Just two weeks ago, the UN’s 10th special envoy in the past 11 years, Abdoulaye Bathily, acknowledged in a briefing to the Security Council an already well-known fact: There is no clear end in sight to Libya’s deadlock.
It is an extremely frustrating, albeit inevitable assessment of the futility of a woefully managed international “peace” process that continues to resist recalibration to better communicate its priorities, red lines, strategies for long-term resolutions, and more importantly, a practicable “end state” welcomed by all actors.
For nearly a decade, Libya has remained locked in this perpetual cycle where every two to three years following some political agreement, challenges, divisive narratives and loud criticisms suddenly flood the national discourse over who holds legitimate power, resulting in either a return to arms or new political roadmaps.
Bathily’s appointment, barely two months long, has already become a missed opportunity for a troubled UN Support Mission in Libya to leverage its role as an effective impartial arbiter, seeking cohesion among divergent actors or interests (where possible) while upholding human rights and expanding meaningful engagement with a mostly sidelined but still influential Libyan civil society.
Unfortunately, by again focusing too much on achieving a semblance of stability in fancy meetings instead of tacking the root causes of the country’s quagmire — looking to exploit shortcuts to a long-term settlement — the landscape was simply made fertile for the sort of rife opportunism typical of the many attempts to forge some kind of “path” forward in Libya’s hellscape.
As a result, a rash of activity and clever ruses are yet again underway as the same cast of characters look to shift the status quo, buoyed by the tacit endorsement of a fatigued, disinterested and distracted international community.
The most notable development to date was the controversial trip by Karim Khan, the first International Criminal Court prosecutor to visit the war-torn country in a decade, supposedly to meet families of victims of mass killings by militias at what are now sites of mass graves in western Libya.
This visit also involved meetings with several Libyan officials, including Khalifa Haftar, commander of the self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces that is affiliated with the notorious militias responsible for the bodies in the Tarhuna mass graves.
As alarming as that meeting was, Khan is no stranger to controversy. Before taking over as the ICC’s lead prosecutor, he defended Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi, whose arrest the court is seeking for crimes against humanity committed in February 2011.
Naturally, Khan’s meeting with Haftar was widely panned by several civil society organizations and activist groups appalled by the callous disregard by so-called guardians of international justice, entrusted with holding those most responsible for war crimes in Libya to account.
To them, if the ICC can openly meet with alleged mass murderers, it severely undermines the court’s impartiality and credibility while also erasing any trust victims held in its ability to investigate crimes and dispense justice.
The alarm is warranted, since such a meeting also helps grant some international legitimacy to, and recognition of, Haftar’s bid to remain a relevant actor in Libya.
An emboldened Haftar is yet again mulling a return to arms in anticipation of a weak reaction from an international community preoccupied by the war in Ukraine.
More importantly, it is yet another example of the international community’s problematic approach to, and handling of, the country’s affairs by ignoring legitimate concerns of the Libyan public in its continued engagement with malign actors to secure a fragile “peace” and sidestep messy armed conflicts.
This visit also came as no surprise as Haftar, like other prominent figures, is yet again jostling for an alternative pathway to staying relevant after Fathi Bashagha and his Government of National Stability failed to upend the status quo politically or through military means.
It is unclear whether some form of new government of national something will eventually emerge. But what is clear, given the recent glad-handing and flurry of brokered meetings amid the international community’s quiet consent, is that the rehabilitation of certain characters means Libya is poised for even more upheaval in the coming months.
In fact, Bathily’s remarks came after statements by the head of the High Council of State, Khalid Al-Mishri, hinting at forming a third government along with Aguila Saleh, speaker of the eastern-based Libyan Parliament — introducing yet another rival power pole in a very crowded field.
The aim is to create a new government with the country’s most influential actors by granting them renewed legitimacy without the consent of the Libyan public via elections.
All leading actors lack the name recognition, influence, authority and reach to insist on holding elections. Instead, there is a preference for some kind of power-sharing deal that would then be anointed by sham elections.
It dovetails rather curiously with the fact that no external actors are genuinely pushing for, or actively working toward, organizing Libyan elections. Instead, there is some vague affirmation of the international community’s preference for elections, but not exactly what kind or by what metric they will be respected and deemed legitimate.
On the other hand, Haftar has resorted to rehashing reckless, bellicose declarations about “liberating” the country and marching to Tripoli again. This despite a heavy Turkish presence in northwestern Libya with significant military hardware that can deter any future aggression by the LAAF or other armed groups opposed to Ankara’s designs for the North African country.
But Haftar, much like with Bashagha’s failed attempts, is likely banking on exploiting the internal divisions among the militias that back the Government of National Unity, since some armed groups are not exactly opposed to facilitating renewed clashes in order to wrest control from the UN-recognized interim authority headed by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah.
These declarations are neither alarming nor novel: Even Libya’s fault lines are now somewhat different from the usual east-west parallelism.
Haftar tends to bank on the extreme and outlandish to reverse a perceived decline in his relevance in a political landscape now dominated by the Dbeibah, Bashagha and emergent Mishri-Saleh camps that share some claim of legitimacy.
Two of those three camps have some support from Ankara, and with rumors swirling of Turkey pushing for a unity government that includes Bashagha, Haftar will be isolated and unable to reward Russia, Egypt and, to some extent, France for their steadfast support.
Bashagha, on the other hand, is fully aware that sparking any new conflicts will decimate any recognition he still has that could be leveraged for a senior leadership role in this envisioned unity government, especially considering how Dbeibah’s cast of backers both in and outside Libya seem poised to adapt to emergent realities.
However, as fortuitous as these developments are, an emboldened Haftar is yet again mulling a return to arms in anticipation of a weak reaction from an international community preoccupied by the war in Ukraine.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a Senior Fellow and Executive Director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative (IKSI) at the Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) of the Johns Hopkins university school of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington DC and the former Advisor to the dean of the Board of Executive Directors of the World Bank Group.