More weapons loom large in Libya’s future
TUNIS - World powers have given their backing to arming the UN-brokered Libyan national unity government but some residents and analysts worry the weaponry could lead to more instability within the North African nation.
The Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Faiez al-Sarraj, has yet to roll back the power of rival militias vying for turf and eyeing foreign backing to increase their firepower.
Omran Burwais, a Benghazi-based lawyer and writer, said the move to allow Sarraj’s government to get weapons appeared out of step with the reality on the ground.
“Sarraj’s government has no troops of its own that could be armed. His government having weapons means more firepower for militias supporting him in western Libya and this will push rival militias to seek weapons and support from the outside. The result could be more bloodshed and another missed opportunity to end the conflict in the country,” he said.
The United States, the European Union and North African states neighbouring Libya have urged the country’s armed groups to unite under Sarraj after politicians from the country’s political divide signed an agreement in December. However, the accord has yet to be approved by the internationally recognised parliament.
Sarraj has hunkered down since arriving in Tripoli on March 30th after a smooth start, in which he was handed control of state institutions. He was backed by several militias but he has yet to assert authority outside the fences of the navy base on the edge of Tripoli from where his government operates.
The Islamic State (ISIS) baffled analysts by keeping quiet during the first weeks following Sarraj’s arrival in Tripoli. It has now stepped up attacks on Sarraj’s allies outside its stronghold in Sirte.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said ISIS has inflicted “severe hardship” on the people of Sirte by diverting food, medicine, fuel and cash from the city, which it wants to keep as its stronghold.
At least 49 people were killed, including by decapitation, for alleged crimes including blasphemy, sorcery and spying, HRW said.
Militias backed by Sarraj’s government said they recaptured a main checkpoint south of Misrata from ISIS, reversing some gains the militant group made earlier in May, Misrata hospital spokesman Aziz Issa said.
ISIS fighters overran the Abu Grain checkpoint, town and several nearby villages after coordinated suicide bombings on May 5th. Abu Grain is 140km west of Sirte on the main road leading south from Misrata. The military has yet to take full control of the area.
The Libyan government will be allowed to import weapons and related materiel with the approval of a UN Security Council committee overseeing the embargo imposed on Libya since 2011, following a meeting of Western backers and neighbours of Libya in Vienna.
General Khalifa Haftar has for the first time challenged Sarraj’s government legitimacy, telling local television Libya al Hadath: “The GNA government represents only some ink on paper. It does not interest me .”
His supporters have criticised Sarraj’s government as a foreign project aimed at dominating Libya but he had not made any comments himself on the Sarraj government until his statement on May 17th.
“It will not succeed and we have absolutely nothing to do with its decisions,” said Haftar, the commander of Libya’s rump national army who is backed mainly by Egypt. “Our task is to impose security and stability and free Libya from terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The new Haftar posture could create a dilemma for the United States and EU powers, such as France, either to take a position against some of their Arab allies or water down their enthusiasm for Sarraj.
Commenting on the decision to authorise weapon sales to Sarraj’s authority, Jason Pack, an expert with the Libya-Analysis consultancy, told Voice of America he feared the move “could fuel tensions rather than deter them”, arguing that “an injection of weapons to the GNA is likely to amplify factional rivalries”.
“The international community’s undeterred championing of the GNA seems increasingly out of step with Libyans’ sentiments,” Pack said, noting growing public support for General Khalifa Haftar after his forces made gains against ISIS and other militants in Benghazi, Derna and Ajdabiya.
“My concern is that it is rewarding the GNA but they haven’t done anything to deserve a reward yet. We should only give them arms once they actually attack ISIS, which they have not done,” he added.
European analysts are pointing to the priority of a stabilisation process that focuses first on economic and domestic security and reconciliation.
“The EU and its member states should focus on five areas: the economy; intra-Libyan reconciliation and devolution of power; a diplomatic offensive to make sure all Europe’s allies support the unity government; supporting a Libyan joint command in the fight against ISIS; and implementing a joint EU-Libyan plan on migration,” Mattia Toaldo, a European security analyst, said in a post by the European Council on Foreign Relations.