Libya: A Fractured State

Monday, April 3, 2017
Lisa Anderson

Former President, American University in Cairo

Christopher S. Chivvis

Associate Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center and Senior Political Scientist, RAND Corporation; Author, Toppling Qaddafi: Libya and the Limits of Liberal Intervention

Dirk Vandewalle

Associate Professor of Government, Dartmouth College; Author, A History of Modern Libya

Carol A. Giacomo

Editorial Board Member, New York Times

Experts examine the challenges Libya faces in regaining stability—from its ongoing civil war to the increasing danger of the Islamic State—and discuss the repercussions of foreign intervention in failing states.

GIACOMO: Good afternoon. Welcome to today’s program on “Libya: A Fractured State.” I’m Carol Giacomo of The New York Times Editorial Board, and I’ll be today’s moderator.

This session is on the record. I’m going to engage our guests in a conversation for about a half an hour and then open the floor to questions.

So we have with us today Lisa Anderson, who’s the former president of the American University in Cairo; Christopher Chivvis, associate director of International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, who authored the book “Toppling Qaddafi: Libya and the Limits of Liberal Intervention”; and then at the far end Dirk Vandewalle, associate professor of government at Dartmouth, who wrote the book “A History of Modern Libya.”

So here we have a country that toppled the dictator, has been in the midst of civil war for three years, and some people are calling it a powder keg. For many of us, this hasn’t been, my guess will be—challenge me on this, but it hasn’t been exactly the front-burner issue in this age of Trump. But it is a serious issue, and we’re going to try to get into it today, and bring us up to date on what’s going on and what the future may hold.

So I’d like to start out, with whomever wants to do it, talk about where we are with Libya today. How bad is it? (Laughter.) Don’t all speak at once.

VANDEWALLE: It’s not very easy to be the first one to answer that because it’s hard to know where to begin on where we are. But essentially, I am—as a kind of a political scientist, the way I look at Libya is that, you know, this is now a country that on three different occasions has had a chance to build itself up as a modern state, and for the third time Libya is spectacularly failing in trying to do so. And so my—the question to myself always is, you know, why is that so? What is the influence, the impact here of the past on Libya’s development, and why has it emerged the way it did?

Remember that after 2012—or 2011 and then the election in 2012, lots of us, including people present here, were quite optimistic about Libya, and we thought that this really could kind of blossom into an example for other countries in the region to follow. But then what we also saw very quickly was—and to make a very long story short—that the kind of what I would call primordial politics, politics below the level of the state, really reasserted themselves very, very quickly in Libya. And so a country that already had very, very weak institutions, state institutions, to build anything upon—and, indeed, in many ways it was a tabula rasa to begin with—you know, then suddenly gets even more attention and gets this civil war on top of it.

And so the outcome of all of that is I think that in many ways Libya’s probably at this point worse off than it was at any point since 2011, and that in a sense there will need to be a very long process that will probably need to start with reconciliation because—before we can even start to think about recreating a modern Libya the way we would like to see it in the West. And that is—I think that will probably last or will take, I would venture, you know, decades to accomplish.

CHIVVIS: I mean, I—oh, sorry, go ahead.

ANDERSON: No, I just—I agree, although, with Dirk’s assessment, and I certainly think that we are confronting a(n) enormous problem.

I would say, however, that I think two things that we don’t pay enough attention to in trying to understand contemporary Libya are the resilience of the institutions that are around those primordial affiliations and so forth. So you see enormous continuity in the last hundred years in Libya in who’s important and what families and what communities, and so forth and so on. It’s staggering how much what we see now is what we saw after the Second World War and what we saw after the First World War in Libya. So I think it’s actually important to recognize that this kind of resilience and local community authority and so forth is what we are needing to confront. And I don’t think we pay as much, collectively, attention to those patterns, what the interests of those players are, and so forth are.

And, secondly, in all three of those periods you also saw, as you see now, lots of international intervention, and that is a pretty toxic combination. And I think the local interests using their connections with various international players for their purposes, which are not the same purposes as the international players, is part of the reason why it’s so complicated and part of the reason why solving the problems are going to be so difficult.


CHIVVIS: Yeah. I mean, in terms of the overall outlook, I mean, I think I basically agree. Obviously, Libya today is not the Libya that a lot of us hoped would emerge after the 2011 intervention. There’s no question about it. I think the high point probably—or a low point, if you will—last year was when ISIL controlled a significant amount of territory in Libya.

It’s important to recognize that, at least on the counterterrorism front, things over the course of the last year have gotten better. They’re not solved, but they are better. And that’s to the surprise of a lot of us who were looking at ISIL’s growth in Libya and basically expecting it to be the second front in ISIL’s operations globally. That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore, so that’s a significant improvement. But what we can be concerned about I think most right now—and I’d actually be interested to see if my fellow panelists agree with me—is the possibility that the civil war, which had allowed ISIS to take territory in Libya in the first place, that that civil war actually gets significantly worse.

If you look at sort of definitions of civil war, Libya barely meets the level of violence that’s—for most academic definitions of civil war. It could be a lot worse. It’s nothing like Syria right now. In fact, it’s significantly better. I mean, you could say that’s an unfair comparison, but the reality is things could get a lot worse in Libya than they are today, and I think that’s what we ought to be trying to prevent.

GIACOMO: Before we get into those topics heavily, can you just look back a little bit and analyze, was there—could have or should have the United States and the Europeans done something different, done more after Gadhafi was toppled? Could that have made a difference?

VANDEWALLE: Well, I mean, that’s a very contested subject, in a sense. But, obviously, looking back—and hindsight of course, is 20/20 here—but in hindsight, the one thing that I think nobody really realized was that ultimately you couldn’t really have a solution until there was a government in place that actually had power, that actually had a monopoly on violence. And so what we saw very quickly was that these militias kept emerging, and indeed the militias in my—the way I evaluate Libya remain the biggest threat at this point. So, yes, we could have went in or at least we could have taken some action, either individually or with other partners, to make sure that these militias were disarmed.

