Why do Al-Sarraj and Salamé wager on militias instead of unifying the army of Libya?

Mohamed Abu-Alfadl, Monday 12 Nov 2018

Ghassan Salame
U.N. envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame attends a news conference following a meeting with southern Libyan groups in Tripoli, Libya, February 7, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

The Libyan crisis seems to be adamant not to calm down at all, for whenever indicators go in the direction of a solution a profound problem, some willfully throw it in new paths and mazes that exacerbate the difficulty of solving it.

Some think that they are capable of settling the crisis while they are the main reason in complicating it. They insist upon imposing their visions which lead to the continuation of the crisis for a long time or until the time comes when they manage to arrange the situation in a way that suits their interests.

Ghassan Salamé, UN Envoy to Libya, made a briefing before the Security Council last Thursday. The focus was obviously on the humanitarian dimension after it has been a fad in the UN discourse because it caters to the citizens, politicians and media personnel’s sentiments and it might make them forget concerns and accumulated problems.

Salamé tackled the situation of the militias and the decline of their role through asserting that there is a considerable degree of calmness in Tripoli after guns fell silent. However, he didn’t deny that their mission has ended and didn’t view them as pure evil. He opened the door for using armed battalions’ leaders and elements for the aim of imposing law and order in the future.

Political Consensus

Salamé agrees with Fayez Al-Sarraj, Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and prime minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya, in this point. The points of agreement are increasing between the two figures, as if there is an agreement that stipulates the integration of their visions and not to give the priority to the unification of the army institution, which Salamé considers as not too urgent issue.

The UN envoy hinted at this issue fleetingly saying “On the medium range, we have to contribute to unify the army and restructure it to be a professional national army”. This means that the militias will still have an influential role. The talk about deterring them following the threat to imposing sanctions in his previous briefing carries many doubts. For it is possible that they may expand once again and being clad in a different garb. This explains one of the secrets behind their withdrawal lately from a number of governmental institutions in Tripoli and the Mitiga International Airport.

Salamé knows that unifying the military institution won’t in be the advantage of Al-Sarraj, who reneged when the discussions of its unification in Cairo were about to reach a key accord, of which the final agreement was about to be signed last month. He made the interlocutors enter into a debate concerning the missions of the supreme commander of the Libyan Army against that of the army chief. He felt that the developments on the Libyan scene are providing him with political power and the importance of his moral existence at decisive moments.

The mission of the unification stumbled but it isn’t over, for it is difficult to reach a full established degree of calmness and stability in Libya without this step. This step is gradually ignored and the focus is on the file of stripping the legislative power from the Libyan House of Representative and raising doubts regarding its accounts. This is accomplished via pushing for convening of the Libyan National Gathering early next year to be followed by holding elections in the spring of the same year.

Concentrating on convening the gathering aims at diverting the attention away from current constituents and restructuring the Presidential Council in a way that would be advantageous to Al-Sarraj being in the forefront. At the same time, those who called for the gathering don’t heed to warnings of 134 members out of the 180 members-Libyan House of Representative of the dangers of Al-Sarraj and his political steps.

The operation of marketing of Al-Sarraj and being adopted by the UN envoy leads to creating the impression that he is “the savior” and simultaneously neglecting conceptions that consider him one of the reasons behind the current crisis complication. Thus, due attention wasn’t paid towards the unification of the military institution and the role of the head of the Libyan National Army, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who began to invest his several cards in counter efforts in different areas.

Curbing Salamé’s moves

Haftar went to Moscow recently to assert that he has a lot of power tools both internally and externally, to send a signal that may deter Al-Sarraj’s allies, to curb Salamé’s moves and to issue a warning of further Russian engagement in the crisis. This warning will cast a shadow on the Palermo conference to be held on 12th and 13th of this month which Italy and its supporters understand it well.

Steps undertaken by the main players in the crisis from Salamé, Al-Sarraj, Haftar and that of Aguila Saleh, the House of Representatives Chairman and Khaled Al-Mishri, President of the High Council of State (HCS) are going in the opposite direction of what's desired by the Palermo Conference. Therefore, the atmosphere that Rome has sought to create isn’t favourable for coming out with better results than that of the Paris Conference’s meagre results last May.

If the UN envoy is keen to reach the election stage next spring, he has to have a comprehensive vision for solution. For holding the elections isn’t an objective in itself and it may contribute to worsening problems on the ground. The inclusive gathering, in the way that Salamé presented it amid disparate interactions, won’t be able to pave the way for conducting fair elections and consequently not ensuring the implementation of their results.

Most of the movements undertaken by the UN envoy and Al-Sarraj are advantageous to the Islamist current and its backers (specifically Qatar and Turkey); reducing the role of the regulatory bodies and the military institution; insisting on holding the elections amid unfavourable atmosphere in order to facilitate its paths; and attempting to reproduce previous conditions in order to provide a good opportunity for the presence of the Islamists and their armed battalions.

These attempts converge with that of several Western countries, which deem it necessary to accommodate the Islamist current in Libya. It is an issue that hinders reaching a real settlement for the crisis because the backers magnify the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and their companions and look forward to give them more missions that go beyond their proportional representation in the Libyan society. According to some estimates, they don’t exceed 15%. However, they represent a branch of external powers that refuse to forsake them for they are still a profitable and a willing tool to be politically employed.

Hence, Qatar didn’t cease its missions in backing this current in Libya and it doubled its activity in this concern lately while focusing on civil society elements and pumping funds generously in different areas because these elements constitute the strike force in the national gathering which will decide many political approaches in the next period. This is what Salamé is trying to promote on a wide scale in order to attract international support and reduce the role of traditional powers that have decisive standpoints towards many issues.

The process of energising the Islamist current in Libya was evident through the generous hospitality Al-Sarraj welcomed Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar in Tripoli last Monday where they discussed cooperation in defence and military fields going beyond the political perspectives.

What confirms the several goals involving the visit is that Akar was accompanied with the Turkish Chief of General Staff‎‎General Yaşar Güler, Serdar Çam chief of the Turkish cooperation and coordination agency, Emrullah Isler the Turkish president’s special representative to Libya and Yasin Aktay the AKP president’s advisor along with a number of Turkish Defence and Foreign ministries officials.

Al-Sarraj moves a lot in order to remain in control of a regular armed force that equates the capabilities of the Libyan Army under the command of Haftar in the eastern part of the country. The former relies on winning over a military wing in the western part in order to lay hindrances before whoever thinks of storming Libya from any force similar to or surpasses the operation performed by the Infantry 7th Brigade in last 26th August.

Consolidating relations with Turkey currently can’t be without military and ideological signs which remind one of the nature of the role that Ankara plays in Libya. Al-Sarraj government’s media bureau said in a statement that he discussed with the Turkish delegation military cooperation between the two countries especially “cooperation in building defence and security capabilities through training courses and activating signed agreements in this concern and the process of unifying the Libyan military institution”.

Some observers see that Al-Sarraj wants to reduce the hold of the Egyptian role in the crisis and has threatened to withdraw the file of unifying the military institution from Cairo and handing it to another country. In his view, it seems that Turkey is much in favour due to mutual developing relations and through this he will be able to gain the number of battalions within the regular military force he wishes it to be under his control.

Here, it is suffice to say that Haithem Al-Tajouri, Commander of Tripoli’s Revolutionaries, is playing a major role in the security arrangements in the streets of the capital. He has dispatched recently elements from his battalion (which is known to be offering its services) to receive advanced training in Turkey. Thus, this confirms that the Muslim Brotherhood’s operations room which manages the Libyan crisis from Istanbul will increase its activities in the coming period.

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