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Deputy Head of Department of World and Russian History, Higher School of Economics
MSc in International Relations, Program Coordinator (MENA) at the Russian International Affairs Councill
The attempts undertaken in recent months by Algeria, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt to resuscitate the political process in Libya are closely related to the search for reliable partners among the key actors in the longstanding confrontation. Russia has also been taking part. Over the past six months, experts and news agencies in Russia and around the world have been actively touting Khalifa Haftar as the “most likely” person to potentially unify the Libyan nation. Indeed, Moscow backs Haftar as the potential leader of a new Libya. However, upon closer examination of the situation in the country, and given the specific features of the country and the various interests pursued by external actors, it becomes obvious that Haftar is far from the only player in the country worthy of attention.
The attempts undertaken in recent months by Algeria, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt to resuscitate the political process in Libya are closely related to the search for reliable partners among the key actors in the longstanding confrontation. Russia has also been taking part. Over the past six months, experts and news agencies in Russia and around the world have been actively touting Khalifa Haftar as the “most likely” person to potentially unify the Libyan nation as well as the potential leader of a new Libya who is backed by Moscow. However, upon closer examination of the situation in the country, and given the specific features of the country and the various interests pursued by external actors, it becomes obvious that Haftar is far from the only player in the country worthy of attention.
The later stage of the Libyan crisis, which began in 2014, divided the country, stuck in its conflicts, according to a regional principle. The previously existing schisms reached unprecedented scales, destroying many economic and socio-political ties between the various parts of the fourth-largest country in Africa. According to RIAC experts, Libyan statehood and territorial integrity were under threat of extinction. As noted by the Russian expert K. Truyevtsev, the transformation of Libya into a zone of permanent regional instability was a disappointing reality. A descriptive model representing what is happening in Libya as a series of conflicts along the North-South and West-East opposition lines (in Libyan realities — the North-West and the Northeast), oversimplifies reality, but still remains the most convenient and often-used in the political public and scientific discourses.
The agreements made under United Nations auspices on comprehensive political settlement in the Moroccan city of Skhirate, despite optimistic expectations, did not lead to a noticeable change in the situation for the better. As noted by foreign and Russian experts (for example, the director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies of the IOS RAS V. Kuznetsov), in the middle of 2016 it became clear that the Skhirat process had reached a deadlock and needed a restart. The conflict of jurisdictions between the Government of National Accord (GNA), formed under the terms of the UN-endorsed 2015 Libyan Political Agreement in the northwest of the country (Tripoli), and the House of Representatives, elected by parliament in the northeast (Tobruk), has further exacerbated the antagonism between the two regions. This added new forces in the confrontation between the Government of National Accord and the House of Representatives and created (at least) two simultaneously incompatible and overlapping political spaces. They each, under the impact of a constantly changing situation, had their own models of political leadership and unique conditions for the creation of centers of power capable of directly affecting the situation in the entire country.
The Simmering Northwest and its Two Prime Ministers
Led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, the GNA moved from Tunis to Tripoli on March 30, 2016. At first, the National Salvation Government (NSG) led by Misurata native Khalifa al-Ghawil threatened members of the Al-Sarraj government with arrests. However, on April 5, 2016, the NSG disbanded and conceded power “for the sake of peace and national integrity.”
Nevertheless, the Al-Sarraj government, while having formally taken over at the helm of the Libyan capital city, remained in a vulnerable position, as it did not have sufficient support among the people, nor did it have the resources to gain such support or the necessary forces to stay in power even within its notional northwestern borders. The GNA was dependent on its foreign political sponsors (the United States and the European Union), as well as on individual representatives of the Tripoli and Misurata clans, who commanded much more tangible authority on the ground.
The primary topic here is the military factions that used to report to the General National Congress (GNC) and were previously represented by NSG Chairman al-Ghawil and GNC speaker Nouri Abusahmain. For two years, from April 2014 to March 2016, nothing threatened the power of these groups in Tripoli: under the auspices of the GNC they grew richer and strengthened their influence. It was only the need for legitimacy among foreign nations, as well as the threat from Islamic State, that forced them make a deal with the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and join the Skhirat talks.
