By Viktor Goncharov
An international conference on Libya, mediated by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that was recently held in Palermo, Sicily, was looking for ways to reconcile the rival centers of power and generally stabilize the situation in the long-troubled North African nation.
One of these main power centers is the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, headed by Faiz Saraj, and the other is the Tobruk-based House of Representatives headed by its Speaker Aguila Saleh, who is supported by the Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
Add to these the Islamists, local leaders in Fezzana in the south and in the Mediterranean coastal city of Misurata in the northwest and you will see that there are a lot of people willing to retain power in Libya, even on a regional scale.
Summing up the outcome of the Palermo meeting, commentators largely agreed that no breakthrough had been achieved in the long-running efforts to end the Libyan crisis with the rival leaders, Faiz Saraj and Khalifa Haftar, only reiterating their verbal commitment to the principles of settlement outlined in the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement and the UN Action Plan proposed by the special representative of the UN Secretary General for Libya Ghassan Salame in 2017.
To implement these guidelines Saraj and Haftar agreed to convene a National Conference at the start of next year to work out a constitutional declaration and pass a law on elections to be held in the summer of 2019.
It should be noted that taking part in those meetings were also Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Tunisian President Beji Caid Es- Sebsi, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Libya, Ghassan Salame.
The Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay, who was not invited to join the meetings, walked out of the conference in protest, saying that shutting Turkey out from such contacts would have a “counterproductive effect” on the ongoing efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis.
Many observers keeping an eye on the Palermo parley said that Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar set the tone for the conference. He not only refused to sit at the negotiating table with extremist-minded delegations from the western regions of Libya, but also managed, with Egyptian help, to make sure that the Turkish and Qatari delegations were kept out of his talks with Faiz Saraj.
In the run-up to and during the conference, Haftar, who has been critical of Rome for the support it has been giving Saraj in the standoff between the two rival Libyan leaders, actually forced the Italian hosts to recognize him as not just a legitimate, but “indispensable” player in the settlement of the Libyan crisis.
Meanwhile, the results of the Palermo meeting did not come as good news to the political elite of Libya’s western regions, who rely on their militias.
Speaking after the conference, the mayors of the cities of Zintan and Misurata, who had not been invited to take part in it, said that the situation in Libya would not change as the people who conferred in Palermo do not represent them.
They also said that they were not ready for a nationwide conference scheduled for early next year, and that they needed more time to prepare for it.
It should also be borne in mind that these two cities’ militarized (“militia”) brigades constitute the main striking force of Islamic extremism in western Libya.
The deep split in the Libyan leadership and foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs was best evidenced by the November 18 statement by the head of the Supreme State Council, Khaled Mishri, about his agreement with Faiz Saraj to prevent Khalifa Haftar from taking up the position of the Supreme Commander of the Libyan army.
And this despite the fact that just a few days earlier Faiz Saraj told Italy’s Corriere della Sera that he was ready for a compromise and would look for a negotiated way to ensure Haftar’s appointment.
It is also worth mentioning the fact that on November 9, just ahead of the Palermo conference, Prime Minister Faiz Saraj and Foreign Minister Mohammed Siala were in Istanbul discussing with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, among other things, the agenda of the conference on Libya.
A few days earlier, the Turkish defense minister and the military chief of staff arrived in Tripoli to discuss with Faiz Saraj and the head of the Supreme State Council, Khaled Mishri, how best to solidify military cooperation between the two countries, and the creation of unified Libyan armed forces.
The pushback by Khaled Mishri, who represents the Libyan Justice and Reconstruction Party and also the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist movement in Libya, sponsored by Turkey and Qatar, was fresh proof of the fact that he is hostage to Islamist brigades from Misurata.
Mishri’s statement should also be viewed as a Turkish and Qatari response to their exclusion from the Saraj-Haftar mini-summit, which was the centerpiece of the Palermo conference. Mishri essentially disavowed the agreements clinched by the two leaders to continue their political dialogue.
The reaction of the opposite side did not take long coming. In a televised interview on November 20, the House of Representatives Speaker Aguila Saleh said that Faiz Saraj was imposed on Libyans by the Western delegation when the text of the Libyan Political Agreement was being signed in the Moroccan city of Shirat in December 2015.
He added that since the accord has not been ratified by the House of Representatives, Saraj cannot be considered the legitimate head of the Libyan state.
This is not the first and, apparently, not the last international initiative on Libya, whose decisions may remain on paper. During the May 29, 2018 meeting in Paris between Faiz Saraj and Khalifa Haftar, organized by the French President Emmanuel Macron, Libyan representatives pledged to adopt constitutional amendments and to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on December 10, 2018.
However, a new wave of violence that swept across Tripoli just four months later, effectively dashed Macron’s hopes for holding elections as scheduled on December 10, 2018.
This time the troublemakers were militants in the western regions of the country affiliated with the government of Faiz Saraj.
On August 27, the 7th Infantry Brigade deployed in the town of Tarkhun, backed by tanks and artillery, advanced on enemy positions in the southern parts of Tripoli.
According to a brigade representative, the operation was aimed at “flushing out corrupt police groups that use their status to get multi-million dollar loans while money-strapped ordinary citizens have to spend whole nights lining up outside bank doors to get scraps of their money to cover their everyday expenses.”
However, the main reason for the August 27 offensive by the 7th Brigade, commanded by Abdel Rahim Cani, and by allied armed militias from Misurata and Zintan, was not concern for the suffering residents of the capital but, rather, their leaders’ desire to have their share of money flows and control over resources as well as to demonstrate to all other political players that without taking into account their interests, ending the crisis in Libya would be a mission impossible.
The thing is, the Government of National Accord led by Faiz Saraj that came to power in Tripoli in March 2016, had to create new state structures virtually from the ground up and, with the absence of its own armed forces, had to rely on a patchwork of local militias as recommended by Western military specialists, mainly Italian ones, led by General Paolo Serra, a security adviser to the UN Mission in Libya.
The largest four of the 30 or so militia brigades active in the area, namely the “Special Forces of Deterrence” led by Abdel-Rauf Qara, the “Revolutionary Brigades of Tripoli” commanded by Haytem Tadjuri, the Navasi Battalion, headed by Ali Kaddur, and the Abu Slim Division” of the Central Security Apparatus under the command of Abdel-Gani Kikli, promised Saraj their assistance in ensuring the government’s security and maintaining law and order in the city.
Operating as part of the Ministry of the Interior and endowed with the authority to investigate and arrest, these four groups eventually phased out their rivals from the city and carved up the capital into their areas of influence, establishing a sort of a cartel.
While remaining nominally loyal to the Government of National Accord, these four groups ultimately gained unprecedented sway over the country’s leadership turning into a mafia-style community that controlled the political institutions of the state and big business.
A German study has repeatedly quoted the leaders of these groups as saying that “the GNA is only a screen they use to issue decrees that are favorable to them.”
Testifying to the scale of the lawlessness perpetrated by the cartel’s leaders are numerous facts that have become public knowledge. Thus, in October 2017, two commanders of the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigades kidnapped the Transport Minister and set him free only after he had awarded a 78 million euro contract to restore the Tripoli International Airport to a certain company from Misurata.
The leaders of the “Special Forces of Deterrence” have similarly been involved in such lawless acts. Ignoring repeated protests by the Prosecutor General, they kept the Libyan Airways’ executive director and senior officials of the Libyan airline Afriqiyah Airways under arrest in order to have their people appointed to senior positions in both companies and enjoy various services provided by these two air carriers.
Viktor Goncharov – African affairs expert.