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 )
IV. What Way out of the Impasse?
The conflict is becoming more entrenched, blocking prospects for revitalising state institutions and stabilising the economy. Entropy is growing: the rival governments’ ability to deliver concrete improvements in the lives of ordinary Libyans is decreasing, while the risk of further violence increases. Entire Benghazi neighbourhoods have been destroyed; hundreds of thousands of Libyans are displaced. Haftar’s September takeover of the Gulf of Sirte’s oil export facilities has allowed crude-oil exports to resume, offering the possibility of refilling state coffers, but also increased tensions between the two major armed coalitions and the institutions supporting them.
Both sides, with their international backers, are convinced they can ultimately triumph. In western Libya, factions supporting the Presidency Council and High State Council have gained the international recognition they desired and feel bolstered by their victory-in-progress against IS in Sirte. They are semi-covertly helping fighters defeated in Benghazi, some of whom have come together under a new banner, the Benghazi Defence Brigade, to spearhead an offensive in that city against Haftar’s forces. They are also preparing to retake the oil terminals. In turn, Haftar is using his victory to appoint officers to head municipalities, confirming his opponents’ fears that he aims for military rule. He and his allies, bolstered by their successes, appear to believe the “liberation” of Tripoli is within reach; they may also be planning to broaden their territorial control to the south, where they enjoy tribal support.
Both sides are making calculations based on dubious assumptions. Haftar forces now control most of the east, and their defeat is not likely, if only because their foes are unlikely to gather sufficient military strength. Some Tripoli politicians and military officials, as well as some Presidency Council members, would like to see the accord’s international backers impose a no-fly zone over the Gulf of Sirte and Benghazi to neutralise Haftar’s air force, his strategic advantage. Yet, the council may not ask for this while oil revenue is flowing, and the UN Security Council is unlikely to approve it given that Russia, a permanent member, and Egypt, currently a non-permanent member, are unlikely to back measures that would weaken Haftar. Similarly, Haftar’s promise to “liberate” Tripoli and destroy militias there is a mirage, because the armed groups across western Libya remain well-equipped and numerically superior. A renewed battle over the oil terminals could trigger a wider conflagration. Avoiding this and other military offensives is the immediate priority, followed by putting negotiations back on track.
If the central aim of what remains of the peace process is forming a unity government, an aim that major actors on either side still profess, the Presidency Council needs to bolster its legitimacy and reconcile with eastern Libyans and the HoR. The August 2016 HoR vote to reject the government of eighteen ministers offers a window of opportunity. The council should, in wide consultation with political leaders, make substantial changes to the government’s composition in order to bridge the gap with the east. It could reiterate its early 2016 proposal to assign key ministries such as finance, planning and justice to easterners, thus addressing the widespread view in the east of being marginalised. This may not satisfy HoR leaders, who have asked for the entire council to be changed (with only two deputy presidents, as the HoR proposed during the Skhirat negotiations), but it could be important in swaying wider public opinion.
The council should resist the push from politicians, including within its ranks, to ignore the August 2016 HoR vote. Such a line would deepen the divide and trigger more military confrontation. Even some HoR opponents see getting it on board as necessary to maintain coherence of the accord’s framework, as well as, more broadly, national unity. This more accommodating line would also return the ball to the HoR’s court, in effect calling its bluff; above all, the Presidency Council, whose legitimacy rests on having been created by the accord, should not derogate from its accord obligation to seek the HoR’s endorsement.
The accord’s external backers should help create momentum toward a political solution based on the accord’s broad outlines, but they cannot hold it sacrosanct. The most important aspect of resuming a peace process is accepting that the accord cannot be implemented as is, so should be renegotiated, starting with security arrangements. It is imperative to launch a security track parallel with the political process that would be a forum for negotiations on issues specific to the security sector, including temporary de-escalation initiatives to prevent new hostilities until a wider agreement is reached, for example on political issues such as the composition of a unity government and security arrangements.
Part of the reason why attempts to implement the accord have failed in the absence of a wider agreement incorporating security issues is that the military balance has changed since December 2015. The political divide is between pro- and anti-accord rather than pro-HoR and pro-GNC; and whereas the agreement and much of the diplomatic conversation envisaged civilian control over armed groups, those have grown stronger: in the west because of the council’s dependence on them in Tripoli and their success against IS in Sirte, and in the east because Haftar has asserted control over Benghazi and the Gulf of Sirte’s “oil crescent”. Each sees the other as aiming for domination, making compromise elusive.
Two things need to happen: an end to military operations and a resumption of political negotiations under a new formula including a security track. Armed groups in the west should stop supporting the Benghazi Defence Brigade and negotiate a local ceasefire in Libya’s second-largest city rather than pursue a vain attempt to retake it from Haftar. Calling on people displaced from Benghazi to join against Haftar-aligned groups would fuel the fighting and postpone their negotiated return in a local settlement, for which some support exists among Haftar’s forces. Western militias should break ties, direct and indirect, with jihadist groups to create common ground with eastern commanders (as well as reassure Haftar backers such as Egypt) and space to start local contacts between military representatives from both sides.
