Future political and ground conditions in Libya

Kamel Abdallah , Wednesday 8 Jul 2020

Prospects of a political breakthrough in Libya appear as murky as ever

Future political and ground conditions  in Libya

Since the end of May, the battle lines between the forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez Al-Sarraj and the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar west of Sirte and Al-Jufra in the centre of the country have remained the same. Meanwhile, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has been working with the US on negotiations with the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and GNA, on one side, and the LNA and regional and international parties on the other, to resume oil production, which stopped in January. The possibility of a successful return to the political process is highly unlikely right now.

GNA forces, with Turkish support, succeeded in late May to push back LNA forces, who are supported by Egypt, the UAE, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France and Jordan, out of the capital’s southern suburbs, Tarhuna region and Al-Watiya Airbase. This means LNA fighters have returned to their positions before the attack on Tripoli in April 2019.

INSISTING ON SIRTE AND JUFRA: GNA forces are persistent in regaining control of the coastal city of Sirte and Al-Jufra Airbase, since they are in the administrative jurisdiction of west Tripoli territories, before sitting at the negotiating table based on the country’s three provinces (Barqa, Tripoli, Fezzan). The LNA refuses to withdraw from these two areas since they threaten the security of the ports and oil fields, which are a strategic card in the hands of the forces in the East.

Both sides insist on pursuing military operations while intense diplomatic efforts are underway to jumpstart the deadlock and force local forces to restart talks and the political process under UN auspices, aiming to develop the political agreement signed in Skhirat in late 2015 as part of the three-track Berlin process (political, security/military, economic).

NEGOTIATING WITH REGIONAL POWERS TO RESUME OIL PRODUCTION: Last week, the NOC revealed negotiations were underway with regional countries about resuming operations, and for the first time accused these countries — as announced by NOC Chairman Mustafa Sonallah in a statement last week and a television interview Sunday — of endorsing the shutdown of oil production. He did not specify which countries and only said they are involved in the Libyan crisis since 2014.

Oil fields and production were shut down several times since 2012 due to local disputes, with the sector used as leverage in the political conflict to secure more economic gains and financial advantage, which undermined the country’s production capacity and seriously damaged the sector’s infrastructure. The last shutdown resulted in more than $6.5 billion in losses, according to the latest NOC figures. Current talks to restart oil production have revived hope that the country could avoid imminent financial crisis and military escalation, and pave the way for relaunching the UN sponsored political process. If talks fail, these hopes will be dashed, especially since each side is unwilling to compromise. Meanwhile, there was an air strike on Al-Watiya Airbase (140 kilometres southwest of Tripoli) Saturday, which Turkey wants to rehabilitate and operate as part of its plan to establish two land and naval bases in Libya.

ATTEMPTS TO END THE STALEMATE: The attack on Al-Watiya was an attempt to end the stalemate since combat forces on both sides remain in their positions with foreign support, which has increased since fighting began in Tripoli in April 2019. This has further embroiled foreign powers in the crisis and now they have a greater role in managing the conflict than domestic forces. Although Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and France supported the LNA in its war on terrorism and armed groups, Haftar’s military campaign allowed Russia and Turkey to establish a foothold and play a bigger role than traditional forces in the Libyan crisis since 2014. Ankara, supporting the GNA, and Moscow, backing the LNA, tried to coordinate their operations away from Western powers and other players involved in the crisis. In January, Russia hosted Al-Sarraj and Haftar for indirect talks to urge them to sign a ceasefire agreement. However, these failed because Haftar refused to sign the deal and left Moscow.

The military involvement of Turkey and Russia in Libya, division in European ranks, and the US’s hesitation have obstructed the Berlin process which was launched at an international summit on 19 January in the German capital, even though the summit created a three-track roadmap to draft a political agreement.

CONSULTATIONS AND PREPARING FOR TALKS: Parliament Speaker in Tobruk Aguila Saleh held several overseas meetings and local ones with civil forces in East Libya to bolster his political position in upcoming talks. Saleh wants to be included in the new executive body that will be formed in future negotiations, after he gained the strong support of Egypt, the UAE and Russia. He also has strong political backing at home from the federal forces, tribes in the East, and supporters of the ousted regime who want to return to the political scene. However, although these three fronts give Saleh a broad margin for political manoeuvring with them and foreign supporters, they also limit his movement in the face of his political rivals who also want to make gains if the political process restarts. Especially federal forces and supporters of the former regime, who also have back channels of communication with influential players in west Libya.

Saleh, whom domestic allies describe as shrewd, also has to wrangle with political division in parliament. The majority of MPs opposed to the war moved to meet in the capital Tripoli, and formed a new leadership council for parliament after they were joined in April 2019 by several MPs who boycotted parliament sessions in Tobruk since the 2014 election.

Forces in the East, which lately agreed to resume oil production, are demanding that the GNA carry $50 billion in debt spent on the war effort, while other Libyan sources revealed that a proposal was made to negotiators to freeze revenues, not production, until a political agreement is reached. In Tripoli, the Central Bank of Libya refuses to take on this debt since it would hurt the state’s financial condition due to unstable revenues, a freeze on overseas accounts, and talk about freezing future oil sales.

Al-Sarraj continues to pursue his alliance with Turkey, which has helped GNA forces militarily in thwarting Haftar’s attempt to seize power in the capital. The operation ended Haftar’s political ambition and opened him up to criticism by his foreign backers. Political powers in Tripoli demand that Haftar be removed from the political scene, and their control restored in Sirte and Al-Jufra, before they return to the negotiating table.

So far, diplomatic concerns about escalation on the ground and restarting the war are limited to the GNA’s desire to continue fighting in the East, while forgetting that a substantial number of refugees from Benghazi, Derna and the oil crescent insist on returning to their homes and recovering their rights in the East. The authorities there are not considering opening a dialogue with them to avoid retaliation operations by their kin who want to return home. Meanwhile, everyone is waiting for the overhaul of UNSMIL’s role.

DIVIDING UNSMIL: UNSMIL’s role has essentially come to a halt since the resignation of former mission head Ghassan Salame in early March, due to international disagreement about the mission’s mandate, and insistence by the US to separate UNSMIL from the UN diplomatic mission to Libya. UN Secretary- General Antonio Guterres said that Hanna Tetteh, former Ghanaian foreign minister and current UN representative to the African Union, should lead UNSMIL. But this appointment remains uncertain because the US disagrees, even though diplomats anticipated Washington would approve the appointment which requires Security Council approval.

On 12 June, Reuters news agency quoted diplomats as saying that before Washington approves Tetteh, it wants Guterres to appoint a special envoy to mediate a peace deal in Libya. The source said the US suggested former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, but some Security Council members disagree with the US’s proposal to divide the UN mission.

Since Salame resigned, Guterres appointed American Stephanie Williams, who served as deputy head of UNSMIL for political affairs, as acting special envoy and head of mission until the restructuring of the organisation. At which point, Williams could be removed from Libya altogether, even though some Libyans want her to continue leading the mission since she participated in drafting the peace plan and oversaw UNSMIL’s operations and activities.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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