BMI View: General Khalifa Haftar’s apparent strategy shift towards political cooperation with the Government of National Accord creates room for progress in the national reconciliation process, and we expect a re-negotiation of Libya’s existing peace deal over the coming months.
Risks of such a deal collapsing will nevertheless remain high for years to come – especially given various Western militias ‘ persistent opposition to placing Haftar in a position of power.
General Khalifa Haftar’s participation in talks with Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj on May 2 indicates a shift in his strategy towards political cooperation with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and creates room for progress in Libya’s national reconciliation process.
Indeed, we believe a re-negotiation of the UN-backed Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) is likely to occur over the coming months. Risks to any peace deal holding nevertheless remain high, particularly as powerful militias in the West of the country are likely to oppose the granting of substantial powers to Haftar.
Furthermore – regardless of the outcome of negotiations – security risks will stay elevated on the ground for years to come, given the highly localised nature of the Libyan conflict and the weakness of the country’s state structures (for more background, see our Long-Term Political Outlook: ‘Fragile Federalised State To Emerge’, February 8).
Haftar’s Willingness To Negotiate A Positive Sign…
Haftar’s decision to meet with al-Sarraj of the GNA on May 2 likely marks a shift towards political cooperation in the Libyan National Army (LNA) general’s strategy, which has focused on the expansion of military reach over the past year.
The move creates potential for progress in the stalled peace process between the GNA in Tripoli and the Haftar-aligned House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk, and a re-negotiation of the LPA of December 2015 now looks likely.
In line with our view, Haftar likely assesses that, given his recent military successes (the LNA currently controls around two-thirds of the country, including key oil facilities) and growing support among the international community (in particular from Egypt and Russia), he is able to enter negotiations from a position of strength relative to the GNA, which has failed to assert its authority outside Tripoli.
Indeed, the terms of the unofficial agreement allegedly reached on May 2 – namely for the Presidential Council’s membership to be reduced from nine to three (including Haftar, al-Sarraj and HoR President Agila Saleh) and for presidential and parliamentary elections to be held by 2018 – appear favourable to Haftar compared with those of the LPA, which sidelined the general.
…But Obstacles To Comprehensive Peace Persist
Numerous obstacles to this process still persist, however, and progress towards reconciliation is by no means guaranteed.
We note that divisions between Libya’s two main rival factions are still deep – as illustrated by Haftar and al-Sarraj’s failure to issue a joint statement following their meeting – and risks of negotiations breaking down remain high.
In the event of such a collapse, Haftar may instead choose to focus on extending his military control over the country by moving the LNA westward, increasing the potential for conflict escalation.
The staging of elections within such a short timeframe may also prove difficult, given stillelevated security risks.
A failure to hold elections deemed ‘free and fair’ with an acceptable voter turnout would negatively impact the legitimacy of any new president and ruling body, and limit their ability to extend authority on the ground throughout the country.
Moreover, it is still unclear how Haftar and al-Sarraj plan to deal with Libya’s various militias, many of which remain opposed to the idea of granting the general any substantial powers, given his ties to the former Qadhafi regime.
The unofficial agreement appears to pave the way for Haftar to run for presidency and will therefore almost certainly met with protests in the West of Libya, should it be formalised.
Indeed, a group of Misratan militias (known as the Misratan Revolutionaries Operations Room) have, along with Khalifa Ghwell of the self-declared, Western-based Government of National Salvation (GNS), already criticized the meeting and rejected its reported outcome.
According to media reports, Haftar and al- Sarraj have also agreed to issue terrorist designations for several local groups (such as the Benghazi Defence Brigades, indirectly tied to al-Qaeda).
This will effectively exclude them from the peace process – a move likely to result in further radicalisation in and around their strongholds.
Security Risks To Remain Elevated
Regardless of the outcome of negotiations, security risks will remain elevated in Libya for years to come, given the highly localised nature of the conflict and the weakness of the country’s state structures.
A vast number of councils and militias are competing for political influence and resources on the ground, and their alliances shift based on factors such as economic incentives, religious ideologies, tribal affiliations, personal rivalries and ties with foreign backers.
This high level of fragmentation complicates negotiations, and makes the task of broadening support for any type of authority across the country difficult – even with approval from the main rival political faction.
Libya’s oil infrastructure runs across areas controlled by a wide range of these groups, and may be attacked at any point, should a local militia decide it wants to disrupt production or export in order to further their political cause or receive a pay-off from the government.
We also highlight the potential longer-term political risks attached to an eventual Haftar presidency: any signs of authoritarianism on his part would raise the potential for conflict escalation in Libya – a country where the overthrow of Qadhafi less than six years ago is still fresh in people’s minds.