Rival Libyan leaders hold meeting in Abu Dhabi to discuss settlement
Tunis- The United Arab Emirates brought together the heads of Libya’s rival camps in a remarkable confirmation of the shift of power within the Arab region.
Under the auspices of the UAE, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Libya’s eastern military commander, and Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of its UN-backed government in Tripoli, met for the first time in Abu Dhabi after a 16-month diplomatic impasse.
No joint statement was issued after the meeting, allowing each party to issue separate statements that met the expectations of their rival camps. Each called for a resolution to Libya’s political and economic woes and for joining forces to fight extremist Islamist groups.
Haftar’s statement said the two sides had agreed to allow “the military establishment… to fully play its role in the fight against terrorism.”
However, a leaked transcript of the meeting indicated that the two men agreed to have presidential and legislative elections no later than March 2018. The transcript also suggested both parties recommitted to the Skhirat Agreement brokered by the United Nations in 2015.
The main hurdle for Sarraj is likely to be the difficulty of breaking his dependence on the Islamists in Tripoli to meet Haftar and his backers, especially Russia and Egypt, even halfway.
Mattia Toaldo, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Agence France-Presse that he doubts “anything negotiated by Sarraj would be accepted peacefully by factions in western Libya if it is seen as giving Haftar too much of a prominent position within the security sector or the political system.”
A meeting between Haftar and Sarraj seemed unlikely just a few weeks ago. Sarraj has been widely regarded within Libya as leading a loose alliance of factions, supported by Islamist militias.
Haftar has been seen as an Arab nationalist and anti- Islamist military strongman.
Haftar has proven himself the principal opponent to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The rise of opposition, both political and military, in eastern Libya has helped hinder the GNA’s efforts to assert control over Tripoli. However, rival armed factions in western Libya have backed the UN government and vowed to fight Haftar.
Libya’s powerful neighbours Algeria and Egypt, as well as Western powers, have for months been pushing the two men to meet and renew impetus to a 2015 UN-mediated agreement that led to the initial creation of the GNA with the aim of ending Libya`s conflict.
Haftar had spurned proposals to meet with Sarraj. Even Egypt, seen as one of Haftar’s main backers, was unable to convince the two men to meet.
A meeting in Cairo planned for February failed to materialise. However, a road map for rival parliamentary factions in the country’s east and west was eventually endorsed.
Tunisia also has played a role in reconciling the views of the two camps. However, its invitation for Haftar to visit Tunis has yet to be acted upon.
Many European powers shared the UAE’s optimism that the Abu Dhabi meeting was a step towards ending Libya’s chaos. A statement by the UAE Foreign Ministry stated that the meeting “brings optimism towards guaranteeing a political solution.”
The meeting in Abu Dhabi mirrored the growing influence wielded by the UAE with close ties to US