Libya trapped between a strategy of chaos and the spectre of a new dictatorship

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By Jihâd Gillon, and Mathieu Galtier

With no foreseeable political agreement in sight, war and chaos continue to prevail, while Turkey and Russia are emerging as the new key players in the Libyan crisis.

Abdoussalem Nasser (63) has experienced many wars in Libya, from the Chad-Libya conflict of the 1980s to the siege of Tripoli which began on 4 April 2019 by Khalifa Haftar.

“This one is the most difficult because we are fighting against Russians, Egyptians, Sudanese and modern military equipment, with Emirati drones and French missiles,” he says.

The former air force serviceman along with 120 others, is part of Brigade 80 — affiliated to Operation Volcano of Wrath — charged with the defence of the capital. He describes an unbalanced conflict, despite the approximately 2,000 Syrian fighters brought to the front by Turkey since December. Haftar’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) is currently 15km south-east of Tripoli’s centre, making it easier for the LNA to receive logistical and human support from the friendly city of Tarhouna.

The advance of the LNA in recent months is largely thanks to the support of hundreds of Russian mercenaries. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed Libya would have come entirely under the control of the “Haftar putschist” had he not intervened. The promised Turkish troop contingent, however, boils down to a few dozen soldiers and advisers who are limited to the training of the Tripoli forces and the coordination of the various fronts. Abdoussalem Nasser says better equipment is needed, rather than human reinforcements.

Faced with 40,000 LNA troops with Emirati air support, Operation Volcano of Wrath is a military campaign comprising a coalition of armed groups from different cities to drive back the LNA. Misrata’s powerful brigades are fighting in Tripoli, to prevent their stronghold from being surrounded. After Haftar captured Sirte at the beginning of the year, he has opened a front 250km east of Misrata. If Tripoli falls into the hands of the LNA, it will then launch an offensive against the country’s second-largest city.

Driving Haftar out of the west guarantees Misrata’s survival and will enable it to regain its influence in the capital. “We are promised a return to the past,” says a disillusioned figure from the revolutionary district of Souq al-Juma. “Either Haftar wins and it’s the return of the dictatorship, or he loses, but Tripoli is once again in the hands of the militias of Misrata, Zintan, Zaouïa, etc., as it was between 2012 and 2014.”

Since 2011, Libya seems to have been condemned to instability and chaos, whatever the intentions of the various international actors.Daily newsletter: join our 100 000 subscribers!Each day, get the essential: 5 things you need to know Sign up Also receive offers from The Africa ReportAlso receive offers from The Africa Report’s partners

Ghassan Salamé and the UN

More than two years after his appointment, the UN envoy for Libya Ghassan Salamé acknowledges the almost insurmountable obstacles to his mission.

“I spent 18 months trying to bring the Libyans together,” he said in Rome in December, during the Med Dialogues, the regional forum organised by Italy. “But when you go from the failure of a dialogue to the failure of an agreement, it is clear that many outside actors are playing against you.”

According to the former Lebanese minister, the main issue is the multiplication of states fuelling the conflict in defiance of the UN arms embargo.

“I interpret what we heard in Rome as the will of Ghassan Salamé, whose replacement the Russians are asking for and expecting,” says Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institute for Prospective Studies and Security in Europe.

But, claims Michel Scarbonchi, a French consultant who has worked to promote the Haftar solution in Paris, “Haftar no longer wants to hear from him. The last time he saw him was several months ago.”

Ghassan Salamé is not spared by his critics in Tripoli either, although he has better relations there.

“It’s not him that’s at fault,” says Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at the Clingendael Institute. “Of course, Salamé could have been Superman but to no avail!”

In Rome, the UN envoy admitted that he had changed his strategy. “I am now trying to reach a minimum consensus among those who interfere in Libyan affairs.” The idea of the Berlin conference was born with this in mind.

“Angela Merkel wanted to help Salamé break the taboo of the arms embargo. And Turkey had sharply reduced its aid from October onwards, in the run-up to the Berlin conference but also because its drones were encountering difficulties compared to those of the Emirates. Not to mention the funding problems”, Harchaoui explains.

“The problem is last autumn there was no lull in the Emirati strikes. On the contrary, Abu Dhabi has only intensified its air campaign,” he added, saying if Salamé does not achieve tangible results at the Berlin conference on 19 January, he will no doubt be tempted to throw in the towel.

AU wants to have its say

Criticism of the UN also comes from Africa, especially from Moussa Faki. The president of the African Union (AU) Commission denounced the marginalisation of his institution on the Libyan issue, which he stated at the Doha Forum. He repeated his complaint in Brazzaville in mid-December, in the company of Denis Sassou Nguesso, chairman of the AU High Committee on Libya.

“There is no problem with Moussa Faki. The AU wants to have a say in all African conflicts, not just Libya,” says Ghassan Salamé, in an interview with Jeune Afrique. “And if the AU wants to send an emissary to Tripoli, I will welcome him myself,” he adds, while acknowledging the pan-African institution is not very responsive to his regular reports.

The AU may be asserting its competence in mediating African conflicts, as recently demonstrated in Sudan, its room for manoeuvre in Libya, however, leaves observers sceptical.

