Commando-style diplomacy finds an unexpected foothold in war-torn Libya: Brian Stewart

All peace efforts in our turbulent age appear to be desperate affairs, but none are as dramatic as one just underway to stop Libya’s ruinous five-year-long civil war, Brian Stewart writes.

Unity Government faces huge challenge in broken north African country rife with militias

Supporters of Libya's Unity Government, which is operating out of a shaky foothold in a naval base in Tripoli, show their support during a demonstration at the city's Martyrs' Square on April 1, 2016. (Hani Amara/Reuters)

All peace efforts in our turbulent age appear to be desperate affairs, but none are as dramatic as one just underway to stop Libya's ruinous five-year-long civil war — a high-stakes gamble in diplomacy not for the faint of heart. 

For months, the United Nations has helped forge a Libyan Unity Government in the safety of neighbouring Tunisia, a self-proclaimed Government of National Accord. Its members have been barred from even entering Libya by an air-and-sea blockade set up by warring factions within the north African country. 

UN diplomats are rarely associated with wild daring, but they can surprise us. So, just over a week ago, six leaders of this Unity Government went in like commandos by sea in the dead of night, skirting the blockades, landing in a port area of Libya's disputed capital Tripoli.

From a shaky foothold in the naval base, prime minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj and his mini-cabinet are struggling to set up the framework of a functioning government in Tripoli, with actually working ministries, that all could rally to.

It is hard to comprehend the enormity of their challenge — setting out to gain a national political accord in a broken country torn between two rebel governments, two fragmented parliaments, plus an army fractured along ethnic lines and an estimated 2,000 armed militias with shifting alliances.

Unity Government head Fayez al-Sarraj, left, shakes hands with a man inside a mosque after Friday prayers during a tour in Tripoli on April 1, 2016. (Office of Information/REUTERS)

If that weren't enough, any Unity Government must mobilize to confront a surging ISIS force of more than 6,000 fighters that has doubled in size in a year and which is based around the coastal city of Sirte, in striking distance of Libya's main oil fields.   

The Unity Government may be the last hope to prevent Libya falling further into total anarchy and the world needs to take note. Failure would further shake a Middle East already torn by wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and would prove a blessing to ISIS expansion plans. 

High stakes

Certainly it would also further increase the already crisis level refugee flows into a panicky Europe. More than 330,000 refugees and migrants have left Libyan shores in recent years for Europe. Although these numbers are largely made up of non-Libyans from other nations, it's clear Libya's conflict has encouraged and permitted people-smuggling on a large scale.

The stakes are so high several European countries and the U.S. Pentagon are studying possible military options.

Small cells of U.S., British and French special forces teams are believed to be on the ground already working with tribal forces to oppose ISIS, while the Pentagon has located dozens of ISIS targets to strike at should President Barack Obama give the order. 

A man stands in his house destroyed after clashes between military forces loyal to Libya's eastern government, who are backed by the locals, and the Shura Council of Libyan Revolutionaries, an alliance of former anti-Gadhafi rebels, who have joined forces with the Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi on March 19, 2016. (Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters)

There are no indications foreign armies would force their way in on the ground, but Italy and Britain have tentatively pledged a combined force of 5,000 military trainers to help solidify a new Libyan army if the Unity Government can bring enough factions together. 

The day-to-day drama is watched nervously by Ottawa, with good reason, as Canada has a haunted history with Libya. 

Our CF-18 aircraft, after all, played a major role in the bombing attacks that destroyed the regime of dictator Moammar Gadhafi five years ago. 

Our former American and European allies in that now-much-criticized intervention will press for our help cleaning up the chaotic mess the bombs helped create should the training mission come to life. 

For if the Unity Government obtains some stability beyond Tripoli, the UN is expected to seek a full peacekeeping umbrella over the British-Italian training mission, an effort Canada will be expected to support.

Hard to stay aloof

That's not a mission Ottawa wants to face given ongoing military efforts in Syria and Iraq, but staying aloof would hardly add lustre to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's courting of the UN these days with that "Canada is Back" boosterism. 

Any full-scale international effort to help stabilize Libya, however, will first entail major security progress on the ground in coming months.

The fighting in Libya has not been as intense as in Syria, but the complexities are even greater as it is split along a dizzying number of ethnic fault lines, with Arab soldiers and tribes rallying roughly behind the so-called Dignity Force, in opposition to the Libya Dawn coalition of minorities from the Misratan and Berber zones.

A member of the force assigned to protect Libya's Unity Government stands on a road leading to where the government has its offices in Tripoli on March 31, 2016. (Ismail Zitouny/Reuters)

So how has this commando-style diplomacy of the Unity Government fared so far? Actually, far better than most expected, thanks to early support from Libyans heartily sick of war and the breakdown of virtually all government services. 

The proposed new government is already seen as a bulwark against ISIS, and its leader al-Serraj has won support of 10 cities beyond the capital. 

Many militia groups are short of cash for their fighters and if the Unity Government looks hopeful, they will want early association with the new centre of power and state finances.

Money could make a difference

Money may be the critical factor, for Libya after all is still potentially a well-off country if only its vast oil and gas production can ever be revived to pre-war levels. 

Even now, the surviving Central Bank sits on reserves of $85 billion. A startup Unity Government can also anticipate billions more in foreign recovery aid from North America, Europe and the Gulf Region in particular if it has success. 

Two men stand next to destroyed buildings after clashes between military forces loyal to Libya's eastern government and Islamist fighters in Benghazi on Feb. 28 (Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters)

In its biggest coup yet, the new authority has won support of the vital Central Bank and the National Oil Corporation, two backbones of the Libyan economy and key leverage in negotiations with rebel power groups that are at the same time being strongly lobbied by foreign countries to support unity and confront ISIS. 

So Libya and Syria both now have actual peace processes at least in very early stages. 

It may be too much to hope for success in both this year, but it's encouraging at least that diplomats are showing more energy and daring as they seek to nudge events in that direction. 

This speaks to the world's exasperated impatience with the open sore of civil wars that keep spreading their infectious violence ever further beyond their all-too-porous borders. It's a drive and daring long overdue. 


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.