The armed clashes and hit-and-run operations between Operation Dignity forces under General Khalifa Haftar’s command and the Benghazi Defence Brigades to seize control of Libya’s oil crescent region in the east took the Libyan crisis back to square one. Military developments on the ground coincided with violent clashes in Tripoli between some armed groups, raising concerns about the future of the political and security scene in Libya and jeopardising the chances of success of political efforts and initiatives made in hopes of resolving the crisis. This is particularly worrying, as on 7 March 2017, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives announced the suspension of its participation in the national dialogue and the freezing of the Skhirat Agreement, the basis of political agreement between Libyan rivals.
All of these on-the-ground developments further complicate the political and security scene in Libya. They may also kill the hopes that accompanied the moves and initiatives made by regional neighbours to facilitate an agreement between the conflicting parties. The recent trilateral initiative by Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, included a number of terms in an effort to reiterate and implement the Skhirat Agreement reached late in 2015 under the United Nations’ auspices. The agreement specified the creation of a presidential council to pave the way for the formation of a government of national accord that would bring together all Libyan parties. However, the council failed to elect a government due to disagreement about the names, despite having approved the Skhirat Agreement. The latest developments further complicate not only the domestic situation in Libya, but also efforts by the three neighbouring countries to reach a comprehensive political settlement of the crisis, especially since the latter were planning to hold a trilateral presidential summit to discuss how to bring the Libyan parties to the dialogue table. In addition, the current situation raises security concerns for some European countries, such as Italy, France and Germany, who have significant interests in the Libyan crisis, as it affects their security and interests. Further, these countries are concerned about Russia’s planned intervention in the crisis and its efforts to play a role that may be at the expense of European interests in Libya.
In an attempt to interpret the latest political and on-the-ground developments in Libya, in addition to their consequences and implications on the future of the Libyan crisis and their domestic, regional and international complexities, Al Jazeera Centre for Studies organised a seminar in cooperation with Al Jazeera Mubasher entitled, “The Libyan Crisis: Field Complications and Prospects of Regional and International Initiatives”. Held on 21 March 2017, it brought together a number of researchers and analysts specialised in the Libyan issue, namely: Senussi Bsaikri, the director of the Libyan Centre for Research and Development; Dr Al-Hussein al-Alawi, a research specialist on Libya; Haoues Taguia, a researcher at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies; and Patrick Forestier, a French journalist and writer on Arab affairs. The discussion focused on three main axes: Who are the main domestic, regional and international players influencing the Libyan scene? Has the crisis reached a dead end? And, in light of the current domestic, regional, and international complexities, where is Libya heading?
A complex domestic scene
Libya’s complex political and security situation has made reaching a comprehensive political settlement between Libyan rivals quite difficult at present. For instance, domestic and external parties have many conflicting interests. In this regard, Bsaikri argued that although the conflict between the revolution and the counter-revolution cannot be excluded from what is happening in Libya, as the situation is far more complex. The former regime cannot be blamed for the existing crisis, which arose from disputes among the revolutionaries themselves in the early months of the revolution. Then, the conflict between liberals and Islamists further evolved during the period of the General National Congress, with each forming its own military wings, in turn hindering the transition from a revolutionary period to statehood. The division within the revolutionary camp, Bsaikri added, adds to disagreements about the meaning of the revolution and statehood among different parties. While some argue that the revolution is continuing to bring about comprehensive change, others say that the revolution ended with the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, and the current stage had been about state-building followed by the emergence of regional separatists and finally Islamic fundamentalism. This led to an armed conflict, starting with Operation Dignity led by General Haftar and, in response, the launch of Operation Fajr Libya (Libya’s Dawn). Currently, Haftar’s army and security forces control the eastern region, while different political and military powers with contradictory orientations oversee western Libya. The most serious consequence of all this has been an economic crisis, which has stifled livelihoods in the country amid the depreciation of the national currency, price hikes and a liquidity crisis.
Al-Alawi argued that the conflict in the oil crescent region is a conflict over power and not oil, as large global oil companies already dominate the latter. Therefore, the Libyan parties in the conflict are struggling in order to strengthen their position in the negotiations, which aim to realise a political settlement of the crisis. Al-Alawi also recognised that a significant part of the Libyan crisis is because the external parties to the crisis are not well aware of the situation in Libya, especially the tribal structure and the major role played by Libyan tribes and their leaders.
