After helping to liberate the city of Sirte from Islamic State (ISIS) last December, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) seems to be in trouble. Militias are openly defying Prime Minister Fayez Serraj‘s authority and Russian support is growing for Serraj’s opponent General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and ally of the rival Tobruk-based administration, formed by the House of Representatives. Since the December 2015 signing of the United Nations-brokered Libyan Political Agreement that empowered Serraj to form and lead a unity government, he has failed to gain broad support and the country is more divided than ever.
On 11 January 2017, Haftar was invited on board a Russian aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, where he was given a tour and then spoke via a video link with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. He had previously met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow in November, when he asked for help fighting Islamist militants in Libya. “This invitation looks like Russia is openly giving political support to Haftar,” Claudia Gazzini, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Libya, told Fanack during an interview. “But it’s also a sign that in the future Russia would also be willing to give him military support. The meeting with Sergei Shoigu is a very meaningful symbol, but it doesn’t mean they are only going to be with Haftar. There was a more discreet meeting between Russian diplomats, the National Salvation Government of Libya and the GNA that shows Russia is trying to forge a political agreement between the opposite sides.”
That meeting took place in December, when the Russian ambassador to Libya, Ivan Molotkov, met with Colonel Mahdi al-Barghathi, the GNA’s defence minister-designate, to discuss weapons training and support in countering Islamic activists, whereas Russia’s foreign minister met with Khalifa Ghweil, head of the unrecognized Tripoli-based National Salvation Government, to talk about the current situation. Meanwhile, The New Arab reported that, according to multiple sources, Russia had reactivated an arms deal with Haftar worth $2 billion.
Yet Russian interest in Libyan politics is no indication of the direction in which events will turn. “Russia has approved without any resistance all the United Nations resolutions that led to the birth of the GNA,” Mattia Toaldo, a senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations, told Fanack. “They are talking to the GNA and to Serraj’s deputy [Ahmed] Maitig. But their political support for Haftar in the last four months has grown substantially. Whether this means they are ready to ‘kill’ the GNA in favour of Haftar, I am not sure.”
Gazzini added that “as a result, the GNA looks weaker, but the US were their main support last year and we still don’t know what they plan to do now that Donald Trump has been appointed president”. So far, the new president has not made any public statements regarding Libyan politics, although Libya has been affected by his temporary travel ban, which prevents citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US.
Serraj suffered another blow on 12 January 2017, when the GNA defence, labour and martyrs ministries were seized by forces loyal to Ghweil, after months of tension between the two sides. Last October 2016, Ghweil, backed by several militias, seized Tripoli’s government complex and adjacent Rixos hotel from the GNA in an apparent attempted coup but failed to dislodge the GNA from the capital.
Although the GNA’s leader appears weak and unable to unify the country, Toaldo explained that “paradoxically this makes him a candidate to remain in his current place in different scenarios because he doesn’t antagonize anyone”. He added: “The discussion is mostly on who sits below him. The meeting between himself and General Haftar will say a lot about Serraj’s political future.” The two men were due to meet in Cairo following the Tenth Ministerial Meeting of Neighbouring Countries of Libya, held in the Egyptian capital on 21 and 22 January 2017. The final communiqué of the meeting reiterated rejection of any military action or foreign military interference in Libya, highlighted the importance of cooperation among Libya’s neighbours in border security and emphasized that the Libyan Political Agreement was ‘the perfect solution to the Libyan crisis’.
However, in Tunisia on 23 January 2017, the Libya Dialogue team, composed of members from different Libyan factions, agreed in principle to a number of amendments to this agreement, although no official decision has been made because no House of Representatives (HoR) delegation attended the discussions. “The new recommendation they made was quite surprising,” Gazzini said. “It shows they are supporting a change. They said the presidential council led by Serraj was not going to work, so they are ready to turn it into a three-people institution instead of the current 17. It’s an important change but it also means that the current council will not willingly give up. The situation is still evolving.”
For Toaldo, the Libya Dialogue could lead to a real political evolution even if the HoR is not yet represented. “At the moment, the legitimacy of the dialogue is questioned on many sides, especially around the presidency of the HoR. Will this mean there won’t be any political process? I don’t think so. There is a lot of diplomatic activity around Libya, with Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt all very committed.”
The question now is how, over the course of 2017, the political unification will be led and managed, and who will take advantage of the situation. “It is hard to see a single Libyan who can reunify the whole country, but it is possible that a collective, somewhat cooperative leadership manages to do that,” Toaldo said. “The problem after 2011 was that Libyan politicians were reluctant to establish networks and coalitions, relying instead on boycotts and vetoes to demonstrate their power. Leaders in Western Libya may despise Haftar and his Libyan National Army, but they can’t escape the need to build a unified security sector that responds to civilian authority rather than being a spoiler and a problem.”
If Serraj were looking to bolster his weak authority, “it would lead to stronger political oppositions able to deteriorate gradually the situation on the ground,” Gazzini said. The recovery of Libyan industry is a priority, but without political stability the country will be unable to stabilize economically.