By Bob Ghosh
As Libya’s civil war takes a pause, Aguileh Saleh’s moment has finally arrived. It now falls to Saleh, the diminutive head of the country’s eastern-based legislature, to work out a lasting peace with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, as well as the grab-bag of foreign powers involved in the civil war.
The GNA, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, is recognized by the United Nations, but its writ doesn’t run beyond the western half of the oil-rich North African country.
The imposing figure of Khalifa Haftar, the commander of eastern rebel forces, has tended to overshadow Saleh. In fact, the two men despise each other. But Saleh’s stature has grown as Haftar’s has shrunk in recent months following a string of battlefield reversals suffered by his so-called Libyan National Army.
Militarily, the two sides are locked in a standoff on the outskirts of Sirte, birthplace of the former dictator Moammar Qaddafi. It is the gateway to the “oil crescent,” a string of eastern towns and ports from where most of the country’s oil departs for foreign markets.
Thanks to the conflict, exports are a fraction of the million-plus barrels a day shipped before the war.
At the start of summer, the GNA, backed by Turkey, seemed poised to sweep into the oil crescent. The government in Tripoli rebuffed a cease-fire offer from the rebels.
But no shots have been fired in anger for several weeks, and now Sarraj and Saleh have issued reciprocal truce calls. Haftar has dismissed the GNA offer as a “marketing stunt,” but he may be in a minority.
Egypt and Russia, the LNA’s principal backers, have signaled their preference for a formal cease-fire, as have the members of the Arab League; the UN and European Union have thrown their weight behind the latest peace initiatives.
For good measure, the National Oil Company has welcomed the calls from both sides of the civil war to end a seven-month oil blockade.
It hopes to “lift force majeure and re-commence oil export operations” once all military personnel have been withdrawn from oil installations. The revenues will be deposited in a special bank account while the two sides hash out a political deal.
Can we be optimistic about a cease-fire in Libya? Previous attempts to broker a truce — by Italy, France, Russia and Germany — were doomed by Haftar’s determination to take all of the country, by force.
The big difference this time is that the initiative is in Saleh’s hands. “It’s an important moment that should not be lost,” Stephanie Williams, the UN’s envoy on Libya told Bloomberg. “I think this is the first time in quite a long time that we’ve seen readiness by two key leaders to really forge what I would say is a made-in-Libya solution.”
Saleh enjoys good relations with the countries backing LNA, as well as the wider Arab and North African region. Perhaps more important, Turkey seems to regard him as a more credible negotiator than Haftar.
But Saleh can only maintain his political advantage over the rebel commander if he can get good terms from Sarraj. The two politicians want many of the same things: a permanent cease-fire, followed swiftly by nationwide elections.
But they don’t agree on who should administer the country in the interim. Saleh has proposed a new presidential council, whereas Sarraj will want the GNA to retain control.
They will no doubt differ on the future role in Libya of their respective foreign backers: Turkey and Russia both want to maintain a military presence.
That would not sit easily with the U.S. and Europe, but the Western powers have lost much of their leverage in Libyan affairs.
Saleh has also revived an old Qaddafi proposal to make Sirte the country’s administrative capital. The plan has been mooted by others since the end of the dictatorship, and might reassure eastern Libyans that westerners don’t dominate national politics.
Cease-fire negotiations, once they begin, will be difficult and time-consuming — even assuming Haftar doesn’t sabotage prospects of peace, as he has done before.
Saleh will need all the help he can get from the international community, and a large quantity of the commodity Libya has most lacked: luck.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.