The UN’s “Plan B” for Libya needs a security solution, too

By Jonathan M. Winer | Scholar - The Middle East Institute | Oct 29, 2018
The UN’s “Plan B” for Libya needs a security solution, too

In the summer of 2014, Libya lost most of its foreign diplomats, who departed after weeks of fighting between militias for control of key infrastructure in Tripoli. The fighting pitted Zintani forces, who had come to control Tripoli International Airport, along with its revenues, against Misratan combatants headed by militia leader Saleh Badi, who saw the Zintanis’ role there as an affront to the purity of the revolution. 

This August, more than four years later, Badi and his Samoud militia once again entered Tripoli, this time with the Tarhuna 7th Brigade, to roust out a new set of targets widely understood to be reaping a large harvest from the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) in return for providing security in key areas of Tripoli, including Mitiga International Airport. In the process, more than 120 Libyans were killed before the UN was able to broker a ceasefire in early September.

Since then, the UN’s special representative for the secretary-general for Libya, Ghassan Salame, has undertaken a series of steps to push Libya beyond the uneasy stability imposed by the militias that has enabled them to operate with impunity in areas they control. These steps have included naming Badi (implicitly as a candidate for international sanctions), warning Libyan politicians that the UN and the international community were fed up, and floating a trial balloon through Salame’s deputy, Stephanie Williams, of a Plan B to his long-stalled roadmap. If the House of Representatives, under the control of Speaker Agila Saleh, continued to refuse to enact legislation to allow Salame’s Libya roadmap to move forward with a referendum on a constitution and elections, the UN could support an alternative that would end Agila’s authority entirely. Under Plan B, the UN would convene a nation-wide assembly of Libyans, a “National Congress.” This body would ask the UN Security Council to withdraw recognition from all of Libya’s political institutions and pass a resolution requiring the country to organize general elections within six months.

Plan B remains one real alternative to the continued chaos and stalemate ahead of the Libyan summit that Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has announced will take place in Palermo on Nov. 12-13.

But what about the militias? Why should they care what outside powers agree upon, so long as they control the use of force at the local level? The straightforward answer is that in Libya, the militias, like everyone else, rely on the country’s oil revenues to pay salaries. Cutting off funding for those who do not support the government remains a potent as-yet-unused tool.

The militias also obtain revenues through letters of credit, smuggling rackets, and extortion fees, as well as the use of counterfeit dinars produced and supplied by Russia to protégés in Libya’s east such as General Khalifa Hifter and House Speaker Agila, and “loans” from local banks. But these funds are extra. Since late 2011, every militia fighter listed as having fought to bring down Moammar Gadhafi has been paid a salary, regardless of who he is fighting for. As a result, the Central Bank of Libya has been paying all sides when militias fight, with no consequences for bad behavior.

There is, however, an economic-military-political package to address all of these issues that would work something like the following. The central bank would raise the official exchange rate of 1.3 dinars to the dollar to the current black market rate of around 5.5 dinars to the dollar. It would end subsidies on commodities such as fuel whose smuggling forms an important part of Libya’s criminalized economy. The GNA of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj would instruct the central bank to provide a basic stipend to every individual Libyan with a unique ID, and dedicate some of the revenues from oil in excess of those needed to balance the budget to go on a per capita basis to Libya’s municipalities. The revaluation of the currency would reduce the value of existing militia salaries, and those who join a new national force would be paid higher wages. Transitional incentives would also be paid to those who choose to leave militias for other lines of work.

The new national force would first incorporate those who served in the Libyan army under Gadhafi, together with others who agree to accept civilian control and respect the outcome of elections, and build from there. Together, these leaders would form a military council, under the authority of the civilian government. Local militia leaders would either accept the government, or find themselves losing men due to salary-related attrition. 

Such a solution would offer benefits to many interests, linking General Hifter with other military leaders from the west, including the well-regarded Fathi Bashaga, the Misratan political and military figure recently appointed minister of the interior by Prime Minister Sarraj. It would also offer a path to shared revenues for localities and individual Libyans alike, giving the whole country a stake in the solution, while providing a way to move beyond the militias whose long-term presence as independent forces is incompatible with Libya’s security and stability. 

The consensus that Libya’s militia problem has to be addressed must give rise to consensus on a solution. Together with Plan B, this proposal, or one like it, would provide a path to getting there. 

Photo: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images