The UN-brokered peace process in Libya has stalled, leaving unresolved pressing issues like worsening living conditions, control of oil facilities, people-smuggling, and the struggle against jihadist groups.
New negotiations are needed to engage key actors who have been excluded so far. The full report (The-Libyan-Political-Agreement: Time to a Reset )
The December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, signed in Skhirat, Morocco, has reconfigured more than contributed to resolving internal strife. A year ago, the conflict was between rival parliaments and their associated governments; today it is mainly between accord supporters and opponents, each with defectors from the original camps and heavily armed. The accord’s roadmap, the idea that a caretaker government accommodating the two parliaments and their allies could establish a new political order and reintegrate militias, can no longer be implemented without change. New negotiations involving especially key security actors not at Skhirat are needed to give a unity government more balanced underpinning.
Skhirat sought to resolve the dispute between the House of Representatives (HoR) and its associated government, based respectively in the eastern cities of Tobruk and al-Bayda, and the General National Congress (GNC) and its government in Tripoli. It created a Presidency Council, a rump executive that took office in Tripoli in March 2016 and was tasked to form a unity government, and an advisory High State Council of ex-GNC members. The HoR was to continue as the sole parliament and approve the unity government, but it has yet to do so. The institutional set-up thus is incomplete, leading to a skewed result, while supporters and foes cling to technical legalities to buttress their positions.
Military actors seek leverage by faits accomplis aimed at improving their negotiating positions and imposing themselves within their own camp. Between February and September, the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, who rejects the accord, drove foes from Benghazi and seized much of the Gulf of Sirte’s “oil crescent”, with its oil and gas production, refining and export facilities. Over this period, a coalition of western Libyan militias operating nominally under the Presidency Council and with U.S. air support has taken over most of Sirte, a city the Islamic State (IS) seized in March 2015. The possibility exists that some forces now in Sirte, aided by others in western Libya, will continue eastward and clash with Haftar’s forces in the oil crescent, or that the latter will seek to move west toward Tripoli. The aggregate effect is that divisions have deepened. That the Presidency Council, as interim executive, has made little progress on everyday issues such as the cash liquidity crisis and water and electricity shortages further undermines confidence.
External actors who pushed for diplomacy and made much of their support for Skhirat are almost as divided as Libyans. A group of mostly Western countries, led by the U.S., calls for unconditional support of the council and recognises the unity government it nominated. Prioritising the fight against IS and controlling migrant and refugee flows, it favours moving ahead on the Skhirat roadmap without the HoR if necessary, betting that if governance can be improved in the west first, the east may eventually join. Haftar’s resilience has upset that assumption.
Another group, led by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia, prioritises unity of what remains of the army (especially Haftar’s “Libyan National Army”) as the nucleus of a future military and is concerned about leverage Islamist militias controlling Tripoli may have on the council. It has given Haftar overt and covert political and military support, as has France on counter-terrorism grounds. Ostensibly concerned with finding a solution to Libya’s divides, it publicly subscribes to the peace process but undermines it and offers no concrete alternative.
Skhirat’s underlying objectives, avoiding further military confrontation and preventing financial collapse, appear increasingly distant. IS’s Sirte setback risks being followed by fighting among non-jihadists over oil and gas, which would likely postpone Libya’s ability to increase exports and further endanger peace prospects. Longer term, a failed peace process and escalating clashes would give radical groups opportunity to regroup. The immediate priority thus is to avoid the violence that seems to be brewing in the Gulf of Sirte, Benghazi and perhaps Tripoli. Avoiding a new confrontation in the oil crescent is particularly urgent, combined with an agreement that the forces there allow the National Oil Corporation to repair damaged facilities and resume exports, as Libyan law and UN resolutions demand.
Beyond this, a reset of the mired peace process is imperative. The attempt to implement Skhirat without HoR approval and excluding Haftar should end; likewise, backers must press Haftar to negotiate. Both sides need to make concessions, especially on security. The Presidency Council should do more to reassure the east it works for all, not just the west, and resume unity government talks with the HoR.