In turn, Haftar’s forces should halt their offensive in Benghazi and refrain from moving west of the Gulf of Sirte, as they have threatened. They should engage with Benghazi residents who have relocated in the west and reassure them they can go home safely. They and their affiliated security forces (such as intelligence and internal security organs) should also cease abuses against residents accused of siding with the Presidency Council.
Haftar should likewise re-engage with UNSMIL, particularly its security team, to reach a broad understanding on a possible security dialogue. The priorities in any political solution should be an Article 8 compromise, especially on army and police command chains, and consensus on a unified security force. Disagreement, including over who should lead the military and which Islamist factions should be fought (only IS and al-Qaeda or also groups that have collaborated with them), can be overcome by ensuring that key military representatives from both sides are at the table. This means staking out a compromise whereby, as a French diplomat said, “Haftar has to be in the picture, even if he cannot be at the centre”.
Both the UN and council members have floated the idea of creating a forum for security actors to negotiate these issues and be directly involved in shaping a unified military command. Thus far, these efforts have been limited to one July meeting, hosted by UNSMIL in Tunis, bringing together military actors from both camps. Several proposals have been aired. In June, Kobler proposed a military council divided into regional commands – essentially acknowledging current reality – but under the Presidency Council’s authority. In September, boycotting council member Qatrani, a Haftar ally, proposed a five-person body, separate from the council and including Serraj, two of his deputies (possibly Maitig from Misrata and Koni from the south), Haftar and H0R President Saleh, that would assume the council’s supreme commander role.
These separate but similar proposals have drawbacks: Haftar and his associates rejected Kobler’s as an attempt to divide the army; Qatrani’s excludes western military leaders. But the underlying acknowledgment that military power has become localised is worth retaining. A third, perhaps better way forward, may be to separate the Presidency Council’s civilian and military roles. Some council members are considering a “Supreme Defence Committee” in which Haftar would sit with western officers such as Colonel Salem Joha from Misrata (nominated, though he did not accept, as a member of the military operations room for the Misrata-Sirte area), but it is unclear if Haftar and key Misrata armed groups would agree.
Whatever the format, a forum is needed for the Presidency Council and its military advisers to negotiate with military from both sides over the command chain, or at least find a placeholder formula until a solution to the Article 8 dispute can be found. The council must do more t0 create confidence that its security strategy will lead to a working army and police that stand above the political divide. What it has done thus far – announcing creation of a Presidential Guard and empowering eastern military actors such as Barghathi and Jadran to try to fragment Haftar’s forces – is far from a national security strategy and has backfired, particularly as internationals have worked to contrary ends. Instead of creating a Presidential Guard that would deepen the divide, the council and its TSC should draft a security plan that would put Tripoli under the army and police, including elements from the east and Zintan.
The international community has a key role. Polarisation of political and military support to Libyan factions entrenches the conflict and makes it more difficult to salvage the accord elements all can agree on. Outside actors – pro-Presidency Council (the U.S., UK, Italy, Algeria, Turkey and Qatar) and those who support the council while also providing support to Haftar (Russia, Egypt, the UAE and to an extent France) – must chart a way based on the common ground between them.
Many in the first camp have been too optimistic that an agreement imposed on recalcitrant factions would eventually be accepted. The focus on eliminating IS in Sirte, which they hoped would establish Misratan forces’ counter-jihadist credentials for states such as Egypt that have long argued Haftar was the only leader taking on jihadists overshadowed other factors. The gamble that the accord roadmap could be implemented even without HoR endorsement underestimated the extent to which opponents could exploit this to gain support in the east. It made it easy to paint the UN as biased, thus hindering its impartial mediator role. Conversely, those who have supported Haftar, undermining an agreement to which they pay lip-service, have derailed the process but not provided constructive alternatives. If they want to maintain a united Libya and stop the conflict spiralling toward worse confrontation, they will have to set limits on their client.
Perhaps unavoidably in a context of regional, even global, upheaval, some of these actors filter their Libya policy through the lens of geopolitics: the U.S.-Russia rivalry over Syria and Ukraine, the regional divide over political Islam and contests for influence over the Sahel and Maghreb. By this logic, compromise is undesirable if considered success for a rival. Yet, the status quo (a deteriorating situation) can only lead to protracted conflict that would plunge Libya into further chaos, with no certain victory for any camp, great damage to the economy and few of the opportunities many hope for in post-conflict reconstruction.
At a minimum, states with leverage over Haftar should press him and his allies to stop calling for further military operations toward southern and western Libya and withdraw their support if he continues to refuse a negotiated solution. Similarly, those backing Tripoli- and Misrata-based forces should dissuade them from a counteroffensive against Haftar in the Gulf of Sirte.
