Europe Is Playing With Fire by Considering Military Intervention in Libya

05/18/2015 11:33 am ET | Updated May 18, 2016
MAHMUD TURKIA via Getty Images

COPENHAGEN - For months, U.N. special envoy Bernardino León has worked on a deal to secure a new unity government in Libya that would bring an end to the armed conflict that for almost a year has threatened to tear the country apart. A deal signed before the June 17 deadline is the only option for long-term stability in Libya, combating human smuggling and saving lives on the Mediterranean Sea. Yet, Europe's late and panic-driven response to migration may undermine the talks.

Since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been engulfed in conflict and turmoil. Since last year, the country has been divided between two warring fractions with foreign military backing. In the East, there is the internationally recognized Tobruk government, and in the West, in Tripoli, there is the resurrected G.N.C. government that is fronted by the Libyan arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Both camps consist of loose and interchangeable alliances of regionally based militias, tribes, ethnic groups, political rivals and, in the case of Tobruk, former Gaddafi-era military operators. The rivals have so far fought out a stalemate while militant jihadists groups like Islamic State and Ansar al-Sharia have flourished in the unrest.

But now, the Tobruk government, backed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, believes the facts are changing on the ground, a Libyan top diplomat told us, and that the military moment in the conflict has shifted to the Libyan National Army under General Khalifa Hifter. Recently, in an interview in Jordan, Hifter made it clear that if the U.N. talk fails, he would be ready to launch a "military solution."

At the same time, the rivaling Libya Dawn campaign is showing signs of breaking up. Most importantly, sections of the powerful Misrata militias that form the backbone of the forces loyal to the G.N.C. appear supportive of León's draft deal. Fathi Bashaagha, Misrata's envoy to the U.N. dialogue told Al Jazeera, "The national unity government will be agreed upon by both sides and will receive its mandate accordingly."

This is the real dilemma in Libya. The best possible U.N. deal signed before the deadline is not a short-term fix, and fighting and migration to Europe is not likely to stop any time soon. Still, the U.N. deal is the only way forward on Libya's long road to peace.

Even in the best-case scenario, one top Libya diplomat told us, speaking on condition of anonymity, 70 percent of the Libya Dawn militias will accept the plan while the remaining 30 percent will reject it -- and that is not even counting the militant jihadists rallying behind Islamic State and Ansar al-Sharia. In the worst case, the deal is completely rejected, and Tobruk and its backers will try to take Tripoli by force.

The G.N.C. in Tripoli immediately rejected the recent U.N. draft, and the Muslim Brotherhood's Libyan franchise called it "shocking and disappointing." This reaction was to be expected, people close to the negotiations say. The U.N. deal is not a sharing of power between the internationally recognized government in Tobruk and the government in Tripoli fronted by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. It's rather a political exit that allows the brotherhood to step down and save face before it's too late. Technically, the U.N. draft recognizes Tobruk as the sole legitimate parliament in the country, while the rivals in Tripoli will be offered seats among the 100 seats in an advisory board to the unity government.

There are no illusions on the Tobruk side that this will go down without a fight. But the key issue, one Libyan diplomat close to the negotiations told us, is to convince Misrata to get onboard and then deal militarily with the rest; this would undoubtedly mean fighting, especially over Tripoli.

The message is clear: the U.N. draft is not an immediate guarantee against more conflict. In fact, it is not unlikely that a deal in its present form would initially spur more unrest, as there is no power in Libya strong enough to enforce it. For the U.N. deal to become a long-term success, it requires substantial international intervention to protect it. Italy and Egypt, the two neighbors perhaps most affected, have indicated that they are ready to act when there is a political compromise.

To Italy, Libya is the number one security priority. Overwhelmed by migrants and refugees who use Libya as transit, and the prospects of having the Islamic State on their southern borders, regularly issuing threats against Rome, Italy has a lot at stake.

Italy has little option but to follow the U.N.-backed dialogue but has eagerly supported the E.U.-promoted idea of attacking smuggling operations in Libya. The aim of which is "to smash the gangs," as British Prime Minister David Cameron recently stated.

Military intervention seems like a short sighted and dangerous strategy catering to the upcoming regional elections in Italy rather than to long-term Italian security interests. Even in the case that the U.N. Security Council gives its mandate -- which still appears unlikely given Russia's reservations, any outside attack on Libya is likely to play into the hands of the fiercely anti-Western militant jihadists.

Moreover, attacks on human smuggling operations is likely to further increase the precarious situation for migrants and refugees in Libya who are often at the mercy of the smugglers. It is not an unlikely scenario that the armed and battle-hardened militias controlling the coastline will respond in kind to European intervention. Refugees could get caught in the line of fire, as the U.N. has recently warned.

To Egypt, the situation in Libya is just as pressing. Earlier in the year, Egypt tried to gather support for an intervention in Libya but the U.N. Security Council dismissed it. Then Egypt tried to have the arms embargo against Libya's government lifted, but that also failed. Now Egypt is officially supporting a dialogue but with outspoken reservations while at the same time supporting Tobruk's military campaign in close coordination with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Part of the reservation has to do with the special envoy, Bernardino León, who is seen as caving into political Islam under the false impression that bringing the Muslim Brotherhood to the negotiation table in Libya will somehow have a calming effect on the radical jihadists. The Egyptians, of course, have a history with León, who as an E.U. special envoy to the Middle East criticized the Egyptian army for rejecting his attempt to broker a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood prior to the coup in June 2013 and for using unnecessary force against demonstrators.

But the real issue is less personal. Egypt is locked in a protracted and largely unsuccessful fight with Islamist insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula, and they see the illegal flow of arms and Islamist fighters across the Libyan border as fuelling the unrest.

The only long-term solution to the crisis in Libya is a stable and prosperous Libya. It would provide African labor migrants with an opportunity to stay and work in Libya rather than risking their lives on the Mediterranean. Libya has for years been a labor destination, and to many, especially African migrants, Libya is a destination rather than a springboard to Europe. Rebuilding or creating state institutions from scratch could combat smuggling -- of humans as well as of arms and drugs -- and would eventually provide the state with an ability to restrain the militant jihadists that prosper in the power vacuum of post-Gaddafi Libya.

But the international community must not have unrealistic expectations. Even the best possible deal could see a future defined by great unpredictability and likelihood for protracted armed conflict and acts of terrorism. It is therefore vital that the international community is ready to support Libya's future and protect a possible deal.

An increased E.U. naval presence off Libya, creating safer passage for migrants and refugees and combating smuggling of weapons and oil, could be a possible course of action. But a military intervention in Libya at this point is playing with fire.

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