Little progress will be made without involving the most important armed actors in dialogue. Compromise on the command structure and their relationship with the Presidency Council is a necessary precursor to tackling wider disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration. Designating one side the “legitimate army” does not address the hybrid reality of military power: most armed groups claim ties with a state institution as they continue to operate as militias.
The prospect of Libya in freefall should give all pause, especially the vulnerable neighbours. Regional and global actors involved in the diplomatic process over Libya should converge on common goals, push for a renegotiation of the accord, use their influence to restrain the belligerents and nudge them toward a political solution and participation in a security track. Specifically,
The Presidency Council and allies should not take over the Gulf of Sirte facilities; the HoR and its forces should not move further west; the sides’ foreign backers should push hard to avoid an escalation.
General Haftar’s forces should observe their commitment that all Sirte oil and gas production and export facilities remain under the National Oil Corporation, as Libyan law and UN resolutions demand.
The Presidency Council should negotiate with the HoR on a new unity government, engage eastern opinion and address issues urgent to ordinary Libyans, eg, electricity, banking liquidity and health care.
The UN and states supporting diplomacy should promote a forum for Haftar and major armed groups from the west to discuss de-escalation in the Gulf of Sirte, Benghazi and elsewhere. As part of this security track, they should also begin talk on arrangements that could be part of a broader agreement.
Neighbours, the U.S., Russia, European states, Turkey, Qatar and the UAE, together with the UN, should help frame outcomes and contain spoilers by renewing efforts for convergence of their ambitions, based on issues where they already agree: oil and gas exports to stabilise the economy; a unified army command chain in a reunified security structure; territorial integrity; and confronting IS and al-Qaeda.
As the situation has taken increasingly alarming turns, outside actors – some, like France, long involved; others, like Saudi Arabia, newly active – are seeking to revive, the Skhirat process in one form or another. Understanding what went wrong, might be corrected and is necessary to do so is the best hope to salvage an agreement.
When, in January 2015, the UN launched the negotiations that would produce a Libyan Political Agreement by year’s end, its aim was a power-sharing deal to surmount institutional and military fractures precipitated by a mid-2014 governmental crisis. The process, led by UN Special Representative Bernardino León until November and since then by Martin Kobler, envisioned the creation of a unity government and eventually a new constitution and elections. A legitimate, sovereign government could restart oil production and export, right the economy, begin demobilising and reintegrating armed groups and call on the international community to root the Islamic State (IS) out of Sirte.
The driver of the talks was the Libyan Political Dialogue, which included representatives of the two rival parliaments in existence since 2014, the House of Representatives (HoR, based in Tobruk) and the General National Congress (GNC, based in Tripoli), joined later by various independent personalities. León developed parallel dialogue tracks for representatives of armed groups, political parties, municipalities, women and other civil society organisations to reinforce an accord, though the armed-groups track never took off.
By the end of 2015, while much progress had been made on general principles, the outcome was quite different from the plan. Rather than forging consensus on a political roadmap between the parliaments and other constituencies, it empowered politicians willing to use the UN framework to identify common ground with foes and left out those who disagreed on key aspects, including a unity government’s composition and a security roadmap. The latter included the leaders of the GNC, Nuri Abu Sahmein, and of the HoR, Aghela Saleh, and their constituencies.
The result was a power-sharing deal between the majority of the 23 negotiators, a “coalition of the willing” that had some support in the parliaments but not from their leaders much less among military factions. When, after nearly a year of negotiations, the outcome appeared imperilled, many external advocates thought it better to press ahead, calculating naysayers could be brought in later. The timing of the agreement, signed on 17 December 2015, appeared premature and to lack a sufficiently broad consensus to be sustainable. Though there has since been some progress in countering IS, the bridging failure at signature threatens to deepen the main political divide between the deal’s supporters and opponents and has created new fractures within both camps. This undermines the ultimate goal of territorial integrity under a unity government that, by improving the political, economic and security situation, can lay the foundation for a more stable, inclusive order.
