Friday,16 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Friday,16 November, 2018
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

New descent in Libya

Fresh military conflict has once again altered political alliances in Libya, pushing comprehensive peace further into a distant future

Serraj sits next to Libya
Serraj sits next to Libya's Foreign Minister Mohamed Taha Siala (L) and Interior Minister Al-Aref Al-Khoja during a meeting in Rome

Major military/security developments since the beginning of this month, in Tripoli, Benghazi and the petroleum crescent in-between, will inevitably impact the complex political map in Libya which has reached such a state of fluidity and anarchy over the past three years as to threaten the unity of the Libyan state.

Of immediate concern is how these developments will affect the already fragile Libyan Political Accord (LPA), signed in Skhirat, Morocco, over a year ago, in the hope of reviving the political recovery process that had ground to halt two and a half years ago. Clearly the renewed outbreaks in fighting have compounded the challenges of Fayez Al-Sarraj, chairman of the Presidency Council and prime minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA), who has been pushing to implement the provisions of the LPA, especially with regards to political and security arrangements in the capital.

Tripoli was recently caught in an unprecedented, over a week-long, upsurge in fighting between rival militia groupings. On one side were the brigades allied with the Presidency Council and GNA, on the other the brigades and militia groups allied with the self-declared National Salvation Government (NSG) led by Khalifa Al-Ghoweil, which is close to the office of the Grand Mufti Sheikh Al-Sadeq Al-Ghariani and to the leadership of the General National Congress (GNC). The three groups oppose the GNA accord signed in Morocco on 17 December 2015. About a month and a half ago, the NSG militias stormed and occupied the headquarters of the GNC, which was transformed into the High Council of State under the LPA. Observers at the time described the assault as a major setback for the national reconciliation process since the Presidency Council moved to the capital a year ago.

Last week, combined forces working with the GNA, consisting primarily of the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, Central Security Forces and the Saadawi Brigade, succeeded in regaining control of the GNA headquarters, or the High Council of State headquarters as they are now known. In the process, these forces also drove out small militia groups that had asserted their control over various portions of the capital, such as the districts of Andalus, Qurqash, Qurja, Ghout Al-Shamal and the Tourist City. As these operations continued, the GNA released a statement announcing that its forces were cleansing the greater Andalus district of outlaws and that they would not cease until they had driven out all those who undermine and obstruct the activities of the police and security services, which are working to restore security and order in the area.

Then, as Thursday dawned last week, the Presidency Council announced that it had succeeded in reaching a ceasefire and securing the departure of all militia and paramilitary groups from the capital, as called for under the LPA. The council added that the Presidential Guard, which is subordinate to the Presidency and the GNA, would undertake the protection of the High Council of State building and that a committee would be formed under the GNA’s Ministry of Defence to oversee the withdrawal of the militias within a period of 30 days at the most.

It still remains to be seen whether that agreement will hold under the pressures of violent upheavals in the country, especially given the resilience of the militia groups and their ability to adapt to new circumstances and turn them to their advantage. In all events it appears that the Presidency Council is operating on the premise that it is better to deal with the four major militia groups in the capital first than the dozens of smaller ones that have effectively become criminal gangs responsible for much of the robbing, looting and killings. The identities, locations, capacities and leaderships of the larger groups are known and it is therefore easier to negotiate with them, to accommodate their demands and/or to assert pressure on them with the aid of international powers.

In the petroleum crescent region in central Libya, the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) launched a surprise attack in which they rapidly seized control over the major oil exporting terminals at Al-Sadr and Ras Lanouf. Although the Libyan Armed Forces under General Khalifa Haftar succeeded in recapturing the oil terminals and ousting the BDB within the space of 10 days, the attack underscored how fragile the control of Haftar’s forces is and undermined the image of the eastern strongman at a time when his regional supporters are trying to market him to the international community. Currently, the map of rival forces contending over that strategic area remains unclear. Hiftar’s forces and BDB forces have traded accusations of engaging mercenaries from Sudan and Chad in their drives to control the oil terminals. The same charge was levelled by the former Haftar ally, Ibrahim Al-Jadran, after his forces were driven out of the area in September 2016.

In the third major flashpoint, Benghazi, Haftar’s forces announced that they had taken control of the Imarat 12 area in the Qanfouda district of western Benghazi after the departure of the forces of the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (SCBR) and their families. These relocated to Saberi and Souq Al-Hout, two of the largest and oldest districts of Benghazi, in what observers describe as an attempt to escape the tight siege they had been under for three months. On the other hand, the images that Haftar’s forces have released of the defacement of the graves and mutilated corpses of SCBR fighters who were buried in the Imarat 12 area triggered widespread condemnation. The repercussions of that sacrilegious behaviour are likely to be felt for months and years to come in that city that has been torn by warfare and accumulated injustices that will continue to pose the greatest challenge to the reestablishment of stability in the country.

Elsewhere in the east, the speaker of the House of Representatives, who refuses to recognise the LPA, had severed dialogue with his political adversaries in protest against the seizure of the oil terminals by BDB forces. This escalatory step further undermines the peace and reconciliation efforts sponsored by the UN and promoted by various regional and international powers. As the recriminatory and belligerent invective mounted between rival political factions in Libya, UN Special Envoy to Libya Martin Kobler warned, Monday, of dangerous escalation across Libya emanating from the deteriorating security situation in Tripoli and events in Misrata and Benghazi. He appealed to all parties “to put Libya and the unity of Libya ahead of their own narrow interests. The violence, hate speech and mutilation of corpses in Libya is completely unacceptable. Calm must be restored immediately, democratic bodies and ideals must be respected and freedom of speech must be protected,” Kobler said in a press release.

Kobler appealed to Libyan institutions “to commit to advancing the LPA and to swiftly implement the security arrangements in Tripoli which provide for the withdrawal of armed groups from the capital and the deployment of army and police,” adding: “Do not let the agenda be driven by violence on the ground and extremism.” He further warned that “the mobilisation of forces and hostile acts and rhetoric present a real risk that the country will slide into widespread military confrontation.” At the same time, he underscored the international community’s strong commitment to Libya which, he noted, was demonstrated again at the 18 March Quartet meeting that called for member states to exert their influence with the parties to pull Libya back from the brink and re-engage in the political process. “The responsibility, however, lies first and foremost with the Libyans themselves to end this escalating violence,” Kobler stressed. “All political and security stakeholders in a position to influence their constituencies should act now.”

As the UN special envoy observed, recent developments in Libya demonstrate that the influential parties on the ground there have been propelling the country to a dangerous brink, gravely jeopardising all mediating efforts, whether international, regional or even domestic. The Libyan stage is in a new state of flux relative to its political and military alliances, and the outcomes may not take shape without fresh rounds of military escalation and conflict. This is all the more the case in view of the prospect for amending portions of the LPA, which could lead factions to work to strengthen their positions on the battlefield as a way to strengthen their negotiating hand. It is also possible that the next round of negotiations take place under a new UN envoy, as there are strong indications that Kobler is to be replaced by an envoy from the United States.

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