I think we were a little taken by surprise, in a sense, or we were taken a little bit sideways by the nature of the Transitional Council that emerged because they said the right things, you know, they looked like us in a sense; you know, they came from the right background. We thought they would be able—and remember that the Libyans themselves kept saying we really don’t want—we don’t want boots on the ground, we don’t want anybody to intervene; part of our legitimacy will be to build ourselves up into a modern, durable state. And, of course, the way the patronage system developed in Libya—and to go back to the comment that Libya—sorry, that Lisa made, you know, about the persistence of these primordial politics—you know, meant that in a sense a central government not only was not feasible, but also was also distrusted—came to be distrusted. And so that is the real problem with Libya, I think, today.

And what it means—to go back to your initial question, Carol—is that, you know, it’s—yes, it’s a powder keg, in a sense, but I don’t think we’re worrying about a grand explosion, in a sense. What we’re really worrying about is—again to go back to what Lisa said about the persistence of these primordial politics—that this could fester on for years and years and years unless there really is the willingness of an outside actor—and it really needs to be an outside actor—to really put a halt to these depredations that the militias have caused in Libya.

CHIVVIS: So we’ve done analysis on this at RAND, and in our judgment a force—international security force of a few thousand would have made a really significant difference in those early months after Gadhafi was killed in terms of this critical issue of DDR—of demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration. The failure to do that, as Dirk just pointed out, really set Libya on completely the wrong course because you had militias running around all over the country with their own arms. It led to the rise of criminal gangs, smuggling, eventually ISIS, and was at least in my view sort of the root problem that got us to where we are today in Libya.

You didn’t need to deploy, you know, huge numbers of forces. They didn’t even need to be U.S. forces. They could have been NATO forces, maybe even Arab League forces if you want to think really creatively. With just a few thousand of them, I think we could have a very different situation in Libya than we do today.

GIACOMO: Did you want to add?

ANDERSON: No, I think—I think that’s true. But I think we need to recall with Dirk said, was that the Libyan leadership said they didn’t want that. And so you really are in a difficult position because even several thousand, if the Libyan leadership is saying they don’t want it, is a very difficult proposition.

CHIVVIS: It would have been an imposition on the—

ANDERSON: Yeah, exactly.

CHIVVIS: We would have had to force it on them.

ANDERSON: Exactly.


GIACOMO: Now, Dirk also said that the militias remain the core problem for Libya today. I mean, people tend to focus on ISIS because it has such a transnational presence. So what do you do about the militias today? Is there a role for the international community to play at this moment that it’s not playing?

ANDERSON: I think—I think someone has to take seriously the configuration of, if you will, local or domestic politics. Most of the interactions with these militias by outside actors of various kinds have been to support some of them against others, in the expectation that that would give them leverage in some way or help secure their borders or help defeat ISIS or something like that, which means that most of the outside actors right now are being played by the local notables and their militias. And so until somebody says either we’re going to stop playing—which is what the Italians did: forget it, we’re just going to stop—or what the U.N. did after the Second World War was to say we’re going to knit together something that you don’t really have much of a choice but to accept, and the international community—everybody will stop pouring arms into this country. So that would be a way of doing it. But it will take the, you know, self-denial on the part of everybody who’s playing in Libya right now.

VANDEWALLE: Yeah, and I agree totally, Lisa. I think, indeed, that would be one way to do it.

There is an additional problem, however, and that is that even the current government—Libya currently is being—really being run as a huge patronage system. And so you have, you know, a central bank that essentially supports everybody, including the militias, including competing militias, including competing governments on the eastern part and on the western side. So the government—you know, a lot of times in terms of the Arab Spring we kept talking about the deep state, in places like—you know, like Egypt and so on. But the deep state in Libya has been the budget, you know, the way that the central bank is able to just use patronage indiscriminately to support all these different factions including, as I said, the different militias.

So, in addition to what you said, yes, there will need to be some kind of perhaps intervention, to go back to Chris’s point, that, you know, we missed the opportunity to initially. But there also will need to be some kind of mechanism whereby these militias don’t get automatic access to the funds of the state. And, you know, not so surprisingly the central bank in Libya is the one institution that is fought over by all of these militias. And again, to go back to your point about, you know, primordial politics, because of who you know—Lisa said it very well—you know, it’s the same people from the same family that were there 60 years ago. And so, unless you can solve that, both a security point and the income to these militias, you know, Libya really can’t be solved.

CHIVVIS: I agree with all of that. The only thing that I would add is that at the foundation, what Libya needs ultimately is some kind of a political agreement about what Libya’s future is going to look like. And that’s what’s been lacking since the start. That’s what Libyans have been unable to achieve. So if you’re talking about getting militias to come together, you’re basically talking about getting a political agreement between the people who actually wield real power on the ground, the people who run militias. The other forward—using militias very generally here—would also include Haftar’s forces. You need some kind of a political agreement, at least between enough of those groups that you can move the country forward. And that’s what the U.N.-broken Libyan political agreement was supposed to be, but now appears to be failing.

VANDEWALLE: But I think—personally, I think you put your finger precisely on it, Chris. You know, having a political solution is not by itself enough unless it can be enforced.

CHIVVIS: That’s absolutely right.

VANDEWALLE: And so what we have seen in Libya is, indeed, the United Nations has gone and has done reasonably well in trying to hammer out some kind of agreement. But, again, without backup—a physical backup, there was no way that it could be implemented. So in terms of kind of thinking forward, what is going to need to happen is that perhaps the U.N. could come back in and do the kind of reconciliation that will be necessary before even you could think about bringing in a physical force, or whatever, you know, to backup any kind of proposal that is put forward. So again, this is long term and it’s kind of, you know, at different levels. But that, I think, is probably the future.

ANDERSON: But there has to be a political reconciliation in the international community about Libya.


CHIVVIS: It’s also important, yeah.