This report analyses the accord’s impact and reactions to developments it has engendered in Libya and among international actors involved in the diplomacy. It also suggests how to rejigger the process to achieve a more durable outcome.
The Libyan Political Agreement, signed in Skhirat, Morocco, on 17 December 2015, established a “Presidency Council of the Council of Ministers”, to serve until appointment of a Government of National Accord. It consisted of a council president (considered the future government’s prime minister-designate), five deputies (deputy prime ministers-designate) and three state ministers, each representing a different political and geographical constituency. Faiez al-Serraj, a relatively unknown HoR member from Tripoli, became council president on signature. Serraj was to become prime minister once the HoR ratified the accord and approved a cabinet that the council had 30 days to present (and the HoR ten days to approve). The new government would then govern for a renewable one-year period. The governments linked to the post-2014 parliaments would be dissolved, and the HoR would stay as the legitimate parliament, while most members of the Tripoli-based GNC would be integrated into the consultative High State Council, a new body with a say in appointing top state posts.
A key difference with previous arrangements, under which the head of the parliament was head of state (and hence of the armed forces), was the council’s enlarged security authority, namely to appoint the top positions in the armed forces and security services. It also had powers to appoint a Temporary Security Committee (TSC) to implement security arrangements envisioned in the accord, including ensuring the council’s (and later the new government’s) safety in Tripoli and preparing a countrywide ceasefire and militia disarmament. To be integrated into state security forces, armed forces would need to recognise the unity government and lay down weapons. Also envisioned was a “comprehensive and permanent ceasefire” to enter into force when the agreement was signed.
Supporters in Libya and abroad said the accord was backed by majorities of both parliaments and ordinary citizens. The latter was broadly true. Most Libyans were fed up with the long divide, the fighting and economic and financial toll and welcomed a settlement in principle. But the same cannot be said of the parliaments. A substantial HoR majority opposed the military and security provisions; many also contested enlarging the council from three to nine and individual nominations to it. Reservations in the GNC centred on some nominations (mainly because made while the GNC was boycotting the talks) and the High State Council’s limited authority. “There is no real political agreement”, a senior UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) official said. “This is an agreement to support those who seem trustworthy for the sake of saving the country”.
In retrospect, proponents inflated support for the accord within the rival legislatures to justify going forward. The claim of majority backing was factually dubious – many members supported an agreement in principle but differed widely on details – and politically misleading, since key opponents were outside the HoR and the GNC and had military power to intimidate supporters, including several armed groups in western Libya and important forces affiliated with Haftar and the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, mainly in the east.
By end of 2015, mounting anxiety among Libyan participants of the UN-mediated dialogue and their international backers about the state of negotiations and the deteriorating economic and security situation heightened pressures to sign the accord even with key issues unresolved. The main international backers were well aware of the limited progress, incompatibility of demands and popular disaffection, but they, including incoming UN envoy Kobler, felt they were out of time, and the process might collapse.
The most engaged Security Council permanent members – the U.S., UK and France – were particularly vocal in pushing the UN to finalise the deal. This was also crucial for Libya’s neighbours, including southern European governments worried about the threats incubating in a security vacuum. Even states sceptical of implementation, such as Russia and Egypt, urged that the deal go forward. All argued the talks were at an impasse and might be derailed by reports of an apparent conflict of interest concerning the former UN envoy, León, which had just surfaced, and the growing political fragmentation. “When you drive on ice”, a U.S. official said, “it is better to accelerate than to hit the brakes”.
