by Mohammed Cherkaoui
Retired general Khalifa Haftar stated that his ‘Libyan National Army (LNA)’ had a ‘popular mandate’ to rule Libya and vowed to press his assault to seize Tripoli. In a televised address on his Libya al-Hadath TV channel, he announced, ‘The general command is answering the will of the people, despite the heavy burden and the many obligations and the size of the responsibility, and we will be subject to the people’s wish.’ He also declared the ‘end of the Skhirat Agreement’, a 2015 UN-mediated deal that consolidated Libya’s government. Haftar vowed his forces would work ‘to put in place the necessary conditions to build the permanent institutions of a civil state’. However, he did not specify whether the House of Representatives in Tobruk, eastern Libya, would support his plans. Similar to the kind of declaration that Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made in 2013 to justify his coup against the democratically-elected president, Haftar’s unilateral ‘popular mandate’ and his intention to impose some de facto authority in Libya have serious ramifications, and indicate what could be a third legitimacy crisis in the last six years. His plans point to a further escalation of an open-ended crisis, which the UN Secretary General considers a ‘proxy war’. Another diplomatic puzzle is the future of the Libyan Political Agreement, or the ‘Skhirat Agreement’, signed on 17 December 2015 at a conference in Skhirat, Morocco.
After a 31-month tenure as UN special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé submitted his resignation to the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, for ‘health reasons’, on 2 March 2020. His decision suggested deep frustration in his pursuit, for more than two and a half years, ‘to unite Libyans, prevent foreign intervention, and preserve the unity of the country’. The Trump administration refused to agree to the appointment of former Algerian foreign minister, Ramtane Lamamra, to replace Salamé. The US mission to the UN gave no explanation for opposing Lamamra, Algeria’s foreign minister from 2013 to 2017.
This paper examines what seems to be the dynamo factor, or driving force, of the Libyan conflict – fluctuation and reconstruction of political legitimacy. Since mid-2014, two legitimation crises have spoiled Libyan politics and weakened UN mediation, with two rounds of international recognition of one new political institution or another. Both institutions have required separate budgets, obtained from oil revenues, for the rival entities and their respective governments, which claimed distant interpretations of ‘legitimacy’ in the eyes of Libyans and the rest of the world. Moreover, most of the political process and interaction with the UN or foreign governments has been constrained by an ego-inflated dilemma of personal animosity between four figures with opposing views, scopes of power, and foreign affiliations.
This part 2 of the paper also probes the struggle of UN diplomacy, which had passed its eighth-year mark on 16 September 2019. It examines four main factors.
First, the construction of a double-edged legitimacy of two competing institutions: House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk with its government housed in Bayda, and the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Second, the foreign interference of certain states such as Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, Qatar, France, Russia and the US have unduly affected the already-fragile balance of power on the ground, pitting various countries against each other. Third, the Libyan conflict has been subject to several diplomatic initiatives by the African Union (AU), the Arab League (AL), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the European Union (EU). For instance, the AU initiative opted for a policy not to remove the Qaddafi regime, but committed itself to a ‘’reform process and a political transition’. Fourth, the mismatch between the discourse of ‘national unity’ and that of ‘counterterrorism’ since General Haftar pledged to ‘cleanse’ the western part of the country of terrorists’.
Khalifa Haftar and commanders of the Libyan National Army [Getty]
Libya’s international links
The Libyan conflict is a prime example of how the scope of differences and the extent of external geopolitical interests in the country cannot be contained or overcome. I have often argued that if local stakeholders in Libya, Syria, Yemen or elsewhere could free themselves from foreign manipulation and focus on devising a sustainable solution on their own terms, the prospects of finding a compromise, by either their own initiative or UN mediation efforts, would be rewarding. The interference of certain regional states and of superpowers has solidified the obduracy of these conflicts. The Libyan prime minister, Fayyez Sarraj, stated that foreign interference ‘is making the situation more difficult. It is not helping Libyans sit down and find a solution.’
