The Tripartite Initiative and the Prospects of a Political Settlement in Libya (By Bacha Khayreddine)

The Tripartite Initiative and the Prospects of a Political Settlement in Libya

(By Bacha Khayreddine *)

The so-called Skhirat agreement, concluded on December 17, 2015, is considered a satisfactory framework for building consensus among the various parties in conflict, since the revolution of  February 2011, and under the influence of various external forces, international and regional, which made any diplomatic mediation problematic.

Then the tripartite Tunisian-Egyptian-Algerian initiative was launched, bringing a fresh momentum for a political solution, as it provided a framework for dialogue between the parties to the conflict and influential neighboring countries. It also signaled future cooperation with the African Union, an organization that has played, for a significant period of time, a major role in determining the various avenues for a political solution to the conflict.

This paper seeks to explain this freshly minted political settlement proposal and ascertain how the various components of the Libyan political landscape feel about it.

It is essential, however, to first determine who are the main players.

The Government of National Accord

This is currently one of the major players on the political scene. It controls the majority of the western part of Libya and about half of its southern territory. It is allied with, and significantly supported by, the Justice and Construction Party (Hizb Al-Adala Wal-Bina), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, a number of the Misrata brigades, in addition to numerous military groups in the Aljabal Algharbi area and around Tripoli. Among its most important accomplishments is the liberation of Sirte from the grip of the Islamic State through operation “Solid Foundation”. The Government of National Accord (GNA) which controls the National Oil Corporation and the Libya Central Bank has taken steps to build an army, of the “presidential guard” type.

The GNA enjoys vast international support, particularly from the USA, Italy and Turkey. Its overall performance, however, has been rated as poor in view of the political crisis surrounding the Presidential Council and the difficult economic situation which has negatively affected the Libyan people standard of living.

Operation Dignity or the “Libyan National Army”

The Libyan National Army (LNA) is comprised of the forces loyal to commander Khalifa Hafter and the Tobruk-based parliament. It is supported politically by the “Alliance of Patriotic Forces”, and socially by the majority of eastern Libya tribes along with a significant number of southern military leaders and tribes, including the Tibbou. The LNA has a foothold in the western parts of Libya , in Zentan, Waddan, and Eljafra.

On September 11, 2016, the LNA forces took control of the oil crescent out of the hands of the Ibrahim Jadhran forces and the Petroleum Defense Guards. This move led to a great deal of concern among the international community which was relieved when, a few days later, Hafter handed over the oil facilities to the National Oil Corporation. The LNA enjoys the military, political and financial support of the UAE, Egypt and Jordan. After defeating Ansar Achariia in its Benghazi area stronghold of Kanfouda the LNA is seeking to expand its control across eastern Libya. Indeed, Khalifa Hafter has repeatedly vowed to seize the capital Tripoli with the help of a few loyal forces in the west of the country.

Actors loyal to the National Salvation Government

These include, primarily, the Libyan National Guard forces which are located in Tripoli and are in control of a number of venues such as presidential palaces, as well as personalities such as Nouri Abusahmeen president of the National Congres, Khalifa Elghouil prime minister of the former salvation government, and Salah Badi, a prominent member of the Dawn of Libya Brigades leadership. This front, which has tremendous financial resources at its disposal, has garnered the support of the Musrata extremists, was joined by some of the Solid Foundation Brigades, and has secured the blessing of Sadok Alghariani, the mufti of Tripoli. However, in order to prevent any confrontation with the GNA forces this front is being pressured by the international community to get out of Tripoli.

 Supporters of the Former Regime

Former regime supporters are active in the western and southern parts of Libya. Some among them have at some point or another allied themselves with Khalifa Hafter. Unlike The popular front for the liberation of Libya, an ill-defined organization with obscure objectives and platform. These former regime supporters do not operate within a formal political structure. In addition to the media outlets that have been propagating its ideas, this group is supported by a majority of the Libyan diaspora in Tunisia and Egypt. It is represented politically by the “Libyan supreme council of tribes and cities”, and  militarily by the Tribes army, which comprises brigades from theWershfanaWerfellaEssiaan, and other tribes. These  former regime supporters are also on good terms with militias under the command of Mohammed bin Nayel,  headquartered in the Libyan southwest, more precisely in the Sabha area.

