Nobody is in Charge in Libya


by Mohamed Eljarh | The Cipher Brief

The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Mohamed Eljarh, former political consultant to the Libyan Mission to the European Union, to discuss the ongoing conflict in Libya, the current terrorist threat in the country, and prospects for peace.

The Cipher Brief: What is the current state of political affairs in Libya?

Mohamed Eljarh: It has been more than 16 months since the signing of the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in the Moroccan city of Skhirat and more than 12 months since the arrival of the UN-backed Presidential Council headed by Prime Minister Faiez Serraj in the capital of Tripoli.  However, Libya remains a deeply divided and polarized country – one that lacks any representative or fully legitimate government – and it has witnessed various camps compete for legitimacy and control of key state institutions, such as the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and Libyan Investment Authority (LIA). In addition, an ongoing armed struggle is taking place in various parts of the country. [The conflict] is linked to the ongoing political struggle for control of resources and state institutions.

Within Libya, there are three centers of political power: the UN-backed Presidential Council based in Tripoli, the State Council (formerly known as the General National Congress), which is also based in Tripoli, and the House of Representatives based in Tobrouk. The failure of these three institutions to implement the Libyan Political Agreement has resulted in significant deterioration in living conditions and a precarious security situation where the risk of a full-fledged civil war and reemergence of violent Jihadist groups, such as ISIS, is real.

Additionally, these institutions and competing governments failed to unify key state institutions that were divided back in 2014 when certain Islamist and revolutionary factions in control of the capital Tripoli refused to recognize the June 2014 national election results and the subsequent move of the newly elected House of Representatives to the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk where it has been sitting ever since. Today, Libya has two central banks, two national oil corporations and three competing managements of the Libya’s sovereign fund, the Libyan Investment Authority.

As a result of these failures and the ongoing conflict, a growing number of Libyans, as many as 40 percent, are now living under the poverty line. The poverty issue in Libya is exacerbated by the ongoing conflict and deteriorating economic and financial situation plagued by widespread corruption and poor governance. Three different governments are printing and spending their own cash and allocating their own budgets.

The value of the Libyan dinar has dropped significantly from a rate of 1.32 Libyan dinars to 1 U.S. dollar to as low as 10 Libyan dinars for 1 U.S. dollar in recent weeks. Additionally, there is a major cash liquidity crisis and shortages in fuel, medicine, cooking gas, and basic goods supplies with significant hikes in prices throughout the country.

TCB: Last year, ISIS was kicked out of the coastal city of Sirte by Libyan forces, but there are reports that ISIS may establishing a base in southern Libya. Does the group still maintain a presence in the country?

ME: Political instability, poverty and conflict are key contributing factors to the emergence and rise of jihadist groups. Although ISIS was defeated militarily in Libya and does not control any towns or cities in the country, the environments and factors that gave rise ISIS still exist today, and if not dealt with urgently and properly, will give rise again to ISIS or a much worse Jihadist phenomena.

Currently, there is violent escalation between Libyan National Army forces under the command of General Khalifa Haftar on one side and forces loyal to the authorities in Tripoli and Misrata on the other. There is no doubt but that ISIS and other al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups will aim to regroup, strengthen their presence, and potentially expand their control over territory in the southern region.

Local forces in the southern region of Fezzan have already spotted an increase in jihadist activities. There is a real threat that jihadist groups will form deep-rooted connections and networks with criminal gangs in southern Libya. [These gangs] are involved in human and drug trafficking and smuggling activities [that] would provide jihadist groups with a generous source of income to fund their activities and regrouping efforts and would have dangerous consequences not only for Libya, but the entire Sahel and North Africa regions, and of course Europe.


TCB: Has Russia become involved in Libya in any capacity? If so, how?  Should the U.S. play a role in Libya, either militarily or by helping to broker a peace deal? If so, to what extent? 

ME: Instability in Libya and the legitimacy crisis have created a vacuum in Libya that since 2014 has been filled by jihadist groups such as ISIS or Ansar al-Sharia. But it is not just Jihadist groups that are filling the vacuum in a chaotic Libya. Regional players such as Egypt, Turkey, UAE, and Qatar have been backing opposing sides in the Libyan conflict.

