An international conference on Libya, mediated by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that was recently held in Palermo, Sicily, was looking for ways to reconcile the rival centers of power and generally stabilize the situation in the long-troubled North African nation. One of these main power centers is the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, headed by Faiz Saraj, and the other is the Tobruk-based House of Representatives headed by its Speaker Aguila Saleh, who is supported by the Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
Add to these the Islamists, local leaders in Fezzana in the south and in the Mediterranean coastal city of Misurata in the northwest and you will see that there are a lot of people willing to retain power in Libya, even on a regional scale.
Summing up the outcome of the Palermo meeting, commentators largely agreed that no breakthrough had been achieved in the long-running efforts to end the Libyan crisis with the rival leaders, Faiz Saraj and Khalifa Haftar, only reiterating their verbal commitment to the principles of settlement outlined in the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement and the UN Action Plan proposed by the special representative of the UN Secretary General for Libya Ghassan Salame in 2017. To implement these guidelines Saraj and Haftar agreed to convene a National Conference at the start of next year to work out a constitutional declaration and pass a law on elections to be held in the summer of 2019.
Here is how the meetings between Saraj and Haftar with the participation of the Italian prime minister were commented by the media:
It should be noted that taking part in those meetings were also Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Tunisian President Beji Caid Es- Sebsi, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Libya, Ghassan Salame. The Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay, who was not invited to join the meetings, walked out of the conference in protest, saying that shutting Turkey out from such contacts would have a “counterproductive effect” on the ongoing efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis. [i]
Many observers keeping an eye on the Palermo parley said that Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar set the tone for the conference. He not only refused to sit at the negotiating table with extremist-minded delegations from the western regions of Libya, but also managed, with Egyptian help, to make sure that the Turkish and Qatari delegations were kept out of his talks with Faiz Saraj. In the run-up to and during the conference, Haftar, who has been critical of Rome for the support it has been giving Saraj in the standoff between the two rival Libyan leaders, actually forced the Italian hosts to recognize him as not just a legitimate, but “indispensable” player in the settlement of the Libyan crisis. [ii]
Meanwhile, the results of the Palermo meeting did not come as good news to the political elite of Libya’s western regions, who rely on their militias. Speaking after the conference, the mayors of the cities of Zintan and Misurata, who had not been invited to take part in it, said that the situation in Libya would not change as the people who conferred in Palermo do not represent them. They also said that they were not ready for a nationwide conference scheduled for early next year, and that they needed more time to prepare for it. [iii]
It should also be borne in mind that these two cities’ militarized (“militia”) brigades constitute the main striking force of Islamic extremism in western Libya.
The deep split in the Libyan leadership and foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs was best evidenced by the November 18 statement by the head of the Supreme State Council, Khaled Mishri, about his agreement with Faiz Saraj to prevent Khalifa Haftar from taking up the position of the Supreme Commander of the Libyan army. [iv]
And this despite the fact that just a few days earlier Faiz Saraj told Italy’s Corriere della Sera that he was ready for a compromise and would look for a negotiated way to ensure Haftar’s appointment. [v]
It is also worth mentioning the fact that on November 9, just ahead of the Palermo conference, Prime Minister Faiz Saraj and Foreign Minister Mohammed Siala were in Istanbul discussing with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, among other things, the agenda of the conference on Libya. A few days earlier, the Turkish defense minister and the military chief of staff arrived in Tripoli to discuss with Faiz Saraj and the head of the Supreme State Council, Khaled Mishri, how best to solidify military cooperation between the two countries, and the creation of unified Libyan armed forces. [vi]
The pushback by Khaled Mishri, who represents the Libyan Justice and Reconstruction Party and also the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist movement in Libya, sponsored by Turkey and Qatar, was fresh proof of the fact that he is hostage to Islamist brigades from Misurata. Mishri’s statement should also be viewed as a Turkish and Qatari response to their exclusion from the Saraj-Haftar mini-summit, which was the centerpiece of the Palermo conference. Mishri essentially disavowed the agreements clinched by the two leaders to continue their political dialogue.
