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Sarraj, head of Libya’s UN-backed government, and Haftar, who leads the Libyan National Army, were expected to meet in February 2017 in Cairo. But Haftar refused, angering Egypt’s President Abdulfattah al Sisi. Sarraj and Haftar recently made separate visits to Moscow, where they heard Russian officials present their peace proposals. The two also made rounds through other capitals, such as Algiers and Amman, to consider other peace plans, such as the most recent one brokered by Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt.
This time, Sarraj and Haftar met in Abu Dhabi, the main backer of both Haftar and Sisi. According to reports, both men agreed on reforming the Presidential Council, a plan that would include Haftar as well as a representative from the government of east Libya. They also talked about organizing elections in 2018.
It is too early to conclude whether the meeting represents a breakthrough in the conflict that has torn Libya apart. Sarraj, a political novice who is trying to unite the country, might not be able to achieve that without the backing of Haftar, Libya’s most powerful military commander.
Libya’s peace impasse is a victim of international political upheaval, said Youssef Cherif, a Tunis-based political analyst. The traditional power brokers in Libya are the U.K., Italy and France. The British, grappling with Brexit, are hunkered down in an isolationist mode. The Italians are reeling from a series of political crises, and its prime minister has been in post for only six months. The French president has been on the job for even less time, following one of the country’s most crucial elections. The other key player, the U.S., is also looking mostly inward. When the Italian prime minister asked U.S. Donald Trump to get more engaged in Libya, Trump replied, “I do not see a role in Libya.”
Trump’s open expression of disinterest can only weaken the United Nations’ mission in Libya. Indeed, the mandate of Martin Kobler, who in late 2015 was appointed Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, is about to end. The U.N. has yet to appoint Kobler’s successor. That delay stems from both the United States’ slow action and the growing disagreement with Russia. The latter, whose role has been growing in the recent months, may want to become the power broker as all these countries withdraw.
Libya also has to cope with another international conflict – the one between the United Arab Emirates, a supporter of Haftar, and Qatar and Turkey, supporters of Libya’s Islamists, the troops from the city of Misrata, and, to a certain extent, Sarraj’s government. Military escalations have been reported on several fronts throughout Libya. In Tripoli, the capital, drums of war have been playing for weeks now, possibly in repercussion of Sarraj’s rapprochement with Haftar.
Libya’s south, which had been relatively quiet until now, may be about to become the preferred new battlefield for the country’s warring factions. Clashes between Haftar-affiliated militias and others closer to Tripoli’s Islamists and Misrata’s oligarchy have intensified since March 2017, adding to Libya’s bleeding and divisions.
The escalation began when a Haftar fighter jet bombed the Third Force headquarters, a Misrata-controlled airport near Sebha, the capital of the south. That led to reprisals and mobilization of troops from both sides in Sebha and the other key cities of the south. Very quickly, forces allied with Tripoli’s Islamists – in fact to the self-appointed government of Hafedh Ghouil – announced their solidarity with the Third Force and sent troops.
The events may spur two of the region’s major tribes, the Tebou and Awlad Sliman, to resume fighting. The Tebou, who previously were affiliated with deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, will naturally stand by Haftar. The Awlad Sliman naturally will join the anti-Haftar troops. The last time the two camps fought each other, in 2015, some 400 people died.
The renewed violence will only deepen Libya’s human and economic toll. Moreover, the southern part of Libya is where extremist groups can cross the easiest. If the region is destabilized, extremist groups may exploit the vacuum to seize power. The same goes for criminal gangs and human traffickers.
Since the mid-20th century, southern Libya, called Fezzan, has been a French zone of influence. Americans, Europeans and other regional powers also keep close tabs on the area. Libya’s remote desert region is home to the Salvador Pass, one of the most notorious narcotics-trafficking corridors in the world. The French and the Americans maintain military bases in and around Fezzan, particularly in Niger and Chad. Germany is also building a military base in Niger, near Libya’s border.
The Algerians are also wary about developments in Fezzan. Their troops had operated several incursions into Libyan territory recently, going after extremist groups. Algerians worry about spill over into their own country, itself in a fragile situation due to economic strains and the lure of extremism among its youth, as well as a sclerosis in its political system. A further escalation of the south means that all of Libya’s three regions – East, West and South – will be in state of war. This will encourage those who consider partitioning the country into three, and only deepen its crisis.