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New Risks in Libya as Khalifa Haftar Dismisses UN-backed Accord
New Risks in Libya as Khalifa Haftar Dismisses UN-backed Accord
Restoring UN Leadership of Libya’s Peace Process
Restoring UN Leadership of Libya’s Peace Process
Supporters of Khalifa Haftar take part in a rally demanding Haftar to take over after a UN deal for a political solution missed what they said said was a self-imposed deadline on Sunday, in Benghazi, on 17 December 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

New Risks in Libya as Khalifa Haftar Dismisses UN-backed Accord

Khalifa Haftar, who rules eastern Libya, has dismissed the two-year-old, UN-backed accord about how the country should be run. Haftar’s regional and international partners should act now to mitigate this new risk of escalation over his apparent ambition to rule Libya on his own.

Tensions are rising in Libya after the de facto ruler of the country’s east, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, publicly dismissed the two-year-old international deal on how Libya should be governed. To neutralise the risk of new conflict, Haftar’s international and regional allies should forcefully condemn his attempt at undermining the UN-led peace process and urge him back to the diplomatic track.

The latest row started on 17 December, the second anniversary of the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), when Haftar, the commander-in-chief of the Libyan National Army (LNA) that dominates eastern Libya, announced that he considered the LPA to have expired.

As a result, he argued, institutions emanating from the agreement such as the Government of National Accord and Presidency Council headed by Fayez al-Serraj are no longer officially valid. Haftar said that his own LNA is now the “sole legitimate institution” in Libya, and rejected the authority of any government or parliament until new elections can be held. He made his statement after his allies moved to occupy eastern offices of the High National Elections Commission, which is preparing for elections in 2018 with international support. His allies also have made calls for the commission’s staff to be changed and its headquarters moved from Tripoli, the capital.

Troubling Ambition

Haftar’s announcement was not unexpected. As the ongoing UN-led peace process has drifted since October, when the last round of negotiations to revise the LPA ended inconclusively, he and his allies had repeatedly warned that they consider the agreement close to expiration and that another framework would have to be found.

In parallel, Haftar supporters promoted a petition to appoint him as military ruler of Libya, which they claimed garnered over one million signatures. Calls for mass demonstrations in support of Haftar have also spread, although protests largely failed to materialise. Indeed, Haftar’s announcement has had scant impact so far and has not changed the situation on the ground.

Politically, Haftar’s moves raise several troubling questions. The first is whether Haftar and the LNA are effectively declaring civilian institutions moot. This has already happened in eastern Libya, where he has bypassed an increasingly defunct eastern government and the House of Representatives (HoR), the parliament based in the town of Tobruk, to which he is allied. The HoR, on 21 November, had endorsed the UN’s proposed action plan for a partial amendment of the LPA, and is supposed to play an important role during the transition to a more permanent arrangement. It is not clear what Haftar’s announcement means for the HoR’s own position, and whether it too has “expired”, since its lifespan was extended by the LPA.

Worries about a Haftar offensive could also prompt pre-emptive or opportunistic attacks by Haftar opponents.

The second question is what Haftar and his allies plan to do next, and how their opponents will react. Anticipation of the 17 December announcement, and of an offensive by Haftar’s LNA, has already caused some armed groups from Misrata to mobilise near Sirte. Indeed, worries about a Haftar offensive could also prompt pre-emptive or opportunistic attacks by Haftar opponents, who have previously confronted his forces in the “oil crescent”, an area containing key oil installations in the Gulf of Sirte. This is particularly true in parts of western Libya under the nominal control of militias that broadly accept the legitimacy of the Tripoli-based government but fear that Haftar allies are planning to assert themselves. These include the area around Sabratha that saw fighting in October as well as the capital.

Thirdly, many Libyans are wondering how long Haftar can continue to challenge, without any consequences, the international consensus that a political solution to the Libyan conflict must be found. As he acknowledged in his 17 December statement, Haftar has received repeated warnings from the international community against carrying through his threat of declaring the expiration of the LPA and, more generally, undermining UN-led peace efforts. The UN Security Council did so several times in past months, most recently on 14 December, as did the many international and regional states supporting the UN process. Haftar’s closest international supporters, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, have reportedly intervened directly with him.

Growing Tensions

Amid this uncertainty, other developments on 17 December are adding to the confusion. One is the assassination by unknown assailants of Mohammed Eshtewi, the mayor of Misrata. This important city is a dominant military and political actor, and the killing risks widening multiple divisions: between factions that are open to a deal with Haftar and those that reject any compromise with him; between the city’s Municipal Council and its Military Council; and between locals and members of armed groups driven out of Benghazi by the LNA and now based in Misrata.

Some residents of Misrata – without any evidence – wonder whether the assassination may have been carried out by Haftar allies, who would stand to benefit from sowing further divisions. Likewise, rumours are circulating that the ex-Benghazi armed groups in the city are planning to take advantage of growing east-west tensions by launching a new offensive on the oil installations of the Gulf of Sirte, currently held by the LNA. Two such previous attempts were repelled.