Generally, outside actors should refrain from taking sides, for instance through increasing military support to Haftar or supporting a Presidency Council call for a partial no-fly zone. They should instead focus on the lowest common denominators, which do exist, and not endorse measures that they undermine on the ground. At a minimum, these include the need to stabilise the economy by increasing oil and gas exports; creating a unified army chain of command as part of a reunified security structure; preserving Libya’s territorial integrity; and confronting IS and al-Qaeda. They should also persuade their Libyan friends that a military solution does not exist and agree on parameters for renewed negotiation.
The absence of a security dialogue and agreement among competing internal and external actors has rendered the well-intentioned Skhirat accord impossible to fully implement at this time. It is critical to return to hammer out a security agreement that can be married to those elements of the accord that both sides support. On its current trajectory, the peace process is headed for a failure that would leave pressing international issues unresolved, such as combating people-smugglers and jihadist groups, and ensure dramatic worsening of living conditions for most Libyans. What has been achieved by the UN-led negotiations – broad agreement on the need for a transitional framework and some of its critical political elements – would be lost. The December 2015 agreement could have been imposed on recalcitrant actors had they been marginal and the international community united. That was not the case. Salvaging a political solution requires dealing with the fragmented and deeply frustrating Libya that exists, with its local leaders and armed groups, not the one we wish for.
Tripoli/Brussels, 4 November 2016
Members of the Presidency Council of the Council of Ministers, as appointed according to the Libyan Political Agreement:
1- Faiez al-Serraj
President of the Presidency Council, from a prominent Tripoli family and trained as an engineer, he worked prior to 2011 in the housing ministry and in August 2014 became an HoR member representing Tripoli.
2- Ahmed Maitig
Deputy President of the Presidency Council, and a Misrata businessman, the GNC elected him prime minister in May 2014, but the Supreme Court annulled the vote on procedural grounds. He is a nephew of Abdelrahman Swehli, president of the High State Council.
3- Fathi al-Majbari
Deputy President of the Presidency Council, an academic and economist at Benghazi University who served as education minister in the Abdullah al-Thinni government in 2014-2015. He is originally from Jalo.
4- Musa al-Koni
Deputy President of the Presidency Council, a Tuareg from the south and consul-general in Mali under he old regime, he defected in 2011 and was appointed the Tuareg representative to the National Transitional Council.
5- Ali al-Qatrani
Deputy President of the Presidency Council, a Benghazi businessman and late addition to the council seen as General Haftar’s appointee, he suspended his participation in January 2016 after a row over the appointment as defence minister of al-Mahdi al-Barghathi, who is from Qatrani’s al-Awaqir tribe.
6 – Abdelsalam Kajman
Deputy President of the Presidency Council, an engineer from Sebha believed to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood and picked instead of GNC Deputy President Salah Makhzoum, whose nomination some members of the dialogue committee refused.
7- Omar al-Aswad
Minister of State for Legislative Affairs, from Zintan and a member of Qadhafi’s amn al-khariji (foreign security service), he withdrew from the Presidency Council in January 2016, accusing it of cronyism and corruption.
8- Mohammed Ammari
Minister of State for Specialised Council Affairs, a former GNC member from Benghazi, he is a non-aligned Islamist who prior to 2011 studied in Germany and the UK.
9- Ahmed Hamza
Minister of State for Civil Society Affairs, from Traghen in the south, was a member in the Qadhafi era of the revolutionary councils and part of the “Libya al-Ghad” (Libya Tomorrow) reform initiative led by Seif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, the late ruler’s son.
These appointments follow a geographical partitioning, with three members from each of Libya’s three provinces: west (Tripolitania), east (Cyrenaica) and south (Fezzan). For the west: Serraj, Maitig, Aswad; for the east: Majbari, Qatrani, Ammari; for the south: Koni, Kajman, Hamza.
EUBAM: European Border Assistance Mission in Libya
EUNAVFOR MED: European Naval Force – Mediterranean (also known as Operation Sophia)
GNA: Government of National Accord
GNC: General National Congress, the parliament elected in 2012, based in Tripoli
High State Council: Advisory body created by the LPA, primarily composed of former GNC members
HoR: House of Representatives, parliament elected in June 2014 and based in Tobruk since August 2014
IS: Islamic State
JCP: Justice and Construction Party, associated with the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood
LPA: Libyan Political Agreement (signed on 17 December 2015 in Skhirat, Morocco)
LIAM: Libyan International Assistance Mission
NOC: National Oil Corporation
Presidency Council: Nine-member body created by the December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, holding executive powers and tasked with nominating a GNA
Presidential Guard: New security force under the control of the Presidential Council
TSC: Temporary Security Committee, task force in charge of security questions created by the LPA and answerable to the Presidency Council
UNSMIL: United Nations Support Mission in Libya
The International Crisis Group is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict.