It was an image that told Libya’s story in a nutshell. Last week Fayez al Sarraj, designated leader of the country’s proposed unity government, sat alone in a Cairo hotel room waiting for a phone call to meet with his country’s most powerful military leader, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar.
That call never came. And that silent phone tells you all you need to know about the changing balance of power in war-torn Libya.
In the past three years, Haftar has built the Libyan National Army (LNA) into the most powerful military formation in Libya. Based in eastern Libya, it has cleared most of the biggest city, Benghazi, of militias, and in September captured the country’s key oil ports.
The ports victory gave the House of Representatives’ parliament, based in the eastern town of Tobruk, control over most of Libya’s oil wealth. The parliament, which opposes the Government of National Accord (GNA), showed its appreciation for the oil ports’ victory by promoting Haftar from general to field marshall.
In January Russia signalled its own approval, inviting him aboard the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov for talks on defence cooperation. Blunt and uncompromising, Haftar this week signalled his commitment to continuing the war and vowed to ‘liberate’ Tripoli.
Speaking to Egyptian radio on Monday, Haftar inferred that terrorist groups, which he did not name, were being trained by some Nato countries, also unnamed, “that also provided them with weapons secretly”.
Haftar called on some Nato states to reconsider their positions. “We sent back in coffins the terrorists that Turkey had dispatched to Libya,” he said, but did not elaborate.
Al Serraj, by contrast, is seeing support ebb away. The United Nations Security Council backed his Government of National Accord in December 2015 with a resolution calling on the world to recognise it as Libya’s only legitimate government.
But the GNA remains at the mercy of Tripoli’s all-powerful militias, who are themselves locked in bitter street battles for prime real estate. On Monday one of those militias ambushed Al Serraj’s own motorcade, raking the convoy with gunfire and leaving him unhurt, but shaken.
The US, until now the key backer of the GNA, has fallen away. The new Trump administration has yet to give definitive comments on Libya, but is expected to designate Muslim Brotherhood, one of the key factions in the GNA, as a terrorist organisation.
As such, that would rub out any US support for the GNA and leave it floundering, and both Al Serraj and Haftar know it.
Whereas the Obama administration viewed the Brotherhood as a positive non-violent expression of Islamism, Trump officials view it with suspicion, accusing it of links with violent groups.
Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon has long made combatting the Brotherhood his cause célèbre.
Brotherhood supporters insist the organisation, which spans many sub groups across the Muslim world, is committed to non-violence. Yet it is likely to suffer if the US designates it as a terrorism-supporting group. Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used his January confirmation hearing to equate Brotherhood with Al Qaeda: “The demise of IS would also allow us to increase our attention on other agents of radicalism like Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and certain elements within Iran.”
This drastic imbalance of power – between Haftar, Libya’s most powerful figure, and Al Serraj, whose power is minimal, was grimly apparent at last week’s planned Cairo talks.
Egypt had called the talks hoping to get dialogue going. But despite strong efforts by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, he could not convince Haftar to hold the meeting. After a day of waiting, Al Serraj flew out of the city empty-handed.
Russia, in backing Haftar, is now in a powerful position in Libya, with its state oil company, Rosneft, this week signing a cooperation deal with the state oil company, National Oil Corporation.
This has left Pentagon officials fearing the US will be left behind in Libya, with one US defence official admitting to me he fears Russia may “Do a Syria on us” in Libya. In Syria, Russian support for Bashar Al Assad has undone years of US diplomacy, handing the dictator the upper hand.
As a way of replacing civil war with dialogue, last week’s Cairo talks failed.
But as a barometer of where the power now lies in Libya, the failure to get Al Serraj and Haftar into the same room, they unwittingly succeeded. Haftar now is the only solution left.
Richard Galustian is a British political and security advisor based in MENA countries for nearly 40 years.