A possible breakthrough for Libya
The two major parties to Libya’s conflict have met for talks in Abu Dhabi in an apparent breakthrough. This was the first meeting 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, since early 2016 following the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement.
The talks come amid a growing international consensus that the agreement needs to be revised, even as Libya faces critical challenges, including fighting in the south, a worsening economic reality and resurfacing tensions over control of the country’s oil assets. The meeting could be a first step in reaching a sustainable negotiated agreement. However, such an outcome will require significant efforts to avoid any derailment of a possible peace deal.
Sarraj and Haftar, reports said, on May 2 discussed amendments to the political agreement and a path towards a new government. One of the most significant amendments will need to focus on the article that requires civilian control over the military. This is a major sticking point for Haftar, who is not keen to bow to the authority of the Presidential Council and the GNA.
Media outlets close to Haftar reported that he and Sarraj agreed to cancel the provision and “form a restructured unity government.” Haftar’s role in such a government and what the relationship between a civilian authority and the military would look like were not made clear.
The two men also reportedly discussed reducing the number of members in the Presidential Council from nine to three, which would contribute to overcoming the deadlock and inefficiencies from which the leading body of the UN-backed government has suffered. It was also reported that they agreed to have elections for a new government by March 2018.
Overall, reports were cautiously optimistic and the positive communication between the two sides was significant.
The fact that the talks were hosted in Abu Dhabi by Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan was also positive. The United Arab Emirates has lent its support to Haftar, backing the strongman’s offensive against Islamists in the east. UAE air support was critical in helping Haftar retake control of key oil installations in the Gulf of Sidra in March.
While the UAE is unlikely to approve of any agreement that is seen as damaging the interests of Haftar, the Gulf country’s hosting of the meeting between rival leaders could indicate a shift towards a role as a mediator.
Egypt had somewhat played that role. While it supports Haftar, Cairo recognises the need for a negotiated settlement and previously attempted to host the two sides for a face-to-face meeting. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi flew to Abu Dhabi following the Haftar- Sarraj meeting. It is critical that any settlement to Libya’s conflict have buy-in from key interested regional actors, including the UAE and Cairo.
Yet there are reasons to remain sceptical. While Haftar and Sarraj reportedly attempted to negotiate a joint statement, each issued separate statements. Both statements acknowledged the need to resolve political and economic disputes and address the challenge of extremism. They also called for an end to violence in the south, which threatens to escalate the current conflict further.
There were also crucial differences. Haftar’s statement called for the “military establishment… to fully play its role in the fight against terrorism,” while the statement by Sarraj’s GNA said the two sides agreed to establish a strategy to form a “unified Libyan Army.”
It is in Haftar’s interest that the national army’s offensive in the east is viewed as a fight against terrorism. The GNA is more concerned with bringing military forces under the control and oversight of a civilian government. The GNA statement also made no mention of elections in 2018 but rather called for an expanded national dialogue and a peaceful transition of power.
Any agreement between Haftar and Sarraj will need the support of local groups and militias on the ground, which is no easy feat. Factions in the west opposed to Haftar are unlikely to support a deal viewed as making significant concessions or giving the strongman too much power.
Haftar’s intentions are also unclear. Given his refusal until now to negotiate, Haftar seemed to believe he could, with enough international support from Russia or even the United States, take control of the country by force. His agreement in principle to participate in elections could indicate a shift in strategy, whereby he would instead try to win authority through a political process. However, just as Haftar lacks support to seize control of the entire country, it is doubtful that he would emerge victorious in elections.
The international community should be wary of any plan to have elections before Libya is ready for a vote. The decision to rush into the 2014 elections rather than pursue a national dialogue contributed to the polarisation that exists today. The infrastructure for elections in less than a year is also almost certainly lacking.
Libya is in desperate need of a settlement to the crisis. The Abu Dhabi meeting could be a step in the right direction if it is followed by continued efforts from regional stakeholders and the international community to broker an inclusive deal. However, developments on the ground could easily derail progress made on the international stage.