Libya’s guns louder than megaphone diplomacy

Haftar accepted that “the solution must be through the political track” but there would be no political discussions until after the LNA had taken Tripoli.
Sunday 23/06/2019
Warpath. Fighters loyal to Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar reportedly advancing on a road south of Tripoli.  (AFP)
Warpath. Fighters loyal to Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar reportedly advancing on a road south of Tripoli. (AFP)

TUNIS - A very gaunt and tired-looking head of the internationally recognised Libyan Presidential Council, Fayez al-Sarraj, has announced a new initiative to end the civil war.

Sarraj proposed a national “congress” to work out a solution to Libya’s divisions and included parliamentary and presidential elections before the end of the year. He presented it as if it were a new idea and it was immediately welcomed as “constructive” by the UN Support Mission in Libya.

That was hardly surprising, not because Sarraj had said the conference should be convened “with the coordination of international players” but because it is what UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame had planned to have taken place in mid-April, had the head of the Libyan National Army, Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, not launched an offensive to take Tripoli on April 4.

Given that there was nothing new in Sarraj’s offer, announced June 16 at a news conference in Tripoli, it left Libyan politicians and foreign diplomats asking what he was playing at. Did he genuinely think Haftar and the political players in eastern Libya would respond positively to the offer or was it a crafty propaganda move to present himself as the “good guy” suggesting a civilised way out of the crisis?

The consensus was that it was the latter — “a stunt” as one European diplomat put it. Sarraj was engaged in gesture politics, knowing the proposal would be spurned by Haftar.

Giving a rare interview, published June 19, Haftar dismissed Sarraj’s offer out of hand. “I do not believe that he [Sarraj] has anything to say,” Haftar declared. “His initiative is of no value.”

Haftar accepted that “the solution must be through the political track” but there would be no political discussions until after the LNA had taken Tripoli. “Military operations,” he said, “will not stop before we accomplish all our objectives.”

Those objectives, he explained, were an end to the presence of “terrorists, militias, politicised Islamists and criminal gangs” in the capital and, in particular, the groups’ alleged control over the Central Bank of Libya.

“The atmosphere for political work and discourse, with all its details, will be more conducive,” he said, adding: “The military operation will result in the removal of the factors that led to the failure of the political track and that led to all the economic, social, legal and security catastrophes.”

He said there would be a transitional period during which the militias would be disarmed and dismantled. Dismantled, too, would be “all bodies generated by the Skhirat Accord” — the Presidential Council, the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the State Council — and a new national unity government appointed. It would prepare for a permanent settlement that would include another new constitution, a referendum and elections.

Intriguingly, Haftar added that a new national unity government would happen even if the attempt to secure the capital took much longer. “If, for any temporary logistical and security reasons, it may also start working from any other city like Benghazi,” he said.

Nonetheless, Haftar said he had no doubts that the LNA would take Tripoli. “The [military] situation is excellent. I ask the Libyan people not to pay any attention to the rumours that claim that we may withdraw or even think of stopping at this stage,” he said.

Sarraj thinks the same.

“His [Haftar’s] army has been broken, likewise that of his triumphalist entry to Tripoli that he presented as a two-day walkover,” Sarraj declared as he announced his initiative, demanding an international inquiry into alleged war crimes by the LNA.

The claim of the LNA being “broken” is somewhat wide of the mark. Although the GNA forces have held off the LNA offensive, the southern suburban siege has not been broken. The GNA forces are clearly not up to it. Three days after Sarraj’s “proposal, his forces opened a major offensive to take Tripoli International Airport. Like the political initiative, it failed.

Moreover, while neither side appears to be winning, the GNA is on the defensive. The LNA from Haftar down is convinced it will be defeated.

The commander of the LNA’s western operations, Major-General Abdul Salaml-Hassi, again announced that the battle for Tripoli’s liberation had “entered its final stage.” Optimism among its supporters, as far as timing is concerned, is rampant. It is just a matter of time, they constantly declare.

They point out that militia leaders, notably Haithem Tajouri, have removed themselves from the fight, that extra LNA forces are being deployed and that new heavy equipment was arriving. Sources close to the LNA said the plan is to move north-east of Tripoli along the coast road and split Tripoli from Misrata.

The prognosis among observers on the ground is that, sooner or later, the LNA may achieve a breakthrough, although it would probably result only in a shift in the front line, as Haftar appears to suggest. Taking the whole city and pacifying it would be another matter.

Even if the LNA were to move into central Tripoli, pockets of resistance from well-armed militants would remain, with the likelihood of considerable violence and destruction ensuing. There is also the question of what Turkey, fully committed to ensuring the GNA is not defeated, would do.

The megaphone diplomacy via media interviews has sides ruling out any talks with the other until after the battle is over.

House of Representatives President Aguila Saleh has also taken part in the megaphone diplomacy. Interviewed in Cairo before Sarraj and Haftar made their statements, he ruled out any possibility of a meeting between them, blaming Sarraj for the situation and the death of hundreds of Libyans. The World Health Organisation, on June 17, said the fighting had killed 691 people and injured 4,012 others.

Dialogue is ruled out. UN mediation is ruled out. Only military action is presently accepted by the two sides — that and the megaphone provided by the media.

It means that the conflict will continue and the death toll will inevitably rise.