The reaction of the opposite side did not take long coming. In a televised interview on November 20, the House of Representatives Speaker Aguila Saleh said that Faiz Saraj was imposed on Libyans by the Western delegation when the text of the Libyan Political Agreement was being signed in the Moroccan city of Shirat in December 2015. He added that since the accord has not been ratified by the House of Representatives, Saraj cannot be considered the legitimate head of the Libyan state. [vii]
This is not the first and, apparently, not the last international initiative on Libya, whose decisions may remain on paper. During the May 29, 2018 meeting in Paris between Faiz Saraj and Khalifa Haftar, organized by the French President Emmanuel Macron, Libyan representatives pledged to adopt constitutional amendments and to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on December 10, 2018. However, a new wave of violence that swept across Tripoli just four months later, effectively dashed Macron’s hopes for holding elections as scheduled on December 10, 2018.
This time the troublemakers were militants in the western regions of the country affiliated with the government of Faiz Saraj.
On August 27, the 7th Infantry Brigade deployed in the town of Tarkhun, backed by tanks and artillery, advanced on enemy positions in the southern parts of Tripoli. According to a brigade representative, the operation was aimed at “flushing out corrupt police groups that use their status to get multi-million dollar loans while money-strapped ordinary citizens have to spend whole nights lining up outside bank doors to get scraps of their money to cover their everyday expenses.” [viii]
However, the main reason for the August 27 offensive by the 7th Brigade, commanded by Abdel Rahim Cani, and by allied armed militias from Misurata and Zintan, was not concern for the suffering residents of the capital but, rather, their leaders’ desire to have their share of money flows and control over resources as well as to demonstrate to all other political players that without taking into account their interests, ending the crisis in Libya would be a mission impossible.
The thing is, the Government of National Accord led by Faiz Saraj that came to power in Tripoli in March 2016, had to create new state structures virtually from the ground up and, with the absence of its own armed forces, had to rely on a patchwork of local militias as recommended by Western military specialists, mainly Italian ones, led by General Paolo Serra, a security adviser to the UN Mission in Libya.
The largest four of the 30 or so militia brigades active in the area, namely the “Special Forces of Deterrence” led by Abdel-Rauf Qara, the “Revolutionary Brigades of Tripoli” commanded by Haytem Tadjuri, the Navasi Battalion, headed by Ali Kaddur, and the Abu Slim Division” of the Central Security Apparatus under the command of Abdel-Gani Kikli, promised Saraj their assistance in ensuring the government’s security and maintaining law and order in the city. Operating as part of the Ministry of the Interior and endowed with the authority to investigate and arrest, these four groups eventually phased out their rivals from the city and carved up the capital into their areas of influence, establishing a sort of a cartel.
While remaining nominally loyal to the Government of National Accord, these four groups ultimately gained unprecedented sway over the country’s leadership turning into a mafia-style community that controlled the political institutions of the state and big business. A German study has repeatedly quoted the leaders of these groups as saying that “the GNA is only a screen they use to issue decrees that are favorable to them.” [ix]
Testifying to the scale of the lawlessness perpetrated by the cartel’s leaders are numerous facts that have become public knowledge. Thus, in October 2017, two commanders of the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigades kidnapped the Transport Minister and set him free only after he had awarded a 78 million euro contract to restore the Tripoli International Airport to a certain company from Misurata.
The leaders of the “Special Forces of Deterrence” have similarly been involved in such lawless acts. Ignoring repeated protests by the Prosecutor General, they kept the Libyan Airways’ executive director and senior officials of the Libyan airline Afriqiyah Airways under arrest in order to have their people appointed to senior positions in both companies and enjoy various services provided by these two air carriers.
According to experts of the Atlantic Council – a US-based think tank - even before the August 27 offensive, the 7th Infantry Brigade’s commander Abdel Rahim Cani enlisted the support of Salah Badi, a brigade commander from Misurata, who played a very active role in the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, and of a brigade from Zintan, which was forced out of Tripoli in 2014. [x]
The armed clashes that flared up in and around the capital on August 26, ended with a September 4 ceasefire mediated by the UN Special Representative Ghassan Salame only to resume shortly afterwards. It wasn’t until September 26 that the warring factions signed a truce, which has since been regularly violated by both sides. As a result, about 120 people have been killed, over 400 injured and an estimated 25,000 forced to abandon their homes. [xi]
The gun battles fought in Tripoli were yet another example of the United Nation’s failure to resolve the conflict - Faiz Saraj is a UN protégé - and the tragic consequences of the 2011 US-led military intervention by NATO countries. According to Jonathan Weiner, who served as the US Special Representative for Libya in 2013-2017, President Barack Obama’s decision to join in the military operation in Libya came "under strong pressure from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron." At the same time, Weiner added, following Gaddafi’s downfall, France and Britain committed themselves to “democratizing” Libya – an effort that was much facilitated by the North African country’s $200 billion foreign exchange reserves [xii].
Even though Washington’s current policy vis-à-vis Libya may look restrained and mainly limited to "combating international terrorism," at the close of 2016, a coalition of police brigades from Misurata succeeded, with US air support, in driving ISIS militants out of the city of Sirt. The terrorist threat is still there though, necessitating regular US airstrikes on the militants’ positions in the region.
It should also be noted that the post of the US ambassador to Libya remained vacant up until early-November of 2018, when Peter Boddy was finally dispatched by Washington to take it up.
This is not to say, however, that the Americans just sit and watch what is going on in Libya. Even when Barack Obama was still in the White House, the US policy in Africa began to take on the features of “behind-the-scenes control" through its vassals. According to the Qatari-based news agency Al-Jazeera, the latest government reshuffle in Tripoli in October with the appointment of Fati Bashag as Interior Minister, and Ali Abdullaziz Issavi and Faraj Bumatari respectively taking up the posts of Economy and Finance Ministers, had been coordinated by Faiz Saraj with the UN Deputy Special Representative in Libya Stephanie Williams, who happens to be a US citizen.
With Muammar Gaddafi now gone, the British and French quickly forgot their promise of a "democratic reorganization" of Libya, which they had given Barack Obama, and handed the solution of this daunting task over to the United Nations. Since February 2011, six UN special representatives have taken turns dealing with these issues, with the last of them, Ghassan Salame, just like the five before him, falling victim to the conflict of interest of the outside actors, above all France and Italy, as well as Qatar, Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, all of them rendering assistance to their supporters in Libya.
At the heart of Italy’s policy in Libya, apart from purely political considerations, such as a desire to remain the main partner of its oil and gas-rich former colony and resolve the acute problem of African migrants, are purely economic considerations. Rome’s support for Faiz Saraj and his Government of National Accord, which is nominally in control of the country’s western regions, is explained by the fact that the Italian energy giant ENI is pumping natural gas at the Mellita field west of Tripoli and sending it to Italy via the Green Stream pipeline running under the Mediterranean Sea, thus covering 25 percent of the country’s needs for natural gas.
ENI has also obtained concessions to explore large oil fields in Libya: one in the desert region and an offshore one, both covering 10 percent of Italy’s crude oil consumption. [xiv]
Therefore, from an economic standpoint, Tripolitania, which, apart from energy production, is home to the bulk of Italian investments in other sectors of the local economy, is more important to Rome than the eastern regions of the country.
Meanwhile, France has been ramping up its political activity in Libya as part of its counterterrorism Operation Barhan being carried out in the Sahel zone. In the past few years, France, which has become the target of a series of high-profile terrorist attacks, has felt the painful pinch of its participation in the 2011 military intervention in Libya. Learning from its past mistakes, Paris has been providing military assistance to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, known for his unflinching opposition to Islamic extremism.
Economic interests are equally high on Paris’ mind. As transpires from then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails, in February 2011, just ahead of the NATO intervention in Libya, French intelligence officers had several secret meetings in Benghazi with some representatives of the Libyan military promising them assistance in exchange for a preferential status granted to French companies working in Libya, especially in the country’s oil and gas sector. [xv]
As far as Russia is concerned, its interest in resolving the crisis in Libya is best evidenced by the high status of the Russian delegation in Palermo, led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Russia and Libya share a decades-long history of trade, economic, humanitarian and military cooperation. According to various estimates, during the 1970s and 1980s, the Libyan Jamahiriya bought $17 billion worth of arms and military equipment from the Soviet Union. [xvi]
Decades on, there is a great deal of interest in Russia in continuing this cooperation with Libya. In February 2017, Rosneft signed an oil and gas cooperation agreement with the National Oil Corporation of Libya, and Russian Railways is in talks with Libyan partners to resume a contract, put on hold by war and destruction, for the construction of the Sirt-Benghazi railway.
In fact, Moscow wants to work together with all sides in the Libyan conflict, including the Government of National Accord led by Faiz Saraj, who was holding talks at the Russian Foreign Ministry in March 2017, and with Khalifa Haftar, who is acting on behalf of the House of Representatives in Tobruk. During his visit to Russia, Haftar repeated his request for the provision of Russian arms for his forces, but Russia refused citing a standing UN embargo on arms supplies to Libya.
During their December 13, 2018 visit to Moscow, a delegation of the House of Representatives of Libya, headed by Speaker Aguila Saleh, signed a cooperation agreement with the Russian State Duma. Having in mind the past experience of Soviet instructors training Libyan military personnel, Aguila Saleh reiterated his government’s request for the resumption of this program. He also expressed interest in the development of cooperation in oil and gas industry, the construction of the Sirt-Benghazi railway and other infrastructure facilities.
Earlier, on December 4, 2018, another Libyan delegation, this time representing the interests of Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, who is backed by the supporters of the previous Libyan government, had a meeting at the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow to share with the Russian side his vision of how best to end the crisis in Libya "in keeping with the UN plan, but without foreign interference." [xvii]
The efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis are complicated by the fact that numerous armed “brigades” and criminal groups active in the country are more than happy about the current status quo, which allows them to control their illegal business. According to Britain’s Royal Institute of International Relations, in 2016, they earned an estimated $978 million from smuggling migrants to Europe and, according to other sources they are annually making $750 to $2 billion from smuggling oil products. [xviii]
And this is without taking into account revenues from drug trade.
The June 2018 attempt by Ibrahim Jadran, the onetime commander of the units ensuring the security of Libya’s oil facilities, and the Salafist-jihadist Benghazi Defense Brigade to seize the Ras Lanuf and Es Sidr oil terminals controlled by Khalifa Haftar, showed that the local players have no intention whatsoever to give up their economic power and abandon political ambitions in the struggle for power.
Some Western experts even believe that the brigades from Misurata, which in 2016 drove out the Islamic State terrorists from Sirt, could use their combat power and financial and military assistance from Qatar and Turkey, to launch, together with other opponents of Khalifa Haftar, a military operation to seize oil fields in the east of the country in order to deprive Haftar of the levers of economic and political pressure on the government in Tripoli. In a statement issued on October 20, 2018, the head of the city’s Military Council, Ibrahim bin Rajab, rejected any suggestions of establishing unified armed forces that Khalifa Haftar could participate in. [xix]
The turbulent events of the past few months have dispelled the illusion of relative stability in the Libyan capital, and once again showed that the outside players, primarily the Western countries, which endorsed the Government of National Accord led by Faiz Saraj at the United Nations, simply refused to acknowledge the fact that implanted into the country’s political life from the outside, this government does not enjoy popular support and that the real power both in the center and in the regions is wielded by formations “armed to the teeth.” According to Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence service, by the time of Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster, there were about 1 million tons of weapons in Libyan arsenals – more than the entire UK army can boast of. [xx]
As one expert put it, “there can be no peace in a country where there are 20 million guns per 6 million people.” [xxi]
In a situation where the government in Tripoli has proved utterly unable to end the armed clashes by loyal police brigades, the future of the political settlement in the war-torn country, even with international mediation, remains anyone’s guess. The general opinion is that in the run-up to next summer’s elections, the struggle for power between Libya’s rival factions will only be heating up and the country will enter a period of new upheavals.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of the Editorial Board.