“If we hope that the AU takes up Salamé’s torch, we will be disappointed. Since 2011, the AU has understood that it is good form to complain about Libya. In fact, apart from Algeria, Egypt and Congo, few African countries maintain high diplomatic expertise on the Libyan file,” asserts Jalel Harchaoui.

Congo does not intend to let the diplomatic ballet dance proceed without the AU’s input and announced a new meeting on Libya on 25 January in Brazzaville. The Congolese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Claude Gakosso, has already briefed African heads of state invited to Brazzaville. But can the transition to a South African presidency of the AU in February breathe new life into African mediation?

“South Africa would be particularly relevant on this issue, because it will hold both the presidency of the Brics and that of the AU in 2020,” says Emmanuel Dupuy. “This gives it a strong capacity for action on this issue, especially vis-à-vis Russia, with whom there has been economic, diplomatic, and military cooperation for a long time.”

Will the Turks and Russians divide the country?

Marginal players as recently as a year ago, Ankara and Moscow now weigh more than ever on Libya’s future. Turkey has committed itself alongside the Government of National Accord (GNA), while Russia has managed to keep a foot in each camp. The support given to Marshal Haftar’s troops by the private military company Wagner — close to the Kremlin — has enabled the LNA to record several successes in recent months. It also affords Russian diplomacy some room for manoeuvre on the Tripoli side, since Russia has not officially taken Haftar’s side.

“There is a lot of talk about the Total-ENI rivalry in Libya,” notes Emmanuel Dupuy. “But the new world is Gazprom, Tatneft, and Rosneft, who have signed contracts with the National Oil Corporation [NOC, the Libyan national oil company]. That’s why the Russians are playing both sides. The Central Bank and the NOC are still in Tripoli.”

No illusions

Turkey clearly exploited the GNA’s distress at the end of November, forcing it to sign a military support agreement coupled with a maritime agreement giving Turkey access to economic areas claimed by Greece and Cyprus. “With this agreement, we have extended to the maximum the territory over which we have authority. This will allow us to carry out joint [hydrocarbon] exploration activities,” said Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 9 December.

“Turkey is defending its own interests in Libya, we have no illusions about its assistance to the GNA,” a Misrata notable says. He detected a division of tasks between the two countries.

“Russia, for its part, wants to control the Haftar side. Thus, even if they militarily support rival camps, we are right to speak of an understanding between Turkey and Russia, who have understood that their common interest is to eclipse Europe in this part of the world,” Harchaoui says.

Giving the middle finger to European diplomacy, the two countries inaugurated the Turkstream gas pipeline at the beginning of January and managed to set up a short-lived ceasefire between the Libyan protagonists.

“Only three countries are capable of pushing the Libyans to the negotiating table: Turkey, Russia, and the United States, even if the latter does not want to get involved in the Libyan bazaar,” says a Misrata businessman.

However, Sarraj and Haftar refused to meet in Moscow on 13 January and the latter left the Russian capital the next day without having ratified the ceasefire agreement, raising questions about Emirati and Egyptian pressure. In addition, the plan provided for the withdrawal of the NLA to its pre-4 April positions.

“What do you want Haftar to negotiate now? He controls 90% of the territory,” Scarbonchi points out.

Europe and the United States out of the game?

The French initiative on the Libyan dilemma seems to be over. “The failure of Emmanuel Macron’s mediation in 2018 has left its mark. At the Élysée Palace, there was a strong Libyan interest, thanks to diplomatic adviser Philippe Étienne,” explains Emmanuel Dupuy. “His replacement, Emmanuel Bonne, in my opinion, is less focused on the Western Mediterranean and more on the Middle East — the crisis in the Persian Gulf and Iran. There is less personal involvement. There have also been changes in the Maghreb-Middle East advisers on the presidential team who played a role in the close monitoring of the Libyan portfolio.”

Beyond questions of people, Paris is discredited in Tripoli’s eyes because it is seen to be too explicit in its support Haftar. Rome claimed to take up the torch that had fallen from the hands of its French rival, but its hopes have also been dashed. Long in favour of Tripoli, Italy gave the impression of a change of course in the wake of Haftar’s latest military successes, inviting him and Fayez al-Sarraj on 8 January in the hope of negotiating a ceasefire. Learning that the Marshal had preceded him in Rome, the head of the Libyan government preferred to turn his heels and did not honour his appointment with Giuseppe Conte until 11 January.

The German initiative has been complicated by the controversy surrounding the states associated with the Berlin process, with Qatar, in particular, getting testy about the invitation extended to its Emirati rivals.

“The French have used their diplomatic skills to subvert the German initiative, for example by asking for a crowd of African states to be invited or by extending the process to general questions on elections and economic reforms,” Harchaoui says.

“The result has been a conference with vague objectives that change according to diplomatic negotiations. The question arises as to whether German diplomacy is equally as ineffective as Italian or French diplomacy,” concludes Emmanuel Dupuy. “Europeans, who wanted to be peacemakers, no longer have any role other than to physically host summits in which they no longer have control over the debates and guests.”

On the Washington side, the Trump administration has shown itself incapable of defining a clear line on Libya and is content simply to denounce foreign interference there. A consensual position that poorly masks American disinterest in the Libyan question, which is primarily viewed through the prism of oil.