ANDERSON: It is not just a domestic problem.

CHIVVIS: Mmm hmm, yes.

GIACOMO: All right, so let’s talk a little bit about these external actors who have been meddling in Libya. I mean, you’ve got Turkey, you’ve got Egypt, you’ve got UAE, you’ve got Qatar, and now you have Russia, apparently just—you know, Putin’s licking his chops. (Laughter.) So talk to me a little bit about what the relative impact of these other countries are at the moment. And then—and then also talk about Russia and what that’s going to mean.

VANDEWALLE: This is Chris’ bailiwick. (Laughs.)

ANDERSON: Yeah. And he has a good piece on this.

CHIVVIS: That’s very kind of you. (Laughs.)

I mean, so—look, I mean, obviously, I think Egypt is really the key—the key external actor here, I mean, I’d like to hear what others thing, but it has been for a long time. It has the biggest interest in what’s happening in Libya, has played the biggest role, sees in General Haftar, the eastern—rising eastern strongman, you know, someone who’s simpatico to, you know, the outlook of the Egyptian government. Through Egypt you have the involvement of some of the Gulf states as well, although I think that—my understanding is that through international pressure that has diminished to a certain degree. It’s very difficult to tell from the outside to what extent it’s actually diminished over the course of the last year or so. And then, obviously, you have countries like Turkey which are playing, you know, the other side, although my sense is that Turkey’s bandwidth for dealing with Libya has diminished considerably over the course of the last year-plus, but especially over the course of the last nine months.

So then you get into the question of Russia, OK? Russia has an enormous opportunity in Libya, if it wants to take it, OK? So let me start with laying out for you the argument that I’m guessing that Putin is hearing from his general staff about Libya. OK, strategically, if we were to have influence in Libya, we could have a lot of leverage over Italy, because the central Mediterranean migration route runs through Libya. Italy is suffering enormously under the pressure of all those migrants. If we can stop that or control it, that gives us a huge amount of influence in Rome, and consequently over European Union sanctions on Russia. That’s one big argument. The second big argument: If we can go into Libya, we can demonstrate—and do something to deal with the remaining ISIS fighters that are there—we can demonstrate our bona fides in fighting global terrorism, which is something that we’ve argued we can do, we’ve been doing in Syria, we want to do elsewhere. Lord knows how today’s events in St. Petersburg will further—great impetus for Moscow to take that objective to the next level.

Third, and this is important, and I think people may not realize this as much, but eastern Libya is actually not a bad place for deploying advanced A2/AD systems. Russia has already deployed anti-aircraft S-400s in western Syria, at its base in Latakia. That covers most of the eastern Mediterranean, and complicates air operations for NATO there. If it deploys—if it were to deploy those same systems in eastern Libya, it would be able to extend that bubble—that A2/AD bubble that it’s created over the eastern Mediterranean much more significantly westward. That could be a big problem for U.S.-European Command, for Africa Command, for CENTCOM, and for NATO. So I think that from the perspective of Russia right now there are a lot of reasons to try and get behind Haftar and help him to take Tripoli and reunify the country under a strongman.

Finally, it would also demonstrate simply that, you know, another one of NATO’s interventions has failed, which is something that’s an important part of Putin’s rhetoric. There are a lot of reasons—and we can talk a little bit about the reasons why they might not do it. There are also reasons why they might not. But those are some of the big ones why I think they probably are thinking seriously about it.

GIACOMO: What would it take Russia to do that? How many troops, what kind of armaments?

CHIVVIS: It could—I would imagine—I mean, I would imagine you’re probably talking about the use of some limited air power as Haftar’s forces move from where they are in central and eastern Libya towards Tripoli, to back them, largely as a show of force. I think just demonstrating that they’re behind them, they might hope that they can get some of the militias that are sitting on the fence, for example in Tripoli, to switch over to Haftar’s side, make the whole thing much easier. Whether or not they would actually try to strike Misrata, which is going to be the big holdout in any kind of a scenario, I don’t know. Maybe they would try to use political negotiations there. But they would demonstrate clearly to the world that they were behind it. And it wouldn’t be—it wouldn’t take too much to do, really. We’re talking about an operation that’s probably less difficult than the operation in Syria right now.

GIACOMO: Does Russia have the bandwidth to do that?

CHIVVIS: That’s an important question. A lot of people speculate that between eastern Ukraine and Syria right now they are completely tapped out. Obviously, they’ve had to pull back on their—on their military spending, have this big military modernization program. They have to reel it in back—reel it back somewhere, at least postpone some of it for later. That could be the argument that actually gets them—gets them to hold off.

ANDERSON: But it wouldn’t be that expensive if the United States just sat to the side. So part of their calculation would be not what they would be doing in Libya, but what the international reaction would be. Let me remind you, that when the United Nations was established, the Soviet Union volunteered to take the trusteeship for Libya.

VANDEWALLE: And of course, I mean, I totally agree with your assessment, Chris. I think that—but then, of course, one of the assumption of your assessment is that we would see a unified Libya emerge. And it’s not so clear to me that, you know, one of the purposes of—if the Russians were indeed to come in, is that let’s say they could go up to Misrata and simply be happy with the eastern part of the country, and that would lead to kind of a catastrophic scenario eventually of breaking up the country. So, you know, that’s another complication that I think very few people have thought about so far.

CHIVVIS: No, I agree. They might try to intervene and it might now work. It’s quite possible. (Laughs.)


GIACOMO: And then if it didn’t work, would it bog Russia down or would Putin just say, oh, that didn’t work, and he’d sort of walk away?

CHIVVIS: Well, I guess we can look at Syria and see how effective they’ve been in walking away from that problem. I mean, obviously they’ve tried the Astana process, a range of other things, to try and get other actors to take more responsibility there. So far they haven’t succeeded in that. And in Moscow a couple weeks ago, I got a sense that there was a growing urgency about the need to get other people involved, so that they can actually back away.

