Libya’s ceasefire hard to reach, so is finding new UN envoy

The reality is that both sides are setting the threshold for a ceasefire agreement extremely high.
Sunday 15/03/2020
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (R) speaks with Fayez Sarraj, head of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), March 10. (DPA)
Looking for allies. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (R) speaks with Fayez Sarraj, head of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), March 10. (DPA)

TUNIS--For the third time in four years, Libyan National Army Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar was in Paris for talks with French President Emmanuel Macron about the Libyan crisis.

This time, though, his rival, Fayez Sarraj, head of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), which faces Libyan National Army (LNA) siege in Tripoli, was not present. There was no attempt at a personal dialogue or reconciliation between the two.

It was just Haftar and Macron on March 9 talking about a ceasefire and an end to the blockade of Libyan oil exports. The following day, Haftar was in Berlin for talks with German Chancellor Merkel.

The talks, which followed a visit to Haftar in his headquarters outside Benghazi on March 3 by French and German officials, have been interpreted as a shift by Paris and Berlin towards Haftar and away from Sarraj and the GNA. The talks have also been considered a move to spite Turkey in response to its attempt to blackmail the European Union into supporting it in Syria by flooding the border with Greece with migrants.

However, if the aim was to pressure Haftar to agree on a ceasefire, it did not work. At most, Haftar said he would sign a ceasefire agreement and would stick to it so long as the militias in Tripoli also stuck to it. That meant no ceasefire.

Despite Merkel urging Sarraj to accept a ceasefire, the head of the GNA set his own tough condition for a ceasefire — that the LNA pulls back to the positions it held before its offensive to take Tripoli 11 months ago.

Haftar refused to consider the idea. He has other demands that Sarraj will not accept — that local militias fighting with the GNA forces be disarmed and dissolved, that Islamist militants be removed, that Turkish forces and Syrian and other mercenaries fighting with the GNA be thrown out of the country and that the United Nations withdraws legitimacy from the Sarraj government.

The last demand is not new and had appeared to have been dropped but it was firmly re-issued in an interview Haftar had in February with Paris Match. If none of this happened, he warned, the LNA would ignore the United Nations and act alone, which is what it has been effectively doing for the past 11 months.

Both sides are setting the threshold for a ceasefire extremely high, both imagining that they can ultimately win.

In and around Tripoli, it means that the relatively low-level war of attrition continued with neither side making progress. The first week of March there was only occasional shelling, nothing like the barrages at the end of February that closed Mitiga airport.

However, with power cuts lasting 8-10 hours a day because of a cold spell, more residents headed for safety and normality in Tunisia, if only for short breaks.

After the sudden resignation of UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame, the attention is on who will replace him. A growing consensus is that it could be a sub-Saharan African. In a move seen as linked to the appointment, Sarraj was in Pretoria for talks with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, chairman of the African Union (AU).

In Pretoria at the same time, was US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland. His presence there at the same time as Sarraj, with whom he met, was no coincidence.

Their diplomatic moves came just before Ramaphosa travelled to the Republic of Congo for a meeting of the African Union’s High-Level Committee on Libya. It is headed by Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso. The meeting was also attended by Chadian President Idriss Deby and Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad, among others.

Ramaphosa has been quoted saying that an African should be the new UN special envoy. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is also thought to favour an African. At the AU summit in Addis Ababa on February 9, he agreed with calls that the African Union should have a greater role in solving the Libyan crisis.

There were reports that Guterres was considering appointing former Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra to the job. Lamamra classifies as an African but, as an Algerian, he would arouse the hostility not only of Morocco and its allies in the African Union but also of Egypt and Egypt’s ally in Libya, Haftar.

In fact, it is far from clear that Guterres has anyone in mind or that anyone is prepared to take on the job. That he announced that UN Deputy Special Representative Stephanie Williams was the acting special envoy indicates that no one had been chosen.

“I don’t expect an appointment for some months,” said a senior local government official in Tripoli. “So, what does that mean for peace?” he then asked.