Political Dialogue participants indicated they also wanted the accord signed. They feared separate negotiations led by the heads of the two rival parliaments, the “Libya-Libya” initiative, would gain traction as a “nationalist” alternative to the UN-led talks, which some saw as an international or Western imposition. Their main concern was that the situation would fester, factions would fragment further and the most intransigent political actors would drown out more moderate voices. They also assumed opponents might join once they saw the level of support, and they brushed aside concerns over a possible backlash from rushing a deal without bringing along important constituencies and key military actors.
Several other factors contributed to a perception a deal was needed fast. One was concern with IS expansion in Libya, especially after the November attacks in Paris. Some states saw a unity government as vital to coordinate a military response to IS’s capture of territory in central Libya and elsewhere. In early 2016, U.S. officials estimated that there were some 4,000-6,000 IS followers in Libya, mainly in Sirte but also Benghazi, Derna and Sabratha. Explaining the rationale for moving forward with the Skhirat agreement, a senior U.S. official said:
In six months all three Libyan governments will have ceased to exist, and the only one left will be the government of Daesh [IS]. By implementing the political accord and moving the Presidency Council to Tripoli, we might have a chance to change dynamics and improve the fight against Daesh, which is consolidating its grip in the country.
A second factor was EU states’ concern with migrants and refugees, which made them eager to expand EUNAVFOR MED, the operation to “disrupt the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks” and prevent loss of life in the Mediterranean, into Libyan waters. By late October 2016, the UN Security Council had authorised operations in international but not territorial waters, and the Presidency Council had not requested the latter. The regional environment was another concern. Some Western backers of the UN process feared that without a quick agreement, regional actors such as the UAE and Egypt, which were nominally supportive but sceptical of the deal and continuing to back its opponents, would get their way. A Western official said:
Not signing and endorsing the accord would have been a major defeat for those like us who had been advocating a negotiated power-sharing deal as the only solution to the Libya crisis. It would have meant a failure of the principle of negotiations, and that would have allowed those governments that throughout 2015 had advocated direct unilateral action in support of the HoR and its government to declare victory.
A corollary was fear Western countries such as France and the U.S. had begun to signal intention to begin counter-terrorism measures inside Libya in collaboration with local actors, potentially undermining a future unity government. Most notably the U.S. and UK, were lobbying for moving the Presidency Council to Tripoli and recognising the unity government as the legitimate government as soon as possible, even without formal HoR endorsement.
Though these were all valid concerns, particularly for nearby countries threatened by IS and other jihadist groups and Europe, where the refugee crisis had become a political and policy priority, they have not been sufficient priorities to convince Libyan military actors to rally behind the accord and the Presidency Council. After being in denial for much of 2015, Libyans were concerned with IS growth, particularly as it began increasingly deadly attacks outside Sirte and threatened to expand eastward toward critical oil facilities. But, several important military factions remained at loggerheads, displaying little interest in collaborating against IS.
In June 2016, forces from western Libya launched Operation al-Bunyan al-Marsus (The Impenetrable Edifice) against IS in Sirte, but they were mainly volunteers from Misrata (joined by a few from other western and southern cities). East of Sirte, there was some coordination between the Misratans and the Petroleum Facilities Guards’ central-region unit, led by local strongman Ibrahim Jadran and in charge of security at Gulf of Sirte oil facilities, but other eastern forces opposed to the Presidency Council, notably Haftar’s, did not take part. A sizable proportion of those fighting IS in Sirte did not recognise the council’s authority, though the operation has been portrayed as carried out by accord supporters loyal to the council.
A major flaw of the strategy to create facts on the ground by recognising a unity government was that it was difficult to see how international goals – countering IS and stemming the refugee flow through Libya – could be sustainable without improved governance and a genuine broad agreement on state institutions and the military. Progress in fighting IS in Sirte has not addressed Libya’s political and institutional divides nor persuaded, as some deal backers hoped, factions and their regional supporters that national unity could come through an anti-IS coalition under the council’s aegis.
The International Crisis Group is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict.