Efforts renew on Libya

Kamel Abdallah , Tuesday 17 Mar 2020

France is stepping up efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis, perhaps to take advantage of gaps that have opened up between the main warring players and some of their backers, writes Kamel Abdallah

Men from Morocco and Bangladesh react on an overcrowded wooden boat, as aid workers of the Spanish NGO Open Arms approach them in the Mediterranean Sea, international waters, off the Libyan coast (photo: AP)

As the UN, with US support, continues to press for the implementation of the Berlin process set into motion by the international conference on Libya that took place in the German capital on 19 January, two other initiatives to resolve the intractable Libyan conflict are taking shape. One is an African Union-sponsored reconciliation conference to be hosted in Addis Ababa this summer, announced by the Contact Group on Libya recently formed by Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso who chairs the AU’s High-Level Committee on Libya. The other is a French attempt to mediate between the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj and the eastern based Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

On Thursday, 12 March, the African Union’s Contact Group on Libya met in Oyo in the Republic of Congo to discuss the situation in Libya and the progress made so far in the preparations for the planned Libyan reconciliation conference in Addis this summer. This was the second meeting of the Contact Group, which includes Egypt, South Africa, Congo, Chad, Algeria and Tunisia as well as the AU Commission and the AU’s Silence the Guns initiative, since the Berlin conference. The first meeting took place took place in the Congolese capital Brazzaville on 30 January.

Thursday’s meeting was chaired by President Denis Sassou Nguesso and was attended by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno, Algerian Prime Minister Abdel-Aziz Djerad, Sidki Sobhi as envoy of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Smail Chergui, the UN Secretary-General’s Chef du Cabinet Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, UN Special Representative Hanna Tetteh, UN Deputy Special Representative for Libya Stephanie Williams and AU High Representative for Silencing the Guns Ramtane Lamamra. The latter is tipped to succeed Ghassan Salame as UN envoy to Libya and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). Salame tendered his resignation earlier this month citing health reasons.

The participants affirmed the importance of the AU-UN Framework Partnership for peace and security and commitment to the three tracks initiated under the Berlin process, according to a statement released by UNSMIL.

During the meeting, UN representatives took pains to assure African participants that the AU mission to Libya would be hosted by UNSMIL and that the AU would participate in all the meetings of the Libyan Forum. UN commitments in this regard are a response to African leaders’ demands to be included more centrally in the international drive to resolve the Libyan crisis. The AU also wants a say in the appointment of the next UN envoy to Libya, a demand ignored by Western powers in 2019 when they approved extending Salame’s tenure for a year.

Algerian Prime Minster Abdel-Aziz Djerad, at the meeting, said that his country was looking forward to working with the new UN envoy who he hoped would be appointed as soon as possible “in order to sustain the current dynamism in the Libyan question and to preserve the gains that have been achieved so far”. He also reiterated his country’s offer to host the national reconciliation conference to help Libyans find a solution to the crisis and lay the foundations for a new and stable state.

Stressing the “central role Libya’s neighbours should play in the process that aims to achieve political solutions to the Libyan crisis,” Djerad called on the international community to include the AU in the meetings of the UN-sponsored Joint Military Committee formed to address the military track of the Berlin process. He also underscored his country’s determination to contribute to the success of the political track, the Libyan Forum, “led by Libyans themselves in accordance with a national agenda”, and urged the UN Security Council to assume its responsibility to restore peace and security in Libya “by halting foreign interventions and ending the flow of arms to the conflicting parties”.

The final communique of the AU Contact Group meeting made no reference to the Algerian offer to host the reconciliation meeting. It merely stated that the “Contact Group decided to convene the Inter-Libyan National Reconciliation Conference, in July 2020, at the AU Headquarters, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in conformity with the decision of the AU Assembly adopted in 2018.” The communique also “reiterated the firm condemnation of foreign interference, the violation of the arms embargo, the presence, deployment and utilisation of foreign fighters on Libyan soil” and it “condemned unequivocally such continued interference motivated by national interests and looting of Libyan natural resources”.

The planned reconciliation meeting may encounter some practical obstacles, not least being the question of funding, which participants discussed in the meeting. They indicated that they will turn to international technical and financial partners for help, and UN agencies in particular. The AU drive may also face rivalry and, perhaps, attempts to undermine it on the part of powers keen to push their own initiatives.

Also last week, France renewed its diplomatic drive to promote an end to the conflict in Libya. French President Emanuel Macron hosted LNA commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Paris on 9 March. After the meeting, a French presidency official announced that Haftar had assured Macron “that he was committed to signing the ceasefire, but this commitment would cease if the militias do not respect it”, according to Reuters. The French official was referring to the ceasefire agreement that the field marshal had refused to sign in Moscow in early January after a Russian-Turkish brokered truce went into effect in Libya.

The Tripoli based government’s Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, is expected to meet with Macron and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian next week to discuss ways to move forward in the settlement process which has stalled due to the resignation of Salame. Paris’s latest drive may be a bid to seize the reins of this process which have passed through Russian-Turkish, and Italian and German hands.

“The French strategy is to widen the emergent gap between Haftar and Moscow” since Haftar refused to sign the ceasefire agreement in Moscow, according to a report in Le Monde on 10 March. His adversary in Tripoli, Al-Sarraj, did sign the agreement on 13 January in the hope of promoting a compromise solution to the crippling weeks-long oil facilities blockade.

The French strategy also focuses on this crucial dimension. “The Elysée Palace is also pushing for a compromise on hydrocarbons,” Le Monde writes. “It would entail Haftar lifting the blockade of the oil terminals in Cyrenaica — immobilised by his forces since mid-January — in exchange for a more egalitarian distribution of oil revenues between Libyan regions without passing through the Central Bank of Tripoli.” The article noted the need for that institution to be reformed in the long term.

According to Le Monde, Haftar’s forces continue to make slow advances on the ground even if he “no longer has Russian support on the front line”. Nevertheless, there have been reports that the UAE has delivered a shipment of airplane fuel to Benghazi. The National Oil Corporation (NOC) stated that it notified the UN of “illegal imports of fuel in eastern Libya” which, it said, constitute a violation of international and Libyan law. “The arrival of that shipment of oil to Benghazi is a flagrant violation of the UN arms embargo on Libya and an infringement of NOC’s exclusive internationally agreed on rights with respect to oil imports,” the NOC statement said, adding: “The actions of the UAE flagrantly conflict with its words.”

“Despite extreme hardships caused by illegal blockades on Libya’s oil facilities, the NOC has been able to supply sufficient fuel to all parts of Libya, including the Eastern regions, to meet all civilian needs, including civil aviation. The only reason I can think of for additional fuel to be imported in this illegal and clandestine way is that it is intended for other purposes,” said NOC chairman Mostafa Sanaalla.


*A version of this article appears in print in the  19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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