The perils of mounting escalation in Libya
Libya has been prominent in the international media over the past month. Many in the West were quick to call the early May meeting in Abu Dhabi between Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), a breakthrough in Libya’s conflict.
While pro-Haftar media reported that a deal had been reached, it soon became clear that Haftar’s positions were falsely presented as points of agreement between him and Sarraj.
It is worth raising the Abu Dhabi meeting considering the May 17 attack on Haftar’s LNA forces at the Brak al-Shati Airbase in southern Libya. The attack by GNA-allied militias, in which as many as 140 people died, illustrates the fragile nature of any so-called political deal between Libya’s rival parties. Developments on the ground, rather than meetings in foreign capitals, drive the trajectory of the conflict.
Yet, after the attack on the airbase, the international community continues to parrot support for a negotiated political settlement between Sarraj and Haftar and cite the meeting in Abu Dhabi as an indication of progress.
Only two weeks after the Abu Dhabi meeting, the Brak al-Shati attack was a major blow to the prospects for peaceful political reconciliation. Misrata’s Third Force militia, which is allied with the GNA, and with support from others, including the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), attacked the LNA-controlled base. Reports circulated of summary executions and of numerous civilian casualties at the hands of the GNA-linked militias.
Third Force commander Jamal al-Triki took responsibility for the attack and claimed it was based on GNA instructions, which the unity government denied. The Defence Ministry blamed Haftar’s forces, which in April bombed the Tamenhint airbase controlled by the Third Force, for the escalation in the south.
Sarraj suspended both Triki and Defence Minister Mahdi al- Barghathi pending an investigation to determine the party responsible for breaking a ceasefire in the south, although Triki denied that a ceasefire had been in place. In response to the attack, the LNA struck targets in Jufra, south of Misrata-controlled Sirte, resulting in further casualties. The LNA is likely to continue to target Jufra, as well as Sebha and Tamenhint, in retaliation.
It is notable that a shared acknowledgement by Sarraj and Haftar in Abu Dhabi regarding the need to reduce violence in the south is being presented as a ceasefire that was violated. This gives Haftar’s forces pretext to engage militarily against the GNA and its aligned militias, as well as other rival groups such as the BDB with possible links to the GNA.
More critically, the incident demonstrates Sarraj’s weakness. Following his meeting with Haftar in early May, some militias in Tripoli and Misrata distanced themselves from the so-called deal reached with the LNA commander. The Brak al-Shati attack further demonstrates that for some hard-line groups in western Libya, a deal with Haftar is unacceptable.
Sarraj is left with two unpalatable choices: Side with these groups to preserve their support for the GNA or attempt to de-escalate the situation by engaging with Haftar. The former risks further escalation and the abandonment of hope for a peaceful settlement, while the latter risks further empowering Haftar and condemning Sarraj’s own leadership and the GNA. His authority will continue to erode even as he tries to manage the fallout from the attack.
The European Union, the African Union, the League of Arab States and the United Nations met in Brussels on May 23 regarding Libya. A subsequent communiqué condemned the violence at Brak al-Shati. However, it largely focused on encouraging efforts to reach a political resolution, highlighting the Sarraj-Haftar meeting, and reiterated support for the UN process.
The same day, US Ambassador to Libya Peter Bodde visited Libya with AFRICOM head US Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser and expressed “the continued commitment of the United States to the GNA and to political reconciliation in Libya.” Bodde welcomed Libyan efforts to have elections in 2018, one of Haftar’s negotiating points from Abu Dhabi that was presented as part of the phantom agreement reached with Sarraj.
The international community’s continued emphasis on political reconciliation between Sarraj and Haftar, and more recently discussion of elections, is utterly meaningless considering continued major escalations in Libya. Haftar is clearly not interested in a deal with the GNA, especially if he believes he can militarily defeat his enemies.
Sarraj’s position grows more precarious. Expressions of international support for progress on constitutional drafting, meetings between the State Council and the House of Representatives and talks between Haftar and Sarraj — all of this rhetoric is meaningless if there is escalation on the ground.
UN special envoy Martin Kobler remarked during the quartet news conference that the Brak al-Shati attack showed the political vacuum that has been left in Libya. That vacuum is not new but Kobler’s effort to reiterate the “clear interrelation between the political track and military escalation” is important. Stale rhetoric in support of a failing process amid violence on the ground will do nothing to address the crisis in Libya.
No matter how positive the optics surrounding international meetings such as the ones between Haftar and Sarraj, escalation on the ground will further calcify grievances and divisions, making the prospects for settlement even dimmer.