Ghassan Salamé, UN special representative to Libya and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), has succeeded in containing the security situation in Tripoli after several weeks of militia clashes in the southern suburbs of the capital.
Although he had managed to broker a ceasefire agreement between the militia groups earlier this month, the truce quickly broke down within a day.
Now, the ceasefire appears to hold. However, as parties in the capital shift to diplomatic avenues instead of arms to resolve their disputes, the Commander-General of the Libyan National Army Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar warned that he would nullify any unfair or rigged electoral process.
The international community hopes to broker a political settlement and arrange for general elections in Libya as soon as possible.
In a meeting with community leaders in his headquarters in the Rajma district in east Benghazi on 7 September, Haftar said that he is keener than anyone on national elections, but if the elections lacked integrity, “the army will act to abort them”.
He stressed his support for the political process and his intent to recognise the results of elections, “as long as they are fair and honest”, and reaffirmed his commitment to the Paris declaration sponsored by French President Emmanuel Macron on 25 May.
“In Paris, there was a political agreement between the competing parties in Libya. Not all political agreements are beneficial, but we are committed to the Paris agreement,” Haftar said.
Although France failed to persuade all Libyan parties present in the Champs Elysee on 25 May to sign the text as an agreement, it was transformed into a communique that was signed by Haftar, Speaker of the House of Representatives in Tobruk Aquila Saleh, Chairman of the Supreme Council of State Khaled Al-Mishri and Chairman of the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord Fayez Al-Sarraj.
Haftar, in his meeting with social dignitaries in Benghazi, offered reassurances on his stance with respect to the role of the army in political arrangements. His engagement, he said, was “a calculated risk”, not “a coup against authority”.
Briefly addressing the eruption of militia violence in the capital, Haftar said: “The crisis in Tripoli must end as soon as possible. We cannot remain silent in the face of the current situation,” adding that “The liberation of Tripoli in accordance with a drawn up military plan is an inevitable option.”
He stressed that the militias must leave the capital and that, with help from foreign embassies, they could live “remote from the Libyan people”. He added: “There are those who stay afloat thanks to Italy which sees itself as an enemy to us.”
Describing terrorists as “the most evil of God’s creations,” Haftar said: “We have confronted terrorist elements in Libya of all nationalities. We took it upon ourselves to ensure that not a single IS group element remains alive as long as we are alive.”
In response to complaints on the part of notables present at the meeting concerning the behaviour of some members of the army towards certain families in Benghazi, he stressed, “it is wrong to maltreat the families of terrorists or to confiscate their properties. The wise men must help put an end to such practices.”
Meanwhile, to the west, Salame and his deputy chief of mission Stephanie Williams brought the situation in the capital under control after securing a truce and ceasefire between the Tripoli-based militias and those fighting beneath the banner of city of Tarhuna.
On Sunday, UNSMIL announced the results of the “ceasefire-related security dialogue for Tripoli” which was attended by representatives of the Government of National Accord and military commanders, security apparatuses and armed groups present in and around the capital.
According to the UNSMIL statement of 9 September, the purpose of the meeting was “to discuss the consolidation of the 4 September 2018 ceasefire, agree on a monitoring and verification mechanism and begin talks on the security arrangements in the Greater Tripoli area.” In the end, “the parties committed to uphold the ceasefire agreement. They also committed to a signed document that includes establishing a monitoring and verification mechanism to consolidate the ceasefire; the repositioning of armed groups to agreed-upon locations; the development of a plan for withdrawing armed groups from the locations of sovereign institutions and critical infrastructure in Tripoli and assigning the functions of securing the capital to regular police and military forces only.”
The UNSMIL chief launched a second phase of the agreement on security arrangements for the capital. This phase aims to establish a more permanent arrangement through the introduction of a package of political, security-related and economic measures to be put into place over the next few weeks.
In its 9 September statement, the UNSMIL pledged to “continue to engage with attending parties to follow up on the details agreed upon today and confirm their implementation”, adding: “Special Representative to the Secretary-General in Libya, Ghassan Salame, will continue his good offices to announce economic reforms that are key to resolving the crisis, and will work with all parties to reach a lasting and mutually acceptable political agreement aimed at unifying the institutions and stabilising the country.”
By the time the ceasefire took hold, the clashes between the militia brigades based in Tripoli and the 7th Infantry Brigade that marched on the capital from Tarhuna claimed 78 dead, 210 wounded, 16 missing and the displacement of 95 families from the areas affected by the clashes, according to the field hospital operated by the Ministry of Health in Tripoli. The fighting also took a massive toll on public and private property.
The confrontations also reordered the security situation in the capital. By the end of the clashes, the power of the so-called Tripoli Cartel (made up of four militias groups: the Salafi-oriented Special Deterrence Force, the Abu Slim unit of the Central Security Apparatus, the Nawasi Battalion and the Tripoli Revolutionaries Battalion) had been considerably curtailed and restricted to the areas in which contingents are based, while the Tarhuna-based 7th Infantry Brigade, also known as the Kaniyat Brigade, was allowed to take up base in the southern suburbs of the capital.
The new situation also made it possible for forces from Misrata to return to Tripoli after a two-year absence. A concerted public and media outcry against the Misrata militias two years ago compelled officials from the most economically and militarily powerful city in the west to call their militia forces back to their barracks.
According to sources in Tripoli cited by Bawaba Al-Wasat news site, some 3,000 armoured vehicles from Misrata arrived in the eastern suburbs of the capital after the Presidency Council ordered the counter-terrorist force under the command of General Mohamed Al-Zein to intervene in order to separate the fighting militias in the south of the capital. In like manner, the new situation made it possible for a portion of the militias from Zintan, located in the mountains southwest of Tripoli, to return to the southwestern suburbs of the capital.
All groups are positioning themselves for the security arrangements that will be the subject of UN-sponsored negotiations during the forthcoming weeks.
The new security arrangements for Tripoli will serve as the prelude to a much broader negotiating process. Salame hopes to broker a permanent political settlement acceptable to all parties in order to unify government institutions and restore stability preparatory to holding parliamentary and presidential elections.
On the other hand, the permanent arrangements for the capital that Salame has in mind may not be what Haftar had in mind. The eastern Libyan military strongman probably envisioned a march on the capital led by himself.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Salamé contains Tripoli crisis