Despite tensions in Libya having been marginally reduced by a series of meetings between the leaders of Libya’s rival governments, the nation remains splintered and in disarray. The country’s economy has ground to a halt while entrenched militias and political figures refuse to compromise any gains made in the 2011 revolution for the sake of national reunification, and the rival governments continue to appear broadly incompatible. The situation is massively complicated by a lack of international coordination on the issue, leaving foreign powers supporting rival leaders and different strategies.
Eastern Libya’s military leader Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the UN-backed Prime Minister of the Western government Fayez Serraj broke months of diplomatic deadlock earlier this month by agreeing to participate in regionally-brokered talks in Abu Dhabi. This follows talks in Rome between the heads of the country’s rival parliaments last month, indicating that both governments may now be willing to consider a more diplomatic approach following months of armed confrontation. Despite this, the lack of a coordinated international effort to reunify the country means that progress continually falters and deals remain unenforced.
Libya remains roughly bisected between the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), with the nation’s patchwork of heavily-armed tribal militias mostly aligned with one of these factional governments. Further complicating the situation is the varying alignment of foreign powers, with the United Nations supporting the GNA, while Russia, France, Egypt and the UAE have largely supported the HoR-backed Field Marshal Haftar and his forces. While the U.S. under President Obama staunchly supported the GNA, President Trump has yet to issue a clear policy for his administration in Libya, leaving international efforts on Libya largely in the hands of middleweight regional powers with their own domestically-relevant agendas. Despite UN support, the GNA has been unable to effectively extend its authority beyond Tripoli, and has even seen several neighbourhoods of the city fall into a state of near anarchy. In addition to this, the fragile security situation had brought much of the country’s crucial hydrocarbons sector to a standstill until recently, and production remains relatively unreliable. This has increased economic tensions that in turn aggravate the political situation. Despite holding Africa’s largest proven oil reserves, export disruptions have cost Libya and estimated $160 billion since 2013.
Fig 1.0 – LiveMap representation of Territorial dispositions in Libya as of 16 May 2017 (Red: HoR/LNA, Blue: GNA, Pink: Tuareg tribal territories).
Libya’s domestic players are also far from blameless. Haftar’s political ambitions are seen by many in Tripoli as standing in the way of reconciliation, as the Field Marshal is said to want to centralise power around a “ruling council” comprised of himself, Aguila Saleh (a key ally currently serving as the leader of the HoR), and Prime Minister Serraj. While such a system would represent the two rival governments (albeit in a disposition strongly in Tobruk’s favour), it would exclude key interest groups currently represented in the GNA’s leadership council in Tripoli, including the Misrata militia, who have been broadly aligned with the GNA against Haftar’s forces. The GNA, meanwhile, is broadly criticised for having failed at bringing governance to areas beyond central Tripoli, and for failing to restart the nation’s shattered economy.
The Field Marshal has arguably seen more tangible successes than the GNA despite the lack of broad international support, leading his Libyan National Army (LNA) forces into the Islamist-held Benghazi and seizing control of the nation’s critical oil and gas production and export facilities around the Sirte basin. Haftar also appeared to hold the upper hand politically for some time as a result of his military momentum, which may be why he withdrew at the last minute from talks in Cairo in February with Serraj.
The GNA’s foreign minister Mohammed Siyala, speaking at a conference in Algeria, recently suggested that Haftar could serve as the head of the official (post-reunification) Libyan National Army if he recognises the GNA as the nation’s sole government. While this statement has generated controversy among GNA-aligned militia groups which have battled Haftar’s forces, it represents a productive compromise-driven approach to solving the Libya crisis that has remained long absent.
The latest meeting in Abu Dhabi was brokered by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; Haftar’s most staunch international supporters. Both share Tobruk’s concerns around the Muslim Brotherhood and back the LNA’s military campaign against Islamist militias. While Russia has long denied any direct military involvement in Libya, reports have circulated that a contingent of special forces and UAVs have been deployed at Sidi Barrani in Egypt in support of the LNA, and Russia has continually supported the HoR government at the expense of the GNA. In January of this year, Moscow issued the clearest signal of support for the Field Marshal, inviting him aboard the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov for talks on defence cooperation. Algeria and Tunisia are also seeking a separate political solution for their turbulent neighbour, although they seek a more inclusive approach which would seek to guarantee tribal and militia influence gains in a strategy which would almost certainly diminish Haftar’s influence in the reunified state.
In the U.S., meanwhile, President Trump has shown a general apathy towards Libya with his declaration last month that the US had “no role” in the crisis. Speaking at a joint press conference, Trump rejected a call by Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni for Washington to remain engaged in the country and to maintain support for the GNA, which Italy has said represents the best long-term option for stability.
While both Tobruk and Tripoli remain deeply flawed governments, the current partition of Libya has only served to allow terrorism and militancy to flourish while causing the national economy to grind to a halt at the expense of the Libyan population. Both governments must reconsider their entrenched and uncompromising positions and follow the example set by GNA Foreign Minister Siyala’s bold-yet-rational suggestion of appointing Haftar to an official position of leadership, even when such suggestions court controversy. While the uncoordinated foreign support to the rival governments may benefit individual and tribal interests in Tobruk and Tripoli, Libya continues to suffer, and the nation’s leadership must remain open to independently pursuing reconciliation.
Washington, meanwhile, must not let yet another critical Mediterranean state fall into Moscow’s orbit through a failure to act.
Lewis Sage-Passant is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, and the financial sector.
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Photo credit: Al Jazeera English