What is more, there is a vast region in the west of Libya that runs along the border with Algeria. The city of Zintan is at the centre of this region. The local military political leaders began to cooperate closely with the Tobruk House of Representatives in 2014, and have since been coordinating their actions with the Libyan National Army commanded by Haftar, who has become one of al-Sarraj’s main opponents. The Tuareg ethnic minority, which is highly organized by local standards and which plays a significant role in the economic and political life of the country’s north-western regions, has also taken a wait-and-see approach.
Having become the formal leader of the coalition against Islamic State in Libya, Al-Sarraj secured and amassed foreign military, economic, and political support, and took charge of the north-western region’s fight against Islamic State, with the silent agreement of the other decision-making centres. The main actors in the northwest used the fight against Islamic State as an opportunity to re-establish an official channel of communications with the outside world, while enabling Al-Sarraj, who had previously been relatively unknown, to gain the recognition he needed so badly.
Throughout 2016, the fight against the Islamic State in Libya was mainly conducted by the Misurata units and their allies, with limited foreign support.
In this sense, the figure of al-Ghawil, or, more to the point, the people who he represents and on whom he relies, are of particular interest. Al-Ghawil is a more convenient figurehead for those standing behind him than a person with greater authority. He made international headlines in February 2017, when he announced plans to rebuild the airport in Tripoli and promised to launch international flights by mid-March. Mitiga International Airport, which since 2014 has been the only airport serving Tripoli, is currently controlled by the al-Sarraj government forces. Among those collaborating with al-Ghawil, some Libyan experts mention Abdelhakim Belhadj and Ali Muhammad al-Sallabi, who are suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, respectively.
Nevertheless, Islamists represent only a portion of the groups supporting al-Ghawil. People like Belhadj and his supporters cannot be considered true Islamists. Part of these forces nominally acknowledged al-Sarraj's authority during the fight against Islamic State in Sirte, after al-Ghawil had temporarily faded into the political background. In reality, the groups behind al-Ghawil, which were fighting against the militants that came from the Syria–Iraq conflict zone, were using al-Sarraj to secure foreign assistance and win international recognition. Having waited for a while, on his return to Tripoli, al-Ghawil openly stated that his government was legitimate, that he was merely “a Muslim believer” and had no links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
This statement earned al-Ghawil condemnation from different sides, first of all from supporters of the al-Sarraj government and the Presidential Council. Al-Ghawil was accused of an attempted coup. On February 16, the al-Sarraj government asked NATO for assistance to develop and train the Libyan armed forces. Following a meeting in Abu Dhabi between al-Sarraj and Haftar, street safety in Tripoli came under threat. Forces formerly representing the Libya Dawn Coalition, which currently calls itself Libya Pride, made a stand against the al-Sarraj government.
The Northeast: In the Shadows of the “Tobruk Colossus”
Proposals on Building a Regional Security System in West Asia and North Africa
The situation in the areas controlled by Marshal Haftar and his Libyan National Army is not as simple as it would first seem either. Haftar enjoys the support of the Tobruk House of Representatives led by Aguila Saleh and his cabinet of ministers, which is chaired by Abdullah al-Thani. While the northwestern forces were busy fighting in the battle of Sirte, Haftar managed to establish control over the primary oilfields and oil-loading ports in the east of the country. Backed by a tightly knit team of specialists (state officials whose political careers date back to the Gaddafi times), U.S. private military companies and Sudanese mercenaries from the Darfur region, he managed to establish military and informational control over freedom-loving Cyrenaica.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to believe that Haftar does not have complete control over Cyrenaica. Just like with the GNA in the northwest, this appears to be more wishful thinking on the part of observers.
