Escalation in Libya

Kamel Abdallah , Wednesday 18 Dec 2019

As preparations continue on UN plans to relaunch negotiations on the crisis in Libya, commander of the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar has reiterated his determination to capture Tripoli

Escalation in Libya
Libyans check the site of an air strike in which three children were killed and others wounded on the southern outskirts of the capital Tripoli (photo: AFP)

As the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) led by UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salamé prepares to move forward with plans to launch a new negotiations process among the Libyan parties in January 2020 sponsored by the major powers, commander of the Libyan National Army in the east of the country Khalifa Haftar has reiterated his determination to take control of the capital Tripoli and has set a “zero hour” for when his troops will move into the city.

Observers view this as another escalation in the Libyan crisis that will hinder international efforts to relaunch the talks.

Diplomatic representatives in the 5+5 Group that includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as Germany, Italy, Turkey, Egypt and the UAE, wrapped up their fifth meeting in a series that began in October to prepare for an international conference on Libya in Berlin that has yet to be scheduled though the idea was proposed three months ago.

Diplomatic sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that Salamé had presented proposals to the Berlin meeting on 10 December that included UNSMIL’s vision for the new negotiation process in Libya, among them three main tracks for dialogue among rival and local forces in Libya including a political, an economic and a military track.

These will be implemented simultaneously, according to the sources, who also noted that the military track might begin first until the other two are ready for discussion. Preparations are underway so that the talks can continue “before, during and after” the proposed Berlin meeting, the sources said.

Among the proposals for the political track is a plan that aims to revive previous efforts to amend the agreement on Libya earlier signed in Skhirat in Morocco, to reduce the members of the country’s presidential council from nine to three (a president and two deputies), and to choose a prime minister and two deputies to form a cabinet separate from the council.

This process will take place within the framework of a meeting on the Libyan political dialogue to be held outside Libya with the participation of 40 negotiators chosen from the 13 electoral districts in the country after consulting local leaders. This step will replace the previous negotiators from Libya’s two parliaments by figures who most likely will not be members of either.

The new cabinet will be presented to the parliament in Tobruk for approval in two stages, and it will be approved in a third stage if it obstructs it.

The process will likely face challenges regarding its legitimacy and the choice of new negotiators on behalf of influential local parties, especially in the light of diverging local, regional and international views. Local divisions have also impacted the parliament in Tobruk since April, which means the challenges facing the Skhirat Process are continuing.

The economic track aims to support the political process and to push towards rebuilding and unifying Libya’s political and economic institutions, including the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC), the Central Bank of Libya and the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA).

It will also review the distribution of Libya’s national wealth by enforcing transparency and governance measures, as well as carrying out the economic reforms that the National Accord Government began in September 2018.

During the preparatory meetings for the Berlin meeting, agreement was reached on steps including supporting efforts to unify the Central Bank of Libya, currently split between branches in Tripoli in the west and Bayda in the east, and to introduce monitoring by the international community of negotiations between its eastern and western branches.

There will also be a tightening of the Libyan banking laws and an audit of the accounts of both branches of the bank since 2014 by a major global auditing company. The same process will be applied at the NOC and the LIA, Libya’s sovereign wealth fund.

The preparatory talks on the economic track have resulted in two new initiatives. The first is to create a Libyan Fund for Construction and Development (LFCD) and the second to create a national committee of economic and financial experts to support international efforts to shore up the country’s sovereign political institutions.

The LFCD will operate according to plans to regulate spending on infrastructure, and its policies will be drafted by the national committee of experts that will act as a forum for dialogue among the national institutions with international monitoring.

Salamé’s proposals also outlined the agenda for a military dialogue that will depend on progress in the talks on unifying the Libyan military held in Cairo in 2018. The military negotiations will be sponsored by a joint committee that includes officers from the armed forces and police of the 5+5 Group, and they will focus on reaching a truce that will grow into a ceasefire in the first phase.

This will be followed by the collecting of arms and the integration and demobilisation of armed fighters, as well as by further efforts to combat terrorism and adopt new security arrangements in Tripoli.

Sources told the Weekly that the proposed military track will be postponed until progress is made on the political and economic tracks, however, which means that the parties could be waiting to see the outcome of battles on the ground south of Tripoli between Haftar’s troops and National Accord Government forces.

On 11 December, the Libya Hadath channel, Haftar’s media arm, broadcast an address in which Haftar said he had launched a “zero hour” campaign to liberate the capital from the “grip of militias and terrorists.” He urged fighters operating in the area to hand over their weapons in return for pardons, but the situation on the ground has not changed, and fighting continues between the warring parties.

Haftar launched his escalation in response to two memoranda of understanding (MoUs) signed on 27 November between the National Accord Government headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj and the Turkish government regarding maritime rights, security and military cooperation between the two countries.

The MoUs were met with mixed reactions domestically, and they were condemned by regional and European countries because they encroach on third-party maritime rights.

On 24 November, Haftar met with officials from the US administration and National Security Council and was advised to end the assault on Tripoli and warned about its local impact, according to a statement from the US State Department.

Tensions rose after statements by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the possibility of sending troops to Tripoli if Ankara was asked to do so by Al-Sarraj’s government, based on the signed MoUs. This raised concerns about Turkish interference in the Libyan conflict, in which the UN and Western powers claim Russia is becoming heavily involved on Haftar’s side.

Observers believe that Erdogan’s statement that Turkey might intervene if the government in Tripoli officially asks it to do so results from his being given a green light by the US to offset growing Russian influence in Libya. This has included the shooting down of a US drone near Tripoli, according to the US Africa Command (AFRICOM).

The position of the Western powers on Russian interference in Libya and closer ties between Tripoli and Ankara has bolstered interest in the Libyan crisis over the past three weeks. Observers are now waiting to see the outcome of discussions between the five major powers, according to which it will be decided when the Berlin meeting will take place.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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