The problem of armed militias
One cannot discuss the future of the Libyan crisis without speaking about the militias and armed factions, which pose a serious obstacle to any possible political solution. Spreading like a wildfire, these militias are the natural outcome of the militarisation of the Libyan revolution, which Al-Alawi said was a grave mistake from the beginning. He gave several reasons for their increase in strength and number, including:
- The former regime’s collapse helped these formations capture the country’s facilities and institutions along with enormous wealth.
- Some militias have become havens for illegal profitable activities, such as drug and human trafficking and even prostitution.
- The militias and armed brigades offer school dropouts an opportunity to prove themselves, acquire power and wealth, and cope with unemployment. As a result of these factors, many of the youth are joining the armed brigades, especially given the large salaries relative to those of governmental jobs.
Consequently, the numbers of armed actors in Libya have increased. Al-Alawi mentioned that at the end of October 2011, after Gaddafi’s demise and the celebration of what is known as Libya’s total liberation, National Transitional Council records listed 25,000 rebel fighters who fought the regime forces. However, by mid-2012, their number had become over 200,000. Al-Alawi also spoke about the map of armed militias in Tripoli, which includes about twelve large armed groups in addition to dozens of small militias. Some of these factions are loyal to the Government of National Accord, while others are loyal to the National Salvation Government, which share control of the city of Tripoli.
Al-Alawi upheld that no political effort will succeed unless it takes the armed militias and their supporters into account. For instance, the Skhirat Agreement has failed because it does not include the main constituents of Libya’s political scene i.e. the leaders of the armed groups and brigades. Libya is now experiencing a civil war, and its resolution must bring together all the parties in the conflict. However, the Skhirat Agreement, between the constituents of the February Revolution, excluded the military forces and militias that are in control as well as about half of the Libyan population, who remain loyal to the former regime.
Khalifa Haftar: Saviour or part of the crisis?
One cannot address the Libyan crisis without discussing General Khalifa Haftar, the leader of Operation Dignity, who has become a critical figure and cannot be overlooked in the search for a comprehensive political settlement. Thus, we wonder if he is part of the problem or part of the solution?
Bsaikri said that General Haftar is a controversial person seeking a leadership role. As a military leader who joined the revolution in its early days and sought to play a crucial role in the revolution, he led the opposition’s ground forces. However, after the revolution ended, the political equation had changed, and he could not obtain a key position for himself. Therefore, ever the adventurer, he turned to the idea of a military coup, which he announced in 2014. In turn, the National Congress government sought to legally prosecute him. As a result, he fled to the eastern region and launched ‘Operation Dignity’, which included remnants of the army and security forces as well as volunteers. Haftar benefited greatly from the security breakdown and popular resentment in these areas due to continuous assassinations and bombings. He exploited this security chaos and popular anger using two main slogans: building the army and the police, and fighting terrorism. Libyans welcomed these slogans, especially as the National Congress government had failed to develop these security bodies from the outset. Bsaikri admitted that a considerable number of Libyans back Haftar for many reasons, including the fact that the image of an arbitrary military political leader still occupies Libyan minds after forty years of Gaddafi’s rule. Another reason is the failure of Libya’s democratic transition after the revolution, as well as the conflict among the constituents of the General National Congress and the resulting security and economic crises and the failure to establish the country’s institutions. All this convinced the public that democracy does not work in Libya and that a return to despotism is the solution, as a dictator would be capable of providing safety and stability. However, Haftar, who presented himself as an alternative to the armed militias, which are a source of concern to the public, has not achieved great success. Instead, he currently faces fundamental challenges in enacting his slogans, Bsaikri added. A large segment of the Libyan public has become aware of the horrifying incidents of exhumation, killing of civilians and corpse desecration committed by Haftar’s forces in Benghazi. As a result, the operation has lost its moral justification and brought into question Haftar’s ability to restore safety and stability. Additionally, Haftar’s rejection of the Libyan political process makes him a real obstacle in the face of efforts to achieve a Libyan national accord. This was made clear when he refused to meet Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the Government of National Accord, in February 2017 in Cairo. Haftar is betting on a military approach that would enable him to resolve the situation militarily in his favour and repeat the Egyptian scenario in Libya, which seems impossible given the current balance of power on the ground.