GIACOMO: Mmm hmm. I wondered if you would all sort of look a little more closely at the ISIS threat. I think it was Chris who mentioned that, you know, it looked pretty bad for a while. Some efforts have been made that seem to have diminished the threat. But I read recently that various ISIS groups or fighters are regrouping and getting back together. So what’s your assessment of the threat at this moment? And then try to analyze it in terms of Russia. If Russia came in to—on this—with an argument that it was going to demolish ISIS, you know, how hard would it be? And could they be more successful at that than everybody else has?

CHIVVIS: So the U.S.—the last major military operation of the Obama administration was to take out a group of 80 or so, or 100, ISIS fighters south of Sirte, where they had encamped after being chased out of Sirte, in the Libyan-led operation that took place over the course of the last year. It was a significant operation. It involved flying B-2s from the United States over Libya. You have to wonder whether there were other audiences intended, to use such large weapons against what’s effectively a fairly small militia. I think it was your colleague in the Times, I think it was Eric Schmitt who had an article about the persistence of ISIS in Libya today. You know, no one can know for sure.

My own sense is that there probably is still a number of ISIS fighters in Libya today. It may not be quite as—I might have not gone quite as far as that article, I think, in terms of raising the alarm bells, because I think that this—there was a lot accomplished over the course of the last year. But the underlying problem is that the environment for ISIS is rich in Libya. You have a lot of disaffected young people. You have wide availability of arms. You have wide availability of arms. You have Salafist recruiters who are actively working around the country. And you have no state. So I think that that’s the deeper problem that we have to—we have to deal with. And that’s obviously going to require a lot more than airstrikes.

VANDEWALLE: Yeah, I think absolutely right. I think that the problem—it is not such a problem by itself, but I think what it symbolizes, you said, Chris, I think is much more important, you know, that this can kind of survive in an environment that is already chaotic and not a real state presence, then it kind of leaves a power vacuum continuously for long periods of time, and then different actors, different militias and so can, you know, play up on that. And so that, I think, is a real problem.

ANDERSON: I don’t think it’s a power vacuum. I think it’s a petri dish. (Laughs.) I think it’s a fabulous medium for the growing of these kinds of sentiments, and individuals, and so forth. So they don’t have to be imported into Libya. There are lots of people who would be so inclined. And, Chris, I actually have a question for you, because if you were to think about Russia deciding that they were going to try and do—(audio break)—European, you know, leverage with Italy and so forth. But it also means that they would have far more access into—

CHIVVIS: No, I think that’s right. I think one of the operations would definitely—and maybe I didn’t state this quite clearly enough—to demonstrate that they are part of the global counter-ISIS coalition in a meaningful way. I think you would see, you know, sea-launched cruise missiles, Kalibr missiles, coming off the Mediterranean, going way down deep into supposed ISIS camps where, you know, it’s shown widely on our TV and other places, look at all this damage that we’re doing. Whether or not that would be their real objective in Libya—kind of like in Syria, most of those—mostly they only hit ISIL when it—ISIL was threatening the regime, not to take out ISIL because they don’t like ISIL. They don’t like ISIL, but that’s not their main objective. Same thing in Libya. I think you’d see some strikes there, but mainly their main line of effort would be to support Haftar in taking Tripoli.

GIACOMO: Does anybody see any sign of a Trump policy on Libya? (Laughter.)

ANDERSON: No. (Laughter.) I mean, it’s early, in fairness. Talk about bandwidth, there’s a lot of things to worry about.

VANDEWALLE: And in fairness, they have sent out some feelers towards particular Libya experts to look at some of this. But I don’t think there’s—I think one of the problems is this does not really rank as a true crisis, in a sense, in Washington, much as, I would argue, it does not even in Europe, even though the problems there are a lot more acute. You know, whether or not it will in the future, of course, we cannot predict. My hunch is they will probably take a look at it, it will not be a high priority. I would be surprised to see that change over the next year or couple of years or so on.

GIACOMO: But to the extent that it is a place where ISIS has found fertile ground and has been a problem, and the fact that they are doing a study on what its policy towards counterterrorism should be, one would think that would fit in some place, maybe?

ANDERSON: Well, look, I think right today Trump and President Sisi of Egypt are meeting. I can’t imagine that on that list would not be Haftar and thinking about the Egyptian backing of him, and the danger that this represents to Egypt, and the sort of counter-Islamic terrorist projects in the region and so forth, which is another reason why the—I mean, I could imagine the United States deciding to try and preempt Russia in backing Haftar and going with the Egyptians. So you can see—it seems to me, you can see some possible, you know, policy options being arrayed before them. And if I were—I mean, I can imagine, particularly from the vantage point of Egypt, a preference for American backing of Haftar to Russian backing of Haftar, so.

GIACOMO: OK. So in terms of the threat to Italy, there was apparently an agreement announced today—some sort of migration agreement between Italy and Libya to cordon off the southern border. And I wondered if any of you had any real insight into that, and whether you thought it could be effective in any way.

VANDEWALLE: Well, there was an earlier agreement signed between the prime minister and Prime Minister Sarraj. You know, the problem is the piece of paper it was signed on—I mean, it’s virtually worthless, because on the Libyan side the GNA really has no power at all to implement it. So, you know, as an agreement it doesn’t really mean anything. In addition, we know that some of the people that are part of the GNC in general also have links to some of the smugglers that are involved in it.

So again, and this whole patronage system and so on comes into play. It would be very, very difficult, I think, to solve that. So I don’t see that refugee crisis being solved very quickly, unless, again, you could kind of have an overall policy where the government actually has the power to implement something rather than just sign an agreement. But it points to the larger difficulty as well, which is that the unity government in a sense is dissolving as we are speaking here. That’s the larger issue, again, beyond all of this.

GIACOMO: And if the unity government actually does completely fall apart, and it’s laid bare that there’s nothing there, what’s the impact of that?