At the same time, Misratan armed groups are reportedly consolidating around Sirte, the city they liberated from the Islamic State (ISIS) a year ago, hoping to pre-empt an attempt by pro-Haftar groups to take it over. And in Tripoli and its environs, the prospect looms of renewed tensions between armed groups that could align with Haftar’s camp and those opposed to him.

The Need for a Clear, Unified Response

The potential for a new escalation from various camps has increased, not least because Haftar’s declaration has added fuel to Libya’s slow-burning fires. The UN Security Council and states that have supported the peace process have been muted in their response until now. Most actors prefer to avoid comment or merely to reiterate, as did the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative to Libya, Ghassan Salamé on 17 December, calls that parties to the conflict should “refrain from any actions that could undermine the political process”. Perhaps they calculate that no actual hostile action has been taken and that Haftar’s declaration has been a flop, as some of his opponents argue, and can be ignored. 

Libyans, however, are watching closely and may interpret this silence as a lack of interest, if not assent. Given that successive efforts by international actors to engage with Haftar in pursuit of a negotiated political settlement have yet again met with his defiance, they should speak out more forcefully and condemn this latest attempt at undermining it. It is particularly important that private frustrations be vented publicly by Haftar’s regional allies, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, who appear to have been snubbed by their client once again, as well as countries such as France and Russia, which have done much to engage with him and push him toward diplomacy over the past year.

Admonitions may not convince Haftar himself, who appears to be tenaciously clinging to his ambition of becoming either Libya’s military ruler or its next president. But they would signal to other actors that the international community is intent on defending the process that Salamé and others have put in place, whose broad outlines have been accepted by a wide range of Libyans.

The UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Libya and Head of UNSMIL Ghassan Salame speaks during a joint press conference with Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano following their meeting in Rome, Italy, on 8 August 2017. Riccardo de Luca/ANADOLU AGENCY

Restoring UN Leadership of Libya’s Peace Process

Efforts to reunify Libya after six years of internal strife have drifted. Global and regional powers should seize the opportunity of a high-level UN meeting on Libya and a new UN special envoy to speak with one voice and act to build an effective and inclusive peace process.

On 20 September, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, will chair a high-level meeting on Libya on the side-lines of the General Assembly. After a long period of drift in international diplomacy, this marks an opportunity to bring greater clarity of purpose to the UN’s mission in Libya. In the meeting’s aftermath, UN member states should speak in a united voice about the urgency of healing the country’s institutional divides, addressing pressing economic and security challenges and empowering the Secretary-General’s new Special Representative, Ghassan Salamé, to find the best way to relaunch an effective and inclusive political process.

Initial indications are that Salamé, who is expected to present his plan for negotiations, will seek to work within the framework of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) signed in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015 even as he seeks to quickly renegotiate some if its elements. There is widespread international consensus that the LPA, despite its flaws, is the only viable framework at the moment; its collapse would leave an institutional and legal vacuum. The UN is expected to initiate its renegotiation by seeking to get two key institutions whose role is endorsed by the agreement, the House of Representatives (the parliament elected in June 2014 and operating from the eastern city of Tobruk), and the State Council (an advisory body created by the LPA and whose members largely are drawn from a previous parliament) to fulfil their intended functions under the agreement – something neither has done since they were created. The goal also is to get them to agree to new arrangements for the composition and mission of both the Presidency Council, the body created by the LPA and supposed to act in a head-of-state capacity for a transition period, and the Government of National Accord, the executive body supposed to run state affairs. This would be a welcome development. As Crisis Group has previously argued, the formation of a new government and the separation of its duties from that of the Presidency Council offer a plausible way out of the current deadlock in the implementation of the LPA. Such an outcome also requires the backing of a wider array of actors who make up Libya’s fragmented political and military landscape.

To make progress on any new roadmap, [...] UN envoy Salamé will need to receive the full-throated support of the states that have been most involved in Libyan diplomacy.

To make progress on any new roadmap, however, UN envoy Salamé will need to receive the full-throated support of the states that have been most involved in Libyan diplomacy: France, Russia, the UK and the U.S. among permanent members of the Security Council; Libya’s neighbours, including Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Italy; regional powers further afield such as Qatar and Turkey; and regional institutions such as the European Union (EU), the League of Arab States and the African Union. The diplomatic vacuum of the last year resulted in too many competing initiatives that have created confusion among Libyan factions, or were exploited by them. Greater international convergence is needed to restore the primacy of the UN as the show-runner of the Libyan peace process. Consultation with Salamé also is essential to avoid undermining him. This includes consulting him on interventions aimed at countering people-smugglers in the Mediterranean or jihadist groups that, if unilaterally implemented, could damage his agenda. A political settlement is ultimately the best way to address the myriad of consequences stemming from the Libya’s current instability.