Miscellaneous forces

These include unaffiliated militias such as the Tripoli Rebel Forces headed by Haithem Tajouri and the salafi-leaning Deterrence Force. These militias have not pledged loyalty to the GNA, although they continue to play a security role in the capital Tripoli.

Political dialogue and the odds of success.

A welcome initiative  

The tripartite Tunisian-Egyptian-Algerian initiative, which was rolled out with the approval of major European countries determined at this juncture to steer away from the sensitive option of direct intervention, aims at fortifying the Skhirat Agreement against any adverse developments or complications that could undermine it and squander the benefits that were reaped from the liberation of Sirte from the Islamic State.

This initiative also reflects the apprehensions expressed by a number of influential countries vis-à-vis a potential Russian intervention in Libya, subsequent to Hafter’s visit aboard the Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, a step that could, according to numerous observers, pave the way for future arms deals with Russia, once the UN embargo is lifted. There is no doubt that Russia was among the most reliable supporters of Hafter since the birth of his movement on February 14, 2014, in Benghazi. While the Russians stance in Libya has all along been cautious, any effective intervention on their part in this country is bound to reshuffle the cards across the entire region and cause all players to reconsider their assessments of the situation and calculations.

Egypt, for instance, and despite the many agreements it concluded with Russia either under the rubric of armament or strategic coordination about regional issues (including Syria), remains deeply apprehensive about an active Russian presence on its western flank as that could jeopardize the extensive political and economic influence it has built in the eastern part of Libya. Egypt is also concerned that a Russian presence could be leveraged by Hafter to achieve political gains at its expense.

Algeria, on its part, and despite its strategic alliance with Russia, has reason to fear for its influence in the region and the perennity of the relations it managed to weave with weighty economic and political players in the west and south of Libya, should the Russians forcefully enter the Libyan scene. Algeria has also significant reservations about the increasing role of Hafter in Libya’s political life, particularly after he managed to take full control of the eastern part of the country including the oil crescent region.

These concerns made the Tunisian mediation initiative quite welcome, both regionally and internationally. All the more so as the efforts exerted, with the blessing of influential European countries, either through official diplomacy or informally through influential business people and politicians who carry a measure of clout among the various parties to the conflict, have sought to promote a rapprochement among them and avoided exclusion of any one of them, which has caused all previous attempts to fail. Tunisia has sought to widen the dialogue to as many parties as possible. It has also leveraged the propitious international circumstances, including what appears to be an increasing compatibility between American and Russians views about a number of international issues, to secure guarantees for the implementation of any potential agreement.

For this mediation to produce results, time is of essence, as it was intended to clear the way for the swift and total annihilation of the Islamic State (IS) after it was driven out of Sirte and into the Libyan desert, near the Aljafra area.  However, there are still serious concerns that the Islamic State might recover, regroup, and carry out attacks against neighboring countries such as Tunisia or Algeria ; just as it might move even deeper into the Sahara in order to coordinate actions with other Jihadi groups such as Boko Haram which had already pledge allegiance to the Islamic State.

Among the burning issues expected to be addressed by the talks is illegal migration, originating on the Libyan territory. This has been the source of tremendous contention with western countries; so much so that Italy, in seeking a solution to this problem, has put not only a considerable amount of pressure on the GNA but has also tried to reach deals with individual members of the presidential council.

All these challenges notwithstanding, the solution rests largely with the Libyans themselves, provided they can demonstrate the necessary will and political flexibility. This is all the more pressing as the Libyan people are increasingly worried about the chaos, the lack of security, the lethargic economy and poor service delivery in their country. Should this situation be allowed to continue, that is without a comprehensive solution that clearly delineates the jurisdiction of each state institution and secures the right conditions for the anticipated 2018 elections, it could blow up into another brutal social conflagration.

(Translated from the Arabic by the Maghreb Center)

* Bacha Khayreddine is a Legal and Political Analyst based in Tunis. He is currently a Legal Specialist with Al Bawsala, a Tunisian parliamentary monitoring and advocacy NGO.