The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) is working to hammer out a new formula for ending the Libyan crisis with the help of Western diplomats who have been holding intensive talks with Libyan political forces in order to rally them behind an alternative to the UN-brokered agreement signed in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015.
A heavy veil of secrecy cloaks this process of readying a new agreement for discussion in the comprehensive Libyan National Conference to be held soon although a final date has not been set. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, is expected to attend the conference.
Another set of secret negotiations is under way over the creation of a new national unity government which is to succeed the current Government of National Accord (GNA) in order to steer the interim phase after the National Conference and prepare for general elections following the reunification of government institutions.
The process, revealed in Western press reports last week, still has many hurdles to surmount especially in light of the fluctuating conditions on the ground and the general paralysis of existing institutions, primarily the House of Representatives in Tobruk and the High Council of State (HCS) in Tripoli.
On 4 September 2018, after brokering a ceasefire between the warring militias in southern Tripoli, the UN Special Representative to Libya and Head of UNSMIL Ghassan Salamé announced that he was working to help Libyans reach a “lasting agreement acceptable to all”.
In February this year, he succeeded in bringing together the Chairman of the Tripoli-based Presidency Council Fayez Al-Sarraj and the Benghazi-based Commander of the Libyan National Army Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in the UAE.
That meeting, also attended by the Deputy Head of UNSMIL Stephanie Williams and the US Charge d’Affairs of the US Diplomatic Mission to Libya Peter W Bodde, culminated in “understanding” the details of which have not yet been fully disclosed.
In an interview on Libyan TV last week, Salamé refused to divulge any further information, saying that it was Haftar and Al-Sarraj who possessed the details.
On the forthcoming National Conference, he said that UNSMIL would invite representatives from 23 Libyan social segments and entities to the event which he said would take place within a month.
Politicians in Tripoli believe that Haftar and Al-Sarraj essentially agreed upon a restructuring of the executive authority that would reduce the Presidency Council from nine members to three, each of which would represent one of the three Libyan regions (Cyrenaica, Tripoli and Fezzan), and that would task an independent figure with forming a national unity government.
The politicians also believe that the two leaders agreed on the formation of a national security council in which he would enjoy the right of veto.
With regards to recent movements of the Libyan National Army (LNA), observers have been mystified by the withdrawal of LNA forces from the south to Jufra in central Libya, after they had reached the cities of Sabha, Murzuq, Umm Al-Arabnib and Qatrun. Disturbances have erupted once again in Sabha, the capital of Fezzan, according to media reports which maintain that the army’s operation in southwestern Libya has only further complicated the situation there, at least in part because the operation came too late.
Tensions have surged again between the two main Arab tribes in the region, the Awlad Soleiman and the Zawiya, on the one hand, and the ethnically African Toubou tribe, on the other. The Toubou have recently accused the LNA command of siding with their adversaries in order to assert control over Fezzan.
These Arab and African tribes have been facing off in the southwest (Sabha, Murzuq, Awbari and Qatrun) and the southeast (the Kufra district) since 2012.
Intermittent violent clashes between them have precipitated large population displacements. The most recent major flareup occurred in Sabha in the summer of 2018.
The Toubou tribes had been one of Field Marshal Haftar’s major allies during the Operation Dignity campaign he launched in 2014 in Benghazi, Derna, the petroleum crescent area and Jufra.
However, Haftar’s recent alliance with the Seif Al-Nasr clan from the Awlad Soleiman tribes led the Toubou to break off their alliance with the LNA.
Despite how it has been portrayed in the media, the military drive that Haftar launched into Fezzan in mid-January has achieved no substantial change on the ground or in the balances of power.
Even the crucial Sharara oilfield remains under control of civilian militias despite the recent announcement by the National Oil Corporation, Libya’s national oil authority, that it had lifted force majeure at the field.
Al-Ahram Weekly has learned that Haftar has informed Western diplomats of his determination to proceed with a planned military campaign to free the capital, Tripoli, from the control of militias, raising fears of a return to civil war.
The militias in the area are well armed, well-tested in the field and capable of holding out in an open war to the bitter end. In addition, the recent alliance struck between Misrata to the east of Tripoli and Tarhouna and Zintan, to the south and southwest, means any LNA march on Tripoli will need to contend with this formidable alliance on the outskirts of the capital first.
Diplomats in the US embassy in Libya have notified local political figures that Washington opposes any military operations in the capital. Any armed conflict would be extremely dangerous for the civilian population in Tripoli, whose numbers have swelled enormously due to the influxes of civilians displaced by conflicts in other parts of the country.
Another ominous portent comes from Sirte, east of Misrata where, earlier this month, the city’s security and protection force, commissioned by the Presidency Council, declared a state of alert and called up reserves in order to repel a “security breach” by gunmen they claimed belonged to the LNA.
Against this complex and volatile backdrop, the UNSMIL leadership is determined to press ahead with the “action plan for Libya” that Salamé unveiled at the UN in September 2017. However, the failure of efforts to break the political deadlock in Libya has induced him to change tack and try to promote a new political agreement to replace the one signed in Skhirat in 2015.
Towards this end, a high-level committee composed of representatives of the UN, the African Union and EU ambassadors to Libya held a series of meetings with the Presidency Council, the GNA, the HCS in Tripoli and with Haftar in Benghazi in the hope of encouraging a broader acceptance of the understandings reached between Haftar and Al-Sarraj in Abu Dhabi.
Salamé has said that the terms of this agreement will be part of the outcomes of the National Conference.
According to Abdel-Rahman Al-Shater of the HCS, the council refused to comply with committee members’ request to accept the understandings because they had not informed the council of its details.
The HCS demands solid guarantees in exchange for accepting the outcomes of the National Conference. It also insists that the Skhirat Agreement should be the frame of reference for the conference which clearly conflicts with UNSMIL’s current strategy.
The House of Representatives, for its part, has kept an enigmatic silence with regard to this process. Last week, the legislative authority appointed new ministers to the eastern-based government which is not internationally recognised.
It appears, therefore, that House Speaker Aguila Saleh is not interested in the process and is determined to reject any new political arrangements despite his previous ambition to head a restructured presidency council.
Clearly, UNSMIL will need to take some pains to reassure and placate Libyan political players whose suspicions were triggered by the mystery surrounding the Abu Dhabi meeting at a time of heightened tensions among militia and tribal forces throughout the country.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Salamé seeks Skhirat alternative