Avoiding Arbitrary Deadlines

At a minimum, external actors should set common expectations for the coming period of renewed negotiations. The idea of 17 December 2017 (the two-year anniversary of the signing of the Skhirat Agreement) serving as an arbitrary deadline for the expiration of the institutional framework created by the LPA should firmly be put to rest. It would place undue pressure on efforts to restart meaningful peace negotiations, which will take time to get off the ground. The LPA, as Crisis Group argued in 2015, was rushed. The international community should not repeat that mistake.

The question of whether, and when, to hold elections is more complicated. Several Libyan and outside actors have called for new elections as soon as possible. So too did a 28 July communiqué issued after France hosted a meeting of the head of the Presidency Council, Faiez Serraj, and the head of the Libyan National Army, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar. In theory, calls for new elections are sound. The institutional arrangements created by the LPA always were meant to be transitional, and Libyans should enjoy a chance to democratically appoint their leaders and the current status quo is nearing collapse. In practice, however, legal and political obstacles are likely to obstruct holding them soon.

The areas of disagreement among the various camps are fundamental and include the basic contours of a new regime.

Without some sort of preliminary agreement that has relatively broad buy-in, elections are likely to set back efforts to reach a settlement. The areas of disagreement among the various camps are fundamental and include the basic contours of a new regime: should Libya be a monarchy or republic; should it be a federation or centralised; should elections be parliamentary, presidential, or both; what electoral law should apply; as well as who, and particularly whether Qadhafi-era officials, can run. If today’s belligerents cannot agree on whether elections should be held and what they should be for, what hope is there that they can produce a viable solution?

The better course is to agree on a transitional arrangement before elections. Those who advocate holding them quickly hope they can create a new legitimacy through the ballot box. Yet, the current Libyan conflict in part is due to the adoption of this logic to push for the June 2014 elections, which immediately were contested (through legal and military means) by the losing camp and interpreted as a carte blanche by the winning camp. To avoid reproducing the same dynamics, the peace process should focus not on elections as an end-goal, but rather on ensuring their outcome is not seen as a zero-sum game. 

Economics and Security

The UN is rightly focused on resetting the political process, retaking leadership over negotiations to modify the LPA to allow for its implementation. This is its prime mission. But, given the reality that achieving progress likely will take time, there is also a need to advance on two issues of immediate importance: addressing Libya’s economic situation and launching a security track. Given the UN’s limited resources, it cannot do so without the support of key regional and international actors. 

In his 28 August address to the Security Council, Salamé rightly put the spotlight on Libya’s economic situation, arguing that unless “economic challenges are addressed, and soon, the humanitarian crisis in Libya will deepen”. Such challenges include: healing the rift between rival branches of key economic institutions such as the Central Bank of Libya and National Oil Corporation and ensuring they operate effectively; improving the quality of governance, including relations between the Central Bank and the government; resolving the liquidity crisis faced by Libyan banks; and confronting rampant economic predation. Some of this will necessitate outside economic expertise and guidance, whether from states or international financial institutions, and greater collaboration by concerned actors. In the case of fuel-smuggling, for instance, Libya’s neighbours need to coordinate with those who have the capacity to confront land and sea-based smugglers.

Since the beginning of the UN’s efforts in 2015, the peace negotiations’ security track has never taken off.

Since the beginning of the UN’s efforts in 2015, the peace negotiations’ security track has never taken off. The UN’s current security-related mission is focused on making Tripoli safe for both the Presidency Council and the impending return of UN staff. At a minimum, this should be broadened to include establishing a dialogue among security actors in various parts of the country, starting at the local level (for instance, in southern Libya) and ultimately widening this nationwide. This is a necessary complement to a political dialogue, particularly as security issues – including leadership of security institutions – lie at the heart of disagreements over the LPA. Importantly, this also will make possible broadening negotiations beyond the international community’s four main interlocutors: Serraj (a political actor with no military base), Haftar (an important military actor with political ambitions), President of the House of Representatives Agheela Saleh (a political actor with local military backing in the east) and President of the State Council Abdelrahman Swehli (a political actor with some influence among military groups in the west). Broader talks can also bring in a range of political-military actors with national and local-level influence, but no institutional perch.

A related matter is that of the political and military support many international actors have given to various sides of the conflict. In the case of military backing, this happens in flagrant violation of the UN-imposed arms embargo, as revealed by the June 2017 report of the UN Panel of Experts on Libya. While violations exist on all sides, the report highlighted particularly egregious ones in support of Haftar’s faction. Such actions have a track record of making him reluctant to compromise. Egypt, France, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, which have the greatest influence over Haftar and are most active in engaging him, should ensure that he is fully incentivised to collaborate with Mr Salamé’s efforts.

Altogether, this amounts to a tall order for the new special envoy who will need to find the right sequencing for a political process and balance the sometimes-contradictory interests of Libyans and external actors alike. His task is hard enough – and will be made infinitely harder if he does not enjoy the political backing and resources of a more united and effective international community.