Nevertheless, Haftar remains an important figure in the Libyan political landscape. According to French writer Patrick Forestier, Haftar controls about half of Libya, including the oil regions; and unlike al-Sarraj’s supporters, he has a strong and organised army. Haftar also has regional and international support, with many players believing that he must be part of a political solution. However, the problem is that Haftar believes he has such a strong position and thus can impose his own conditions on the other parties, which is not the case. Although the balance of power is currently in his favour, this will not last forever, and he cannot resolve the situation militarily to his advantage. Therefore, pressure must be exerted to convince him to join efforts towards a political solution to the crisis rather than hinder them. The international parties have some leverage that can be used to convince Haftar, said Taguia, such as the oil markets and international sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council against any party that rejects a political settlement. The problem is that international parties are not willing to use this leverage against Haftar. For example, Europe is threatened by the rise of extremist right-wing movements and thus is unable to take a unified position. To Haftar’s advantage, the European positions diverge about the crisis, especially between France and Italy. On the other hand, the regional parties that support the Skhirat Agreement are powerless, while other parties that support the agreement as well working against it by providing Haftar with weaponry and logistics.
Regional and international positions on the crisis
Forestier discussed the European position on the Libyan crisis. He explained that Europe's main objective now is to restore Libya’s stability and the security and stability of the Mediterranean region. The French and European goal in general is for the Mediterranean region to become an oasis of stability. Therefore, the situation in Libya concerns Europe in general, and France and Italy in particular, especially given the increase of illegal immigration and terrorist attacks in some European countries. Thus, Europe currently aims to support efforts to bring all parties in the conflict in Libya to the negotiation table in order to promote a political solution capable of restoring Libya’s stability. Forestier added that the European position is based on the urgency of ending the war, reaching a political solution and rejecting foreign intervention in Libya. It emphasises that there is no solution to the crisis other than a political settlement. Therefore, the European position – unlike those of the regional parties – does not aim to take sides in the Libyan conflict; rather, it seeks an agreement that meets the demands of all parties without specifying winners and losers.
Russia’s entrance as a new player in the Libyan crisis has raised concerns in Europe, especially since Russia backs Haftar, who visited Moscow and met with Russian officials. According to Taguia, the Russian role is limited to military and logistic support. Russia does not have sufficient military power to expand and launch wars and confrontations on several fronts. Therefore, Russia’s role will not go beyond supporting a political solution based on national reconciliation. At the same time, it supports Haftar’s position to negotiate, and so that in the event that the agreement fails, Haftar would have sufficient power to resolve the situation militarily in his favour. Moscow seems to benefit from European hesitation and the lack of clarity in the US position on the Libyan situation.
The regional situation plays a crucial role in the Libyan crisis. It complements the international position and the Skhirat Agreement, which needs to be reinforced, especially given the current developments that prompted several Libyan parties to disregard it. Hence, the trilateral initiative of Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia can be seen as an attempt to finalise and reform the agreement in a way that facilitates the achievement of a political solution through the restructuring of the presidential council and the separation of political and economic factors.
No military solution in Libya and no alternative to political settlement
Despite the complex situation in Libya, militarily and on the ground, and the continuous clashes among rivals, the seminar’s participants agreed that the crisis in Libya cannot be resolved militarily and that none of the parties can achieve a military settlement to their advantage. No dominant military power is able to take control; even Haftar, who believes he is in a strong position, cannot take control of Libya. However, political and military forces in western Libyan are in conflict and lack a unified vision or political programme. Additionally, the international community prefers a political solution and rejects any alternative. As such, there seems to be no way to achieve a comprehensive political settlement that includes all Libyan parties but to pressure them to accept a political solution, and work to include all players and influential forces on the ground in any potential settlement.
In this regard, the trilateral initiative may represent an opening or a first step towards an agreement. This is largely dependent the positions of the Libyan parties and the seriousness of the international community about supporting efforts to end the Libyan conflict, which gravely concerns Europe especially in terms of terrorism. A political solution in Libya may come too late, but it remains the only way to end the crisis.