VANDEWALLE: I’m not sure it would have a great impact. For all practical purposes, the unity government has never had any impact to begin with. So it would just, as I mentioned a few minutes ago, just keep pestering on and on without any effective policy being made. And that, I think is the real issue, and why we may want to think about a solution—a more structural solution to the security issue, you know, married with a kind of process that would bring some reconciliation and would hopefully bring some of the militias into that as well.

GIACOMO: All right. Let’s open the questions up to the—please state your name and remember it’s on the record. I think it’s the woman in the back with the long, brown hair.

Q: Thank you for this great discussion. I’m Kimberly Marten from Barnard College.

And I actually have a three-part question about the militias, with one question for each of you. So, Lisa, do the militias follow the local governance lines that you talk about as being traditional? Are they locally based? Are they geographically aligned with the kind of traditional family strength that you’re talking about? For Kirk Vandewalle, what is the source of the source of the patronage that the militias are getting? What is funding the central bank to give them that money? And then finally, for Christopher Chivvis, why do you think that the militias will just disappear and fall along behind a strongman supported by Russia? What makes Libya better than Syria in that regard of making it happen?

ANDERSON: By and large, yes, the militias are. Some of them are just freelancing everywhere and doing whatever they want. But the powerful areas are areas that have been powerful and have had local, notable families for centuries. You know, Misrata is split somewhat. The, you know, mountains have split somewhat, and so forth. But they’ve split in predictable ways. So I think one of the things, again, that would be worthwhile is to spend a little bit of time—not today, but in general—we should spend a little bit of time and map that out and try and figure out what the social base of some of these militias is, because it’s partly patronage. But it’s also partly communities that have been together, like the Hatfields and McCoys, for a very long time.

VANDEWALLE: If I could just make an additional comment, and I think Lisa’s absolutely right. And of course, the problem was that right after the revolution that you had militias that, in a sense, were not affiliated with anything at all. It was pure banditry in many ways. I mean, almost like little mafias. And literally in Tripoli you had—or particularly in Misrata also, you had these militias, you know, which was somebody and somebody’s brother, and somebody’s cousin. And that’s constituted a—you know, that has now started to consolidate a little bit. And so to go back to your point, Lisa, it makes sense to start mapping that, because then you could at least have a better understanding of what makes them tick. And you could probably then bring them into any kind of agreement.

And on the funding, it’s a very simple thing. All of the funding really comes from oil income. And that’s been the way it’s been since the beginning. And, of course, why the national oil company and the central bank, where all the money eventually ends up, that is, of course, being fought over. And luckily, the two institutions have remained quite neutral in all of this. But again, if the situation deteriorates—for example, it’s very clear that the Misratan—well, at least to me, it’s reasonably clear that the Misratan militias are probably starting to move against the GNC, which they have traditionally supported. And so that could introduce a whole new dynamic inside Tripoli. And that could have all kinds of repercussions, again, on how these militias will function. But again, the underlying argument—or the underlying reality is that everybody, all the militias, the rival governments, are all being funded by oil money, essentially.

CHIVVIS: Yes, but I think you would add, also, in addition rent-seeking behavior, you know, smuggling, other kinds of things that they get money from in some cases.

Kimberly, I don’t mean to say that I think militias are necessarily going to fall behind Haftar. I think individual militias will, you know, make a judgement based upon how they see their own interests, especially in terms of rent-seeking behavior, their own security, and their own power position in whatever, you know, future Libya emerges. Some of them have fallen in behind Haftar in the east. That’s how he’s managed to consolidate his power, in part. What I was referring to in Tripoli is, you know, in my mind, I think you probably have groups of militias in Tripoli that are sitting on the fence. And if he were—he probably assesses that if he were to make a move on Tripoli, some of those militias would come around to his side, even though others of them would remain sort of adamantly opposed to him.

GIACOMO: OK, gentleman right there.

Q: Thank you. Gianni Riotta with Princeton University.

I grew up in Sicily, where we used to say as young man, there is now a new humanitarian tragedy. And if you talk to fishermen, people who do the fishing fleets south of Italy, there would be horror stories. And Europe is completely indifferent. The Italian navy is the only one trying to check this. So what should we ask the European Union to have, like, a coalition, a European fleet, to ask for the Russian help? Are the Americans pitching in, or we should simply be resigned that kind of very peaceful and touristic routes are now becoming, like, a new Holocaust? Thank you.

CHIVVIS: I mean, I think capability-wise you’re going to get more if you go to the NATO route, simply because that’s how the United States is going to get involved in this. You know, I haven’t actually done an assessment of the existing operations that are there, in which I know Italy is a major contributor. Obviously, the European Union has just such an astounding amount on its plate right now that it’s not an easy time to request more, but maybe that’s just the reality. But ultimately, you know, building a better—you know, from a humanitarian perspective, it would be great, you know, to be able to do more for—500 people have already died at sea, is my understanding, this year. It’s very, very sad. But the problem is not going to get solved until Libya gets solved. So, ultimately, you’re just talking about a stopgap measure in any event.

GIACOMO: Gentleman right there, yeah.

Q: Thank you. Hi, I’m Craig Charney of Charney Research.

Traditionally I’ve been a soft power sort of guy, but what really stands out in all of your comments in the centrality of hard power in a case like Libya’s. The phrase that came to mind is covenants without the sword are not covenants. Two questions then. One is for Chris. Tell us a little bit more about the time in Moscow, and in particular the likelihood of a Russian intervention. And I would be curious if Dirk or Lisa have any thought as to whether there are any serious alternatives in terms of an emergence of a hard power capable of putting Libya back together again—not theoretical ones, but ones that might actually happen.

CHIVVIES: So I mean, I think as I think about it, I mean, there are a range of different rationales why Russia might decide—why the Kremlin might decide that it wants to back Haftar. And those include the strategic rationale, with the ability to extend their A2/AD bubble, influence over Italy and, hence, the European Union. I didn’t mention oil, but that’s another obvious one. Rosneft has recently made a deal with the NOC for, you know, investment, potential exploration in the future. And then just, you know, part of the narrative that the Kremlin believes in, that it can provide an alternative to NATO and American democracy promotion.