The forces in opposition to Haftar remain active. These include, among others, the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna and the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries. In parallel, western groups (not necessarily controlled by al-Sarraj or al-Ghawil) continue to carry out attacks on Libya’s “Oil Crescent.” Ahmed al-Mismari, the official spokesperson of the Libyan National Army, has blamed the so-called Benghazi Defence Brigades and groups linked to al-Qaeda for the latest major attack on the Libyan oil-loading ports on March 3–4, 2017, in which the attackers briefly seized the Ra’s Lanuf terminals. It is believed that these forces receive support from Turkey and Qatar. The Benghazi Defence Brigades are also notable for having previously pledged allegiance to Grand Mufti of Libya Al Sadiq Abd-Alrahman Ali Al Ghariani, an authoritative but fairly controversial actor whose clout spreads over both the western and eastern regions of the country.
Thus, Haftar has serious opposition, not only in Tripoli and Misurata in the west of the country, but also in the east. That Haftar positions himself as a strong leader is unacceptable both to the elites and the people, who have accused him of numerous crimes against peaceful citizens, using foreign mercenaries in order to assert his power, and harbouring dictatorial ambitions. Discord is also mounting within the marshal’s own camp: Chairman of the House of Representatives Aguila Saleh has grown more prominent in the international arena during the first half of 2017, following the talks in Cairo, Rome and Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, the role of other Libyan National Army commanders is increasing in the war zone, as Haftar has become less active due to health problems.
Haftar represents the interests of certain Libyan clans. Some experts believe him to be a figurehead. Given that the marshal is 74, it would seem obvious that he is a temporary placeholder incapable of eventually becoming the leader of a new Libya. Whether or not he will even manage to enter history as the unifier of Libya is a moot question. The west refuses to recognize him and continues to build up its combat potential and the south is reluctant to give up its post-Gaddafi freedoms, while the eastern territories, which are formally under Haftar’s control, have not been thoroughly purged yet.
The Unclear Future of the Libyan Settlement
Diplomacy remains an important tool to solve the Libyan conflict, but there are still many questions, such as: who and how could promote peacekeeping and order in this country? The UN mission is experiencing a crisis, and the initiatives of the North African states (Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia) have faced a number of difficulties. Despite the doubts evoked by the results of the agreements reached in Abu Dhabi, their symbolic significance cannot be underestimated. The political solution remains the only possible way to solve the Libyan crisis, but it is necessary to approach the situation carefully, taking into account the constantly changing balance of power and interests of the participants in the intra-Libyan confrontation.
There is reason to believe that, after having tested their strength on the coastline in the March 2017 battle for Ra’s Lanuf, and in the south during the clashes outside Sabha in April and May 2017, the sides will not instigate a military confrontation until they have secured significant external support. Any foreign intervention (and Moscow has been mentioned as a possible mediator in the Libyan settlement) needs to be thoroughly analysed in its early phase. Andrey Chuprygin, Senior Lecturer at Russia’s Higher School of Economics, believes that Russia is capable of building a constructive dialogue with all the sides involved in the Libyan conflict, including with al-Ghawil, Haftar and al-Sarraj. Chuprygin also points to the possibility of another actor emerging in the country: Libyan expat businesspeople, who could be prepared to return home and contribute to the restoration of the country’s unity with support from Russia and Europe. This potential new force could try to secure European assistance in exchange for an attempt to address the illegal immigration issue, and is likely to communicate via the officially recognized al-Sarraj government, which would gain al-Sarraj additional support from the Misurata and Tripoli clans. Islamist groups will present a counterbalance both to this force and to Haftar; one way or another, the Islamists will need to be eliminated, which appears to be a difficult task without help from abroad.
Despite the fact that the balance of power in Libya could be suddenly shifted in one direction or the other, today neither side has the necessary potential for this. These changes require different conditions, and it is expected that these could be connected with external forces, but not regional ones. Therefore, Moscow's policy towards Libya entails great risks. Nevertheless, there are certain prospects for maintaining a balance in building relations with all the participants in the Libyan conflict — both the most prominent ones and those who are just preparing to join the struggle for leadership in one of Africa’s richest countries.
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