Last year, Russia started to weigh its options in Libya.  It seems that Libya is now part of Moscow’s expansionist ambitions in the region. Initially, Russia seemed to favor the Eastern Libyan Commander Khalifa Haftar, as the Russians treated his wounded soldiers, have him medical supplies, and provided private contractors to help with war related activities. However, recently, Russia started to reach out to all Libyan stakeholders and has been working to push forward the peace process and the Libyan Political Agreement. Regionally, Russia is coordinating efforts with Algeria, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.

It is clear that Russia is neither keen nor capable of getting involved militarily in Libya. Hence, political and diplomatic involvement is the best option available for Moscow. However, it is important to keep in mind that Libya is important to Russia for obvious economic reasons. Libya is also important to Russia because it is very important to Europe. For Moscow, Libya is another battlefield where [Putin] could twist Europe’s arm.

Russia is getting more involved in Libya while everyone waits to see the Trump Administration’s strategy towards Libya. On April 20, President Trump said, “I do not see a (U.S.) role in Libya” during a joint news conference, moments after Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni called the U.S. role in the country “critical.” This confirms fears of many EU leaders that the U.S. might be heading for disengagement in Libya.

However, Trump’s position on Libya could easily flip, as it did in Syria. But it is important for the Trump Administration to have the right strategy in Libya and not just a reactionary, ad-hoc figure-it-out-as-you go approach.

There are two key issues that any strategy towards Libya has to deal with. First, the legitimacy crisis that led to the current constitutional and legal vacuum. Second, there is the issue of political participation of all Libyan factions in producing a legitimate and representative government. The UN-led peace process was meant to solve the legitimacy issue through the dialogue and consensus process, but has failed.

TCB: Where do you see the situation headed in the short term?

ME: It is very likely that the current status quo will continue throughout 2017. It is important to point out that the term of the LPA and the UN-backed government of national accord ends on December 17, 2017. The president of the House of Representatives has already called for the Higher National Elections Commission to prepare for general presidential and parliamentary elections in February 2018. Given that negotiations based peace process did not yield the anticipated results, a democratic, free and fair elections could be the best way to solve the legitimacy and participation issues highlighted above.

What the United States, Europe and the international community at large can do is to put in place mechanisms and guarantees to support the election processes and ensure they are transparent and fair. Most importantly, the international community, through the UN Security Council, must ensure that elections results are respected and protected.

Additionally, Libya would require two key agreements that need to happen simultaneously:  first, a Libyan Economic Agreement that deals with the management and distribution of Libya’s wealth and ensures equitable and efficient management and distribution of oil revenues between Libyans; and, second, a Libyan Security Agreement that deals with the issue of disarming militias, collection weapons, and the rebuilding of Libyan Armed Forces under civilian oversight and authority, as well as the protection of borders, vital sites, and installations.

TCB: What do you make of the recent meeting between Prime Minister Serraj and General Khalifa Haftar in the UAE earlier this week.

ME: The meeting in Abu Dhabi and the joint communique issued by Prime Minister Serraj and General Khalifa Haftar is a major breakthrough and a significant step in the right direction. However, there are still many details to be worked out. Additionally, there are enough spoilers in Libya that could ensure the meeting does not result in any real progress on the ground. Some Islamist factions that are loyal to the Libyan Grand Mufti in Tripoli, Jufrah and the city of Derna are likely to reject the meeting and its outcomes. Within the city of Misrata some hardline factions have forcefully closed down the city’s democratically elected municipal council and the city is extremely polarized and divided. The hardliners within the city of Misrata are likely to reject the meeting and its outcome. Most importantly, the meeting must be followed by other steps that widen the participation and support base for the new agreement and the upcoming elections.

The key obstacle facing Libya today is the legitimacy crisis that resulted in institutional and legal vacuum. One way out of this conundrum would be holding parliamentary and presidential elections after speeding up the constitution drafting committee and agreeing a constitution for the country. This will ensure the end of the current institutional divide and restore some confidence in governance and the economy. However, any democratic elections will require guarantees from the international community that the electoral process would be free and fair and that the election results are respected.