So there are a lot of reasons why it might do it. It’s not militarily all that difficult, as we were talking about a little while ago. But nevertheless, there is a serious question of, you know, how the Kremlin will assess its bandwidth, and whether or not it thinks it has a good partner in Haftar. Haftar was invited a couple months ago aboard the Russian aircraft carrier, the Kuznetsov. He had a—their equivalent of a VT, a video teleconference, with the Russian defense minister. And my sense is they’re probably trying to figure out, OK, who is this guy? If we’re going to back him, you know, are we going to be—are we going to regret it a couple of months down the road?

GIACOMO: Gentleman right here.

ANDERSON: No alternatives. No alternatives.

GIACOMO: I’m sorry.

ANDERSON: No. (Laughter.) No, I mean, this is—it’s a sorry thing to say, but I actually don’t think that there are very many ways to imagine law and order and stability in Libya in the absence of a fairly serious authoritarian make everybody stop kind of interim. So that doesn’t mean that that has to be true forever. But you know, again, to go back to the last 100 years, the Libyans, given opportunities to put it together themselves, failed repeatedly. And I think there are a lot of reasons for that, including mischievous international intervention and so forth. But it does mean that if you try and think of something you could do now, it has to be plausible enough that everybody stops being mischievous. So they have to have confidence in it, that it’s actually going to produce law and order and stability. And then those remnants within the country, who want to continue to act against such a government, in the absence of foreign patronage, are also going to have to be persuaded that there’s no percentage in it. I think that’s not soft power.

VANDEWALLE: Yeah. I think—no I just wanted to follow up very quickly. I think Lisa’s absolutely right. And to go back to a comment that Chris made, I don’t think, and I’ve, you know, kind of sensed in Europe—having talked at several European capitals about this—that there really is—they have an enormous amount on this plate, obviously, in Europe. But I also don’t sense that there is a perception yet that the Libyan crisis is severe enough to really warrant a unified European response at this time. And so I think for that reason we will likely not see any decisive action on the part of the European Union which, you know, for all practical purposes here, as Chris has—means they are agreed could be presumably the United Nations, or it could be the United States, or NATO.

And I think—I see this in terms of soft power more, if you include diplomacy as soft power, as a kind of a two-level process in a sense, that, yes, I think Libya is—I think Lisa is right. There needs to be some kind of ultimate arbiter that is going to set some boundaries, make sure that there are no defectors to whatever agreement is reached. But at the same time, if you really want this to work in the long run, I think you need to start a process of reconciliation, much—and I see this very much in the same sense that, for example, Adrian Pelt, you know, when he created—helped to create Libya, that is a long process of consultation that brings out all the difference that—you know, that irons out a lot of the difficulties before you even start thinking about a unity government or elections or, you know, whatever the United Nations has done until now.

So I think the role of the United Nations in this needs to change quite dramatically. And if it could be paired with what Lisa was talking about, bringing in some kind of either authoritarian or whatever form it takes—

ANDERSON: I mean, keep in mind that Adrian Pelt was operating in Libya when it was under British military administration. I mean, it’s just very difficult not to imagine something like that then setting the basis for the conversations that you think—

VANDEWALLE: Right, exactly.

GIACOMO: OK, there’s a gentleman right there, in the red tie.

Q: Stanley Arkin.

Does ISIS have any organized supporters within Libya?

CHIVVIES: Yes, quite a few. I mean, that’s part of the problem. It’s interesting to think about the way that ISIS actually took over the town of Sirte in the first place. There was a local Libyan group called Ansar al-Sharia, which is one of the groups that was responsible for the Benghazi attacks back in 2012, that had basically taken over the town of Sirte in the absence of any kind of state authority. ISIS came in with a relatively small group and managed to get a large number of the adherents of Ansar al-Sharia to switch over to ISIS, and then kicked the remainder of Ansar al-Sharia out of the town. So in large part, what that means is that most of ISIS that occupied Sirte were actually local Libyans.

GIACOMO: Over there.

Q: Thank you. I just have two questions. One is, what is the impact of the chaos in Libya on Sahara and southern Africa, if you could address that. And secondly, if you could wave a magic wand, what should the policy of the United States be towards Libya now?

CHIVVIES: Do you want to do the policy question? (Laughter.)

ANDERSON: You do the Sahara and Dirk and I will talk about—think about this. (Laughter.)

VANDEWALLE: OK. Well, I mean, obviously it’s clear that, you know, the general kind of power vacuum there is creating, as we’ve seen already in Mali and the surrounding areas, there’s some unease. But I think the gravest of these, frankly, is the neighbor of Libya, and that is Tunisia, where we’re really starting to see it. I mean, Tunisians are really, really worried about the destabilization, if Libya continues to be destabilized itself. Remember, this is, in a sense, a very young, emerging democracy itself, you know, with all kinds of economic problems, now exacerbated by the Libyan crisis. So I see more of a problem with Tunisia. The Algerians, you know, are much more robust, in a sense, and withstand a lot, and also the borders are better—or, it’s not so easy to get across as it is to get into Tunisia from Libya. But I think Tunisia really is the major emerging problem if the Libyan problem doesn’t get solved.

GIACOMO: Who’s going to do the—

CHIVVIES: I can take a crack at the policy, just to try and lay out a couple of the basic options, which haven’t change dramatically over the course of the last couple of years, actually. So the first option is containment, OK, which is you say, OK, the situation in Libya is bad. But it doesn’t rise to the level of threatening vital U.S. interests. As a consequence, we’re going to try to do what we can to keep it from getting worse. Now, that obviously is, to a certain degree, the lowest cost option. The challenge however is that it’s actually a lot more difficult to do well than people think, I think as we’ve seen.

First of all, you have the risk of the growth of terrorist groups like ISIS or others—I mean, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is actually starting to come back in Libya and around the region. Some those groups will benefit from it. Actually containing the problem of migration and others and smuggling is more difficult than you think. We’re certainly not doing a very good job of it now. And if you really wanted to do containment, you’d have to invest a lot more resources along the lines of the naval resources that we’re talking about, also border security, get all the states in the region cooperating. It’s a much bigger task than it actually seems.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, obviously, you could talk about, you know, a large-scale military intervention, which unfortunately now would require a lot more forces that it would have back in 2012. When I said a few thousand forces, that was based on a completely different environment than the one that exists today. So today you’re talking about, if you want to try and do stabilization operation around the whole country, a much bigger force.

A third option therefore is some kind of a small force, say in Tripoli itself. Maybe you put some forces there, some, you know, European forces with some Arab League forces—I’m, you know, sort of kind of making it up now. But some kind of—some group of forces there that will give Haftar and Russia pause about trying to take Tripoli militarily. And you put an end to that standoff and you get back to the negotiating table that way. So that’s really the third option. I’m not even sure that we have the will to do that at this point, given all the other things that are going on in the world.

GIACOMO: You had a question.

Q: Tom Kaplan. Thank you.

The constitution of 1952 was actually approved by the United Nations, which was extraordinary. Perhaps the most liberal in the Arab world. Perhaps it would be today. Have you given much thought to the fact that in many tribal societies the monarchy is a cohesive factor that can provide some sort of an umbrella for different people to come together and to be able to have a mediating force? Any thoughts about the restoration of the monarchy, which I hear more and more about?

ANDERSON: Go ahead. You do that.

VANDEWALLE: And then I’ll refer to Lisa, because she has written an article on it. But the 1952 constitution, of course, was a federal constitution that gave the different parts kind of an enormous amount of power that then had to be amended in 1963 at the behest, primarily, of the oil companies, because you needed to make clear property rights and so on. And as you know, the whole debate now about the constitution for Libya is ongoing, not very clear which way this will go. And there are lots of groups weighing in on one side or the other.

And so you could—and one of the issues that is being debated is, of course, whether or not you should bring back—there is an heir—to the Libyan throne, who has spoken up, primarily in Europe, on a number of occasions, and whether or not he could be brought back. I don’t sense, as far as I could tell, that there’s a particular fondness for bringing back the monarchy to Libya. But it certainly, you know, could be one of the options that, indeed, he would kind of rise as a unifying figure, which is another problem, I think, that the current heir has. But certainly it makes it—it would make it, as Lisa has argued in her article, would make it a lot easier, because monarchies are able to overcome a lot of problems that other political systems are not. And let me turn it over to you, Lisa.

ANDERSON: The problem with that is that the monarchy—I mean, when the uprising against Gadhafi started in the east, the flag that they used was the flag of the monarchy. And it was extremely provocative in western Libya, because the monarchy was very much associated with having favored the eastern part of the country. So every time you say monarchy, everybody in Misrata and everybody in Tripoli and everybody in the mountains of western Libya says no. And it’s not even about the idea of a monarchy. It’s the association of the experience of monarchy with a particular individual and a particular set of policies.

So the idea of an individual who brings things together is, of course, what Haftar wants to be, it’s what everybody thinks, you know, there will appear somebody that everyone can defer to. But that particular monarchy doesn’t have any running room in Libya today. And I don’t think in the 21st century it’s going to be that easy to establish a new monarchy.

VANDEWALLE: I mean, a lot of it, Lisa, would depend on how the constitution is written exactly, and what the powers would be to the different provinces and so on. I mean, you could have a European-style monarchy, right, where it’s just a titular head of government—

ANDERSON: In theory you could. In practice, I just don’t think there would be anybody to sign it.


GIACOMO: OK. Gentleman at the second table and then the gentleman far in the rear.

Q: Thank you. I’m Allen Hyman, Columbia Presbyterian.

When I was in Libya, just before the fall of Gadhafi, I was made aware of the large Chinese investments in much of the country, particularly around Tripoli. I wondered what happened to those investments, and what’s the role of China today?

VANDEWALLE: Well, you may remember that the Chinese evacuated more than 20,000 of their citizens before we even got our people out of the embassy in Libya, to the harbor essentially. So they were very quick to react to what was happening during the revolution. The investments essentially have gone sour, because there’s nothing there. And so they are being watched. Some of them are actually being disputed now. But essentially the Chinese are just sitting on the sideline in this particular point in time, just kind of watching what will happen to Libya.

GIACOMO: Gentleman in the rear.

Q: Thank you. Stefan Avacara (ph)—(inaudible)—New York. I’m an Italian journalist based at the United Nation(s).

And you mentioned a lot of Italy today, but I think I never saw Italy so impatient about what’s going on in Libya for the last few years. You mentioned when Haftar was invited at the Russian aircraft carrier.

CHIVVIS: (Inaudible.)

Q: Yes. And that was when the minister of foreign affairs of Italy was just at the Security Council talking, saying how Libya was, you know, the major problem and the Russian window in that.

So I have a question on the void of America in all this and how Italy will—can or will react. We don’t know. But, obviously, Italy was waiting for the elections in America, and it didn’t go the way Italy wanted.

Gentiloni, now the new premier, he was here just a little bit more than a year ago as a foreign minister. Myself, I asked a question on Libya, about Egypt. At that time he say I don’t see the link between Egypt and Libya. I think now, of course, he sees it. And the question here is, Gentiloni’s going to see Trump at the White House on the 20th of April. If you were his advisor, one of you, what question he should ask to Trump before he forgets about America and start to deal with Russia?

GIACOMO: OK. (Laughter.)

CHIVVIS: I mean, I think if Italy—if Italy is so concerned about Libya, the first priority would be to get a sense of whether or not the administration is even tracking the situation there, and whether or not it appreciates the extraordinary pressure that it’s putting on key allies like Libya; whether or not—the extent to which it’s aware that ISIS has been a problem in Libya. I would want to raise those questions with the—with the president, with his key advisors, and see what kind of a reaction I get.