Haftar’s role has attracted increasing support by several Gulf and European states, and, recently, of Trump’s White House. The Libyan bazaar has displayed the rise of Islamist groups, threats of Jihadi militias in Derna, the fight over the Oil Crescent, waves of sub-Saharan migration, and possible future arms deals, should Haftar succeed in becoming minister of defence, or the leader of a new Libya. Between 14 and 25 June 2018, the UN noted that a collation of armed groups attempted to seize control of oil facilities in the Oil Crescent. The Libyan National Army announced it would transfer management of the oil facilities to a non-recognised national oil corporation. These developments have prevented some 850 000 barrels of oil per day from being exported, and caused a loss of more than $900 million for Libya.
The UN Panel of Experts received independent, corroborated reports from multiple confidential sources that ‘Egypt has conducted air strikes against targets in the oil crescent to support the recapture by LNA of a number of oil terminals. Egypt denied that the Egyptian Armed Forces carried out these strikes.’ Steven Cook of the US Council on Foreign Relations explains how certain states have decided to invest in Haftar’s military power: ‘Thus, the Egyptians, Saudis, Emiratis, Russians, and French have bet on Haftar to repress Islamists and establish stability. For the French, Haftar may also be helpful in stemming the flow of migrants to Europe and protecting their oil interests. Given the internal and external dynamics that are driving support for Haftar, he may be able to carry on his fight for a long time.’
During his visit to Moscow in August 2017, Haftar was welcome ‘like a foreign leader already in office, arranging meetings with high-ranking ministers as well as security officials.’ The Kremlin adopted a two-part strategy: empowering Haftar and providing logistical and technical support for his National Army, while avoiding any apparent violation of the UN arms embargo. Some reports revealed that Moscow ‘could send weapons through Egypt, a pro-Haftar neighbor that borders the Haftar-held parts of eastern Libya and is said to have hosted Russian Special Forces’.
National Libyan Army [Getty]
Turning west, Meanwhile US President Donald Trump’s position on Libya shifted from downsizing the US Libya policy. In April 2017, he said: ‘I do not see a role in Libya’ (except) ‘getting rid of ISIS. We’re being very effective in that regard.’ Two years later, he highlighted the Haftar factor in more than the area of counterterrorism and geopolitics, as evidenced during his famous phone call to Haftar on 15 April 2019. In the call, Trump and Haftar spoke about ‘the need to achieve peace and stability in Libya’, and Trump ‘recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and… discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.’ This interaction between the two men amounted to an endorsement of Haftar’s five-year quest to establish himself as Libya’s leader.
Haftar’s political silhouette also gained greater significance in the eyes of the US military establishment. Then-acting US Defence Secretary, Patrick Shanahan, underscored that ‘a military solution is not what Libya needs’, and supported Haftar’s ‘role in counterterrorism’. He added that Washington needed Haftar’s ‘support in building democratic stability in the region.’ In the same week, both the US and Russia said they could not support a UNSC resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya. One can argue that Haftar’s claim of combatting ‘terrorists’ in eastern Libya has been an oversold narrative to get the support of the USA and several European and Gulf states for his armed campaign to capture the capital, Tripoli. When the battle of Sirte had escalated against the Islamic State group (IS), Haftar’s rivals, the Misrata Brigades, fought alongside GNA forces to defeat IS, without Haftar’s support.
The French president, Immanuel Macron, hosted more than one meeting between Haftar and Sarraj in Paris, but several calls for an unconditional ceasefire were rejected by Haftar – until recently. After talks in November 2018, Macron’s office said he reiterated France’s priorities in Libya: ‘Fight against terrorist groups, dismantle trafficking networks, especially those for illegal immigration, and permanently stabilize Libya.’ The dominant view in French government circles is that strongman solutions are ‘the only way to keep a lid on Islamist militancy and mass migration.’
The French position seems to support the objectives of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, not only in military and economic terms, but also as part of a regional ideological battle across the region. Steven Cook notes, ‘None of these countries ever believed in the promise of the Arab uprisings to produce more open and democratic societies. Their view is that the uprisings have only empowered Islamists and sown chaos. They also regard the internationally recognized government as one that is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar, and Turkey – enemies of the governments in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.’