This piece was originally published on The Cipher Brief


A Potential Game Changer in Syrian ‘Perfect War’

‘When some systems are struck in a dangerous impasse, randomness and only randomness can unlock them and set them free. …  And ironically, the so-called chaotic systems, those experiencing a brand of variations called chaos, can be stabilised by adding randomness to them. … The magic is that such a change of regime from chaos to order did not take place by removing chaos, but by adding random, completely random but low intensity shocks.’ — Nasim Nicolas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2014)

Looking Beyond the Events:

  • There are many wars fought in Syria today, with different agendas and actors involved, but all have one thing in common—they are driven by political power and influence.
  • These wars become increasingly integrated and evolve toward becoming one single multifaceted violent conflict, which no one can control and with no end in sight.
  • Solution to this conundrum is only one—to abandon the idea of achieving a comprehensive peace in one move and instead decompose the problem into small parts, and implement sets of limited tasks to effectively address them, in order to progress toward the ultimate goal over time.

Syrian citizens prepare to evacuate from Daraya. Photo: Local Council of Daraya City via AP

There are many wars fought in Syria today, with different agendas and actors involved, but all of them are about political power and influence. Today, Syria is a battleground for a number of wars. Each war has it its own contexts, underlying conflict drivers, prize at stake, and actors involved both directly and covertly. They are fought by a large group of local, regional, national, and transnational actors. Many are involved in more than one war and the aims they pursue (and alliances they make) in each war are different. Therefore the phrase Syrian War refers to conglomerate of wars closely related to and reinforcing each other (note: and not the ‘Syria’s war’ as sometimes referred to by observers—it is not, if ever has been, solely Syria’s internal conflict due to many external interests and interventions before and after the violent conflict erupted).

Conditionally, we can distinguish between two groups of wars by their aim: one is fought directly in the Syrian power contest and another group comprises various proxy wars which are about strategic positioning in Syria and in the region (among others, through the favourable to them outcome of the former group of wars).

Three wars are fought for direct power control in Syria. The difference is that two of them are internal Syrian political struggle by violent means, while the latter is the fight against an (originally) alien element.

One is a civil war. It started from the violent confrontation between the opposition-turned rebels and the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad, back in 2011. Opposition, in turn, is not united and various rebel groups pursue their own agendas, driven by different ideologies and are supported by different set of external backers (who, in their turn, happen to be rivals in one proxy war but allies or neutrals in others). Both the government and the diverse opposition, however, share one feature—the resolve. The government does not intend to give up the power while the opposition wants to take it all, does not want to share it with Assad (the most recent proposal by opposition is yet another proof).

This winner-takes-all, zero sum game has a number of implications. More protracted it is, more resources it demands, more atrocities are committed, and fewer chances are left for its ultimate resolution. And under the resolution I mean not only a negotiated peace deal but also the post-war governance, stabilization, reconciliation, and rebuilding the country’s devastated physical and social infrastructure.

Another war is the one initiated by militant Islamist groups which took advantage of power vacuum and mess created by the civil war, to occupy territories in pursuit of their own goals. The goal of ISIL is to establish a self-ruled caliphate on Syrian soil. The goal of al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and other jihadist militants is to grab as much as possible of power, in order to control the Syrian state in the future. Originally they were alien to Syrian political context, but in the course of five-and-half years managed to become part of it, through military campaign and skilfully manoeuvring and taking advantage of uncompromising stands.

Initially in the shadow of these two but growing prominent over time and creating yet another set of proxy wars associated with it is the war of Syrian Kurds. The Kurds, too, aim at reshaping the power balance in Syria in their own favour—getting at least a recognised autonomous region, if not an independent state. By establishing de facto the territory of Rojava under their control in the north, they advanced their cause but further complicated the issues for external actors working to end the war (in firsthand the complication between two NATO members, Turkey and the US).

