Watiya airbase where Turkey may build base, sources say,” Reuters, July 5, 2020, accessed May 1, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security-idUSKBN24608H.

[iii] Map sources: US Energy Information Administration; libya.liveuamap.com; Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled), August 2020, apud Cécile Marin, International Guns for Hire in Post-Gaddafi Confict: Libya Divided, Le Monde Diplomatique, September 2020.

[iv] Were it imagined, doing so on the Tripolitanian side would mean provoking Russia, possibly translating to a Russian move elsewhere and possibly annoying France. Intervening on the Cyrenaican side would strain NATO’s own intra-relations as Turkey has already committed itself militarily and politically.

[v] Karim Mezran and Federica Saini Fasanotti, “France must recognize its role in Libya’s plight,” The New Atlanticist, Atlantic Council, July 21, 2020, accessed May 1, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/france-must-recogn....

[vi] Paul Taylor, “France’s Double Game in Libya,” Politico, April 17, 2019, accessed May 1, 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/frances-double-game-in-libya-nato-un-kha....

[vii] Emin Avundukluoğlu, “Turkish Parliament Approves Libya Troops Motion,” Anadolu Agency, December 22, 2020, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/politics/turkish-parliament-approves-libya-troo....

[viii] BBC News, “Libya Conflict: Turkey sends troops to shore up UN-backed government,” January 6, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-51003034/.

[ix] Summer Said and Benoit Faucon, “Saudi Arabia to Cut Oil Production Sharply in Bid to Lift Prices,” Wall Street Journal, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/saudi-arabia-russia-reach-compromise-on-ope....

[x] Eric Schmitt, “Russian Attack Jets Back Mercenaries in Libya,” New York Times, September 11, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/11/us/politics/russian-jets-mercenaries-....

Image: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_175873.htm


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Monday, 10 May, 2021 - 18:00