Four years after the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in Skhirat, Morocco, on 17 December 2015, Salamé repeatedly cautioned against the interference of regional and international powers in the Libyan conflict. He told the UNSC, ‘More than ever, Libyans are now fighting the wars of other countries who appear content to fight to the last Libyan and to see the country entirely destroyed in order to settle their own scores.’ He also bemoaned the delivery of weapons by foreign supporters as ‘falling into the hands of terrorist groups or being sold to them…This is nothing short of a recipe for disaster.’
Haftar remains the main player in the militarisation of the conflict, and a bulwark against Islamist groups, with growing external support. He managed to secure arms and maintenance for his military equipment despite the UN arms’ ban on Libya. He has also positioned himself as the saviour of post-Qaddafi Libya with the aim of assuming the presidency, and as the key figure in dealing with migration to Europe. ‘For the control of the borders in the south,’ he proposed, ‘I can provide human resources, but the Europeans must send aid, drones, helicopters, night-vision goggles and vehicles.’Responding to Haftar, Sarraj maintained that the Libyan civil war is not between Libya’s east and west, rather, ‘It is between people who back civilian government and those who want military rule.’
President Macron stands between Fayez Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar [Reuters]
Parallel or rival diplomacies?
From the onset of the Libyan conflict, several complexities caused by NATO’s military intervention in 2011, subsequent humanitarian and peacemaking missions, and other responses to regime change, have become entwined in the UN mediation process. This process has also coincided with competing diplomatic initiatives and distant trajectories pursued by the African Union (AU), the Arab League (AL), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the European Union (EU). For instance, the AU initiative had opted not remove the Qaddafi regime, but was committed to a ‘reform process and a political transition’. As Edward Azar said, the Libyan conflict has the ‘propensity for involving neighboring communities and states, and even super powers.’ The 10th ministerial meeting of Libya’s neighbouring countries, held in Cairo, agreed on a ‘rejection of any external interference in the internal affairs of Libya’.
Libya remains a strategic supplier of energy for most southern European countries. France and Italy are at the top of the list of oil importers from the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Libya has the largest proven crude oil reserves in Africa at 48.4 billion barrels. It was producing around 1.6 million barrels per day before the collapse of the Qaddafi regime. A Libyan government audit conducted in 2017 estimated the total value of fuel smuggled out of the country at five billion dollars a year. Some observers highlight the fact that Paris has been quietly involved at least since 2015 ‘in building up the flashy uniformed baron of Benghazi as a strongman (that) it hopes can impose order on the vast, thinly populated North African oil producer and crack down on the Islamist groups that have flourished in the ungoverned spaces of the failed state.’
In January 2019, Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, was blunt in expressing his criticism of Macron: ‘France has no interest in stabilizing the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy.’ This statement provoked the anger of the Élysées, and caused a diplomatic row between Rome and Paris. The French government summoned the Italian ambassador for an explanation. Meanwhile, Haftar made little secret of modern French weaponry he had acquired, despite a UN arms embargo.
Macron had hosted a well-publicised meeting between Sarraj, Haftar, Aguila Issa, and Khalid al-Mishri in mid-2018, in Paris. It made news headlines with their ‘agreement’ on holding presidential and parliamentary elections in early 2019. France needed Haftar to be included in the dialogue because ‘he is in control of the Libyan areas where France’s interests lie, which means its oil wells in the Sirte Basin’, as Gabriele Lacovino of the Rome-based Center for International Studies explains. Macron described the accord as ‘historic’ and an ‘essential step towards reconciliation’. Representatives from EU countries, the USA and regional neighbours supported the agreement.
Transfer of arms into Libya despite the UN ban [Getty]
In early 2019, the AU called for an international conference on reconciliation in Libya. Three African nations – South Africa, Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea – introduced a draft resolution draft in October 2019 to appoint a joint AU-UN envoy for Libya, in an apparent attempt to replace Salamé. A leaked copy of the resolution draft expressed ‘deep concern over the security situation in Libya and the risk of a dangerous military escalation.’ It also called for compliance with the arms embargo and condemned ‘continued external interferences that are exacerbating the already volatile situation on the ground.’
The stalemate in the Libyan conflict resulted in a diplomatic showdown between Egypt and Qatar at the 74th UN General Assembly, in September 2019. Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a close ally of the UAE and a Haftar supporter, sought to play the counterterrorism card in justifying Haftar’s armed campaigns as a ‘fight against armed militias’ inside Libya. He told delegates of the 193 UN member states, ‘We need to work on unifying all national institutions in order to save our dear neighbor from the ensuing chaos by militias and prevent the intervention of external actors in Libya’s internal affairs.’ Five months earlier, during a visit to the White House, Sisi reportedly spoke to Trump at length about the need to support Haftar and not ‘leave him out in the cold’. However, Qatar’s emir, Shaykh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, accused Haftar’s forces of war crimes with the support of countries that were undermining the GNA and UN peace efforts. He told the UNGA, ‘The latest military operations on the capital Tripoli have thwarted the holding of the comprehensive Libyan national conference.’
Earlier, I addressed what seems to be UN diplomatic fatigue in securing a sustainable truce between Haftar’s forces and the GNA military. Other interpretations have called it ‘diplomatic paralysis’. The International Crisis Group indicated that, in 2019, the UNSC was, more than in previous years, ‘divided and unable to call for a cessation of hostilities, mostly owing to US opposition to a draft resolution that would have done just that. The US claims it resisted the draft resolution because it lacked a mechanism to ensure compliance, but its stance more likely reflected White House sympathy for Haftar and for his Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian supporters.’
In his testimony before the US House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism, Thomas Hill, senior programme officer at USIP, explained the causality of the struggling UN mediation in Libya. ‘If “Plan A” was to allow the United Nations to resolve the Libyan conflict, that experiment has failed. The United Nations was not able to constrain external actors who frequently sought to advance narrow self-interest at the expense of peace and stability in Libya. The United Nations was not given the resources or mandate necessary to fulfill its charge; in retrospect, a political mission did not have the coercive power to constrain internal spoilers and external actors.’
Thomas Hill senior program officer at USIP delivering his briefing at Congress [Reuters]
This medley of international and cross-Mediterranean initiatives of diplomacy adds to the complexity of the Libyan conflict. The UN mediation seems to be sandwiched between thick layers of the hidden agendas and strategic interests of outside stakeholders. This overlap of interventions and the variety of political agendas of several states – France, the USA, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others – have greatly undermined the possibility of reaching a permanent political solution for Libya. Accordingly, the UN may need to return to the drawing board and affirm the singularity of its mediation process i.e., one track of UN mediation to be reflected in UNSC resolutions.
Behind the counter-terrorism discourse
Since early 2015, Haftar has positioned himself as Libya’s driving force in counterterrorism, while leading his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army on his ‘Operation Dignity’. He has often sugar-coated his fierce military attacks in eastern Libya and, later, western Libya, with the alleged ‘pursuit of eradicating jihadi groups’. Besides external support, he has also galvanised the allegiance of several armed groups, including the 106th Infantry Brigade, the Tarhouna-based 9th Infantry Brigade, Chadian and Sudanese rebels, and some elements associated with Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam. Haftar experimented with his anti-terror venture by targeting Ansar al-Sharia, a jihadist group in Benghazi, in 2015, before zooming in on the town of Derna and extending his armed campaign towards Tripoli with a rebranded ‘End of Treachery’ Operation in 2019. In April 2019, he asserted, ‘We hear your call Tripoli. It is now the time for the great victory. March forward.’ A senior French official said support for Haftar was partly driven by the imperative of preventing the supply of arms and funds to jihadist groups threatening fragile governments in Niger, Chad and Mali, which are backed by France’s Operation Barkhane.
One of the worst single atrocities of the Libyan Civil War occurred in July 2019, resulting in the deaths of at least fifty-three refugees at a detention centre near Tripoli. The incident is one of many attacks launched by Haftar’s forces with foreign logistical support. UN arms’ experts suspected the involvement of ‘foreign fighter jets’. Former British ambassador to Libya, Peter Millett, pointed out that ‘the only two countries with capacity and motive to mount the strike were the UAE and Egypt.’ He called on the UNSC to discuss, at ambassadorial level, how outside powers were prolonging the conflict in Libya and extending the suffering of the Libyan people. For instance, the UAE has plans to dominate shipping lanes, including in the Mediterranean Sea, and considers Libya’s geographical position important for this project. The Emiratis aspire to exploit Libya’s huge energy resources and need for reconstruction.
In 2019, Haftar’s role and political status gained momentum on account of three moves by three powerful states.
- Saudi Arabia promisedtens of millions of dollars, upon the UAE’s recommendation, to help pay for Haftar’s military operation to seize the capital, Tripoli.
- The US mission at the UN threatened to veto calls for a ceasefire at the UNSC, with a subtle hint of endorsing of Haftar’s counterterrorism narrative. Further, the famous phone call between Trump and Haftar was uplifting for the latter’s ego and ambition. The call included, in the same sentence, an ironic link between ‘ongoing counter-terrorism efforts’ and ‘building democratic stability’ in Libya.
- France blockedan EU statement opposing Haftar’s offensive while citing the need for its own reassurances regarding the alleged ‘involvement of terrorist groups’ fighting Haftar in Tripoli.
In the eyes of those governments, Haftar’s anti-terror narrative has overshadowed the ferocity and vengeance of his troops against Islamist groups and GNA supporters. One Libya observer explained Haftar’s history of ‘repackaging failed military coups as “wars on terror” to justify excessive use of force whilst gaining international legitimacy and political support in the process.’ In a mocking comment on Haftar’s power in Libya, Osama al-Juwaili, the leading commander of the GNA forces, told the New York Times, ‘Why all this pain? Just stop this now and assign the guy [Haftar] to rule us!’
Conclusion: need for a blank slate
The political turmoil has entered its ninth year in Libya, while perpetuating a complex intrastate conflict with no apparent light at the end of the tunnel. The Libyan Political Agreement is stuck in a protracted limbo with no hope of reconciliation. Between the high point of peacemaking in 2015 when the parties signed the LPA in Morocco, and the low point of military offensives and counter offensives around Tripoli in 2019, UN diplomacy has shifted to backpedalling on several issues, notably the elections and the new constitution project. There is also a sense of loss and despair among elites and ordinary individuals, both inside Libya and in the Libyan diaspora. The balance of power between Haftar’s forces, the HoR, GNA and other stakeholders is fluid, and the GNA, the UN-recognised government, does not have much control in the country.
There was little optimism in the new round of talks in March in Berlin. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, warned that the Libyan civil war could spiral into a larger conflict, much like the one in Syria. The nightmarish scenario of a huge influx of migrants across the Mediterranean is imminent should the country slide into a larger civil war. One cannot belittle the skills and reputation of those world diplomats at the UNSMIL headquarters in Libya, or at various capitals, who remain sincere is their search for a political solution for Libya. There is always the same high degree of optimism prior to every meeting about Libya, whether in Tunis, Skhirat, Paris, Palermo, or Berlin. There has been no viable prospect of securing the commitment of the five top men of new Libya - Haftar, Saleh, Sarraj, Mishri, and Swehli - to any sustainable political formula.
The UN process of mediation should not compete with any parallel initiatives proposed by other international bodies or countries, or any latent manipulation of the status quo in favour of one group over another. There is consensus among most Libyan observers that a permanent political solution is not possible ‘if external actors and nation-states continue to intervene in Libya in ways that prioritize their own interests over those of the Libyan people.’ This paradox of UN mediation and foreign manipulation by several external actors defies the wisdom of envisioning a political settlement of the Libyan conflict. All international diplomatic gestures need to be aligned and coordinated via the UN platform, with a well-defined trajectory, rather than any zero-sum equation or realist calculation. UNSMIL’s mandate can be inclusive of such coordination.
Former UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé [Reuters]
* Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Washington D.C. and former member of the United Nations Panel of Experts.
** This article was first published b y Al Jazeera Centre for Studies
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