Proxy wars derive from those three wars and thus, are diverse and intricate on their own while also overlapping, confusing and conflicting with each other.  Take just a few examples: regime of Assad is supported by Russia and Iran, while the opposition is backed by the US and Saudi Arabia with other Persian Gulf Arab countries. On the other hand the US, Turkey, Russia and Iran fight against ISIL. Saudi Arabia also backs non-ISIL Islamist groups which in turn support Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. It appears that Saudi Arabia and Turkey also are backing jihadist groups that fight to bring Assad down. The US strongly backs the Kurdish forces, but Turkey, with support of opposition groups backed by the Turkish Armed Forces, has drawn its troops to the north to counter them under premise of fighting ISIL, but actually seizing over twenty villages from Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, a coalition consisting of the Syrian Kurdish YPG and allied opposition groups) south of Jarabulus. And the list goes on and on, with these and many other smaller players entering the game.

The wars become increasingly integrated and evolve toward becoming one single multifaceted violent conflict, with no end in sight. The Syrian wars have one thing in common—all are about power and influence in Syria and for some, broader, in the Middle East region. Because of multiple overlaps, the wars which started with a distinct aim became increasingly integrated over time, thus developing toward single, rounded, all-encompassing ‘Perfect War’.

The wars overlap in their drivers, incentives, and aims. They also wars overlap geographically, with a number of epicentres (such as Aleppo) attracting interests of all parties. They overlap in terms of actors involved in each war (or dimension of it), who keep adapting to fast changing circumstances on the ground, at times pursuing their goals by multiple tactical means, switching sides, merging their campaigns with those actors whom they have seemingly irreconcilable differences at strategic level—and thus contributing to increased intertwining and integration of wars and actors.

The integration of wars is driven mostly through the moves of the actors on the ground. Broad variety of them, from government forces to various governments sponsored militia and paramilitaries, to mercenaries and terrorists are involved on almost all sides. Some of them fight in different fronts even within one war, while others are involved in multiple war endeavours. The uncompromising stand of both indigenous sides to the civil war (Syrian government and opposition) only strengthens the hand of those who want to proliferate from this situation (terrorist organisations such as ISIL and ever more, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham/former Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda), by offering them an opportunity to dig deeper into political process at the expense of Syrian moderate opposition groups.

Syrian opposition movement has not been homogeneous from the outset. However, certain categorisation of them, in terms of ideologies and the means they employed was still possible. Today, and for quite some time already it is very difficult to distinguish between ‘moderate’ rebels and ‘extremists’ as the former are increasingly radicalised and, in desperation, many of them join forces with jihadist groups.

On the other hand, Islamist militants and terrorists gradually become part of the civil war, mix with rebels and thus pose a risk of highjacking the (whatever violent) Syrian internal political contest. This enormously complicates the otherwise ‘wicked problem’ faced by the original parties to the conflict (and those external actors interested in the outcome), as in terms of fighting the war (for example targeting the localities for air strikes) so with regards to agreeing a deal and power sharing in the future political set-up.

The result of this integration is that, by compensating each other’s limitations, the Syrian wars evolve into one self-sustaining conflict—the Perfect War—that is fought for its own sake, is self-sufficient in terms of attracting resources and satisfying its needs, and can last permanently. Some of these currently semi-integrated wars already show indications of being fought for the sake of the fight itself—they became an end in itself for their participants who either don’t have any clear ideological agenda and affiliation or are simply benefitting from the war economically, politically, ideologically, and even psychologically.

Solution to this conundrum is only one—to abandon the idea of achieving a comprehensive peace in one move and instead decompose the problem into small parts and develop and implement a series of limited tasks to address them. The situation in Syria is out of control. There is no such power in the world—individual or collective—that controls or can control it. Before the full integration of Syrian wars happens (and everything indicates that situation evolves exactly in this direction) a fundamentally new approach to finding solution must be employed. One such approach is breaking down the overall task (of ending the conflict and putting the country on the route of stabilization) into smaller tasks that can be managed flexibly and adaptively and can produce results.

In complex environments and systems a failure (whatever small) in one element may unintentionally trigger a chain of uncontrollable failures of large magnitude all around the system and thus lead to disastrous outcomes. This is especially characteristic of systems with interactive, tightly correlated dimensions and elements. The Syrian war definitely belongs to such systems, and we have seen numerous implications of one seemingly small failure complicating and paralysing the entire progress toward resolution.

The general rule is that if there is high uncertainty, many alternatives, and small information available (and thus, high risk) the decision making shall be simple and tactical. For that, an overarching objective shall be broken down into small manageable tasks and sub-tasks adapted to environment and the structure of information and dynamics it offers, and then act upon them carrying out multiple moves, simultaneously and/or subsequently, in various places and directions with an achievable goal set for each. Another condition is that the tasks shall be decoupled (although well coordinated) to extent possible so that to isolate their failures from affecting other tasks. This is where Less becomes More, in terms of the outcome.

Decoupling of processes and system elements has long been recognised as powerful risk management technique. In business, especially when corporations endeavour in a new, risky market  or set a new business line they establish affiliate companies to protect the mother company from damages (financial and image related) from the new project’s failure.

Interestingly enough, this approach is already being undertaken in the Syrian war framework. Take, for example, the attempts of US and Russia to establish a ceasefire in Aleppo, to allow delivering humanitarian aid (in spite of principal differences in stands with regard to the future of Assad). Or consider the recent deal between the Syrian government and the rebels, on surrendering the Damascus suburb Daraya (note: not the surrender of rebels who along with other civilian population were evacuated with weapons, but the locality or whatever ruins remain of it)—an example that small-scale, localised tasks are manageable. Another possible limited task (conditional on the success of ceasefire attempt) is to share the US intelligence in order to enable Russian forces to target Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—something that certain narrow-thinking observers failed to comprehend and appreciate as a demonstration of flexibility and adaptation to circumstances.

The adversaries have been ahead of the game in terms of decoupling, though. Their recent manoeuvring with rebranding Jabhat al-Nusra into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (thus pretending to dissociate from al-Qaeda) and a subsequent ‘defection’ of a fraction from the former, to create their own group—all clearly demonstrate that. The algorithm is simple. Jabhat al-Nusra decouples from al-Qaeda to undertake a new project, to portray itself as and to become solely Syrian actor in order to partner with rebels and eventually influence the political opposition movement. This is a new business, that is why it formally announces the change of name (although does not claim that it cuts ties with the mother organisation thus decouples, dissociates from its global branding while creating new image, localised and tailored to the limited task). But that’s not all. There is more to do for al-Qaeda in Syria, for example attracting other jihadist groups and taking them under own umbrella or continue fighting foreigners, the role left vacant after demolishing the Khorassan group by the US airstrikes. Therefore, another decoupling move follows—this time, creation of a fraction under premise of deflection from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. This new group most probably will deal with Nusra’s traditional business but formally won’t be linked to it, in order not to harm the mainstream activity.

Redefining the strategies and tactics. The goal of establishing a lasting peace in Syria and setting the country and its political system on the route of stabilisation can be achieved by redefining the engagement strategy. Large scale military campaigns can be accepted as only one of a means to an end: pulling out ISIL form occupied territories and decapitating radical militant groups are necessary but not sufficient for achieving the ultimate goal. Neither are high-level (presumably representative and all-inclusive) peace talks with (unrealistic as of this day) agenda of installing new or transitional central government. The daily job of progressing toward the desirable end-state in Syria is through numerous, random, tactical interventions aimed at searching for, understanding, and strengthening the existing opportunities for peace and strengthening local resilient capacity. The way to stabilisation in Syrian lies through those seemingly low-intensity positive shocks that have a potential to end the chaos.


About the Author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. Most recently, he has worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms. Before that, he helped building local governance structures and capacity through community-based initiatives in rural Afghanistan. In the course of eight years he has worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he held various positions in the field (starting as head of field office in Srebrenica) and headquarters; have designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of strategies and local and nation-wide initiatives; and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military groups, political coordination boards at all levels.