While international efforts to avert escalation in the military operation to secure control over Tripoli that Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the Benghazi based commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), launched 20 days ago remain feeble, the forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA) and militias that have rallied to support them have managed repel the offensive, according to reporters from international news agencies on the ground in Libya.
Still fearful that the fighting could escalate, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) reiterated that “the UN-facilitated political process is the ideal and only way to end Libyan crisis”, underlining its determination to hold a comprehensive National Conference.
The purpose of the conference, which was supposed to have convened mid-April given appropriate security conditions, is to produce a new political agreement to furnish a consensual framework for a new interim process.
GNA head Fayez Al-Sarraj has indicated that he is willing to engage in dialogue and further negotiating rounds, but now insists that any further talks must exclude the eastern-based military commander whom he accuses of undermining peace-making efforts that had been so close to reaching a political solution.
On Monday, UNSMIL head Ghassan Salame began a tour of several capitals to advocate for de-escalation in Libya. In Tunis, he met with Foreign Minister Khamis Jhinaoui. In a joint press conference afterwards, Jhinaoui reiterated his appeal to all sides of the conflict in Libya to seal a ceasefire, exert the utmost self-restraint and resume the political process.
He noted that he had personally contacted different parties to the conflict, including Haftar, in the framework of Tunis’s efforts to promote a ceasefire and spare Libyan blood. Jhinaoui lauded Salame’s efforts to halt the fighting in Libya and coax the disputants back to dialogue and negotiation.
On Tuesday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi hosted a meeting of the African Union’s troika summit and the chairperson of the AU’s committee on Libya to discuss the latest developments in Libya and the means to contain the current crisis and revive the political process in Libya and eliminate terrorism. The meeting, in Cairo, was attended by the presidents of Rwanda and South Africa, the two other members of the AU troika, the president of Congo, who chairs the AU committee on Libya and the head of the AU Commission.
Meanwhile, in the UN Security Council last week, German and British demands for a resolution calling for a ceasefire and for Haftar’s forces to withdraw ran up against the opposition of Russia, China and France. The US joined the opposition, albeit rather ambiguously. According to diplomats, Washington’s mission at the UN offered no justification for what appears to be a change in tack on the Libyan question.
The following day, 19 April, a White House statement revealed that US President Donald Trump had spoken to Haftar on 15 April in order to discuss ongoing counterterrorism efforts. According to the statement, Trump “recognised Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.”
The news of Trump’s phone call to Haftar stirred considerable speculation, especially given that the call occurred on the second day of Haftar’s visit to Cairo last week, during which he met with Al-Sisi. The announcement, Friday, came as GNA forces in Tripoli managed to beat back an LNA offensive, leading some observers to interpret the announcement as a form of moral support for the military commander.
US media outlets saw another divergence between the Trump White House and government institutions such the Pentagon, the State Department and AFRICOM, which have indicated their concern over Haftar’s military operation. Among their concerns is that the operation might offer Russia an opening to acquire a foothold in North Africa, posing a threat to southern Europe and jeopardising the security situation that has prevailed in the region since World War II.
The standoffs between regional and international stakeholders in Libya have heightened UNSMIL’s fears that the fight for the capital could spiral into a destructive proxy war with dangerous repercussions throughout the whole of North Africa and the Sahel.
GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashaga lashed out against France for supporting Haftar and severed relations between his ministry and the French Interior Ministry with which it had signed a contract to train personnel to staff Libyan police forces
. Paris denies the allegation and maintains that it still recognises the GNA and supports the UN-sponsored Libyan agreement that was signed in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015.
Al-Sarraj claims that Haftar is receiving material support from foreign governments to wage his offensive against the Libyan capital. In an interview with Bloomberg on 22 April, he said that foreign backers have been arming Haftar since he launched his offensive to take the capital. On the news of Trump’s phone call with Haftar and the question of a shift in US policy towards the Tripoli offensive, Al-Sarraj told Bloomberg, “we deal with statements from the State Department and direct contacts with the US administration and the message is very clear: they are not pleased with the attack on Tripoli.”
The urgency of the situation in Libya brought French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian together with Italian counterpart Enzo Moavero Milanes in Rome, 19 April. In a joint press conference after the meeting, Le Drian said: “It is not possible to do anything in Libya without solid Franco-Italian agreement and there is no way out of the crisis that isn’t political. The crisis in Libya can become very dangerous, so it’s necessary to stop it.”
Le Drian explained that Rome and Paris “have patched things up after recent tension over several issues, including migrants and the support of some members of the Italian government for the Yellow Vest protest movement in France”, Italian news agency ANSA reported.
Milanes, for his part, said: “Naturally, we talked about the situation in Libya, which is worrying and holds the attention of both our governments. Our position, an absolutely joint one, is that a ceasefire must be achieved as soon as possible. That must be followed by a humanitarian truce and a return to talks. We have solidarity with the Libyan people, who are suffering the effects of the armed clashes.”
Two days earlier, in her briefing to the parliament 17 April, Italian Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta said that Rome remains strongly committed to taking the necessary measures to reach a diplomatic solution to the Libyan crisis, including “support for the security forces of the internationally recognised Libyan government”, referring to the GNA headed by Al-Sarraj.
Over 250 people have been killed and thousands driven from their homes due to fighting in the vicinity of the Libyan capital, according to the World Health Organisation, which has warned of a humanitarian disaster if the fighting continues.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Averting escalation