VANDEWALLE: And I guess peripherally it would also be important, I think, before those questions get asked what the Italian position is. I mean, when I was in Rome and testified in front of one of the committees, my impression was that the Italians themselves are quite divided on which way to go—how to go about any possible settlement in Libya. So I think that should come along with the kind of questions that you want to raise before Trump.

GIACOMO: Gentleman over here.

Q: Hi. Jove Oliver, Oliver Global.

I think Chris mentioned that Turkey has been disengaging over the last seven months. I don’t know if that’s because Erdogan’s looking after his imperial presidency. But do you expect them to reengage at some point? And can you say any more about why they have disengaged?

VANDEWALLE: Feel free, Chris.

I mean, the only comment I would make here is that you may know that, you know, Russia had an enormous—sorry, Turkey had an enormous set of investments in Libya that they were closely watching. They were the last country to leave, essentially, just because they were figuring out, you know, how the revolution was going to turn out and whether or not they could maintain a presence. So I’m not sure what has happened beyond—much beyond the economic, the financial interest here.

And maybe Chris knows more about that.

CHIVVIS: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think I have—maybe Lisa has something. (Laughter.)

I mean, I think, obviously, their construction industry was largely Turkish, and the horizons for construction right now in Libya are very limited. So unless that changes, I think the economic interest is not there. And given all of the other problems that Erdogan has to deal with, I just can’t see them expending much energy on trying to—you know, to protect the groups that they’ve been protecting in Libya, especially in the face of a committed Haftar advance or Russian backing, which further complicates it from Turkey’s perspective at a moment when it’s trying to repair its relationship with Russia.

GIACOMO: OK, there’s a gentleman at the third table and then a woman at the second table.

Q: So I’m John Hirsch from IPI. First of all, thanks to all of you.

I want you to say something about Mr. Guterres, the ninth secretary-general, and whether he has any role to play in Libya. He has just been in the region, as you know. Going back four or five years ago, Ban Ki-moon asked Ian Martin to set up a whole sort of internal kind of panel that offered all these ideas on how to redo Libya after Gadhafi, and it was all rejected by the then whoever was in power. Do you see any role for the U.N. in any shape or form, Mr. Guterres, anybody else in Libya? Or do you think that that’s not really there?

VANDEWALLE: Libya is a bit of a hot potato right now for the United Nations, and in part because kind of the legacy so far has not been particularly impressive. And in a sense it has to do with the way the United Nations went in. And remember, when they went in in 2011, they went in what Ian Martin at the time called a light footprint very deliberately, hoping—again, what we talked about earlier on—that the Libyans would step up to the plate and be partners in, you know, the possible solution to the ongoing problem then. That has not really been the case.

And so, in a sense, the challenge in Libya for the United Nations has changed quite drastically. And so they’ve been primarily occupied with organizing elections—again, the light footprint—et cetera, et cetera. But that, in a sense—as I hinted at in my earlier remarks—is not really what the United Nations at this point should be doing in Libya. They really should be thinking about cooperation in some sense with a security angle to it, by an outsider, perhaps. And so the role of the United Nations really needs to shift more toward the reconciliation, the kind of earlier process that we talked about, the—you know, the Adrian Pelt of the 1940s in a sense. And there is an enormous debate right now—and you hinted at some of that going on—inside the United Nations. Whether or not they’re nimble enough to really turn around and really kind of reset what they’re doing in Libya I think is the biggest challenge that the U.N. will be facing. And as you know, they’re even having a hard time finding the special representative right now to represent them in Libya, to give you a little bit of an indication of the unease that Libya’s causing within the United Nations right now.

GIACOMO: And the woman there.

Q: Joan Spero, Columbia University. Thanks to all of you.

I want to address this primarily to Lisa, but others may want to comment. How does Egypt fit into all of this? What is Egypt trying to do? What is it actually doing? And can they play a positive role?

ANDERSON: Well, I would welcome thoughts on this from my—from the other panelists.

And this, in a sense, gets back to Turkey. You know, if you think about the post-2011 configuration of the region as you see the uprisings everywhere and so forth, Turkey actually thought it had an opportunity for a little while to be very influential. And it was very influential, and then it started getting tangled up in its own domestic problems, and so it drew back. So I think the withdrawal from Libya is in part, you know, the material interests that it had there are difficult to forward right now, but it’s also that, you know, Turkey’s ambitions to be the, you know, sort of light Islamist influence in the region are clearly collapsed, and collapsed in part because of what happened in Turkey but also collapsed because the Islamist government in Egypt is no longer there.

So this Egyptian government sees itself as supporting a set of likeminded prospective leaders. Haftar is the classic case in point at this point. He is a little bit older than Sisi. He is clearly a sort of secular Arab nationalist sort of figure, opposed to Islamist influence in Libya in the same way that Sisi is in Egypt, and so forth. So they see themselves as quite aligned in political terms of what kind of outcome you would want, if you were sitting in Cairo, in Libya.

Egypt has always thought that it should have disproportionate influence in Libya. Always. And it continues to think that. And so part of its backing is Haftar as an individual. Part of its backing is it hopes that it’s betting on the strongest horse. And I think it would be very hard if we think about, you know, how you would put together a reconciliation process or, you know, find some mechanism to knit Libya back together without Egypt okaying it.

CHIVVIS: I would agree strongly with that. I mean, I think—and just as a general principle of, you know, a conflict situation like the one that Libya is in, the role of regional partners is absolutely essential. I mean, you’re not going to get peace in Libya without regional partners, first and foremost Egypt.

GIACOMO: All right, that wraps it up. Thank you very much for coming. Give a hand to our panelists. (Applause.)


Top Stories on CFR

Transition 2021

The inauguration of President Joe Biden was unlike any U.S. power transition in modern times, providing stark imagery of a country at a crossroads.  

Transition 2021

Biden has moved to rejoin the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization. They likely won’t be the last international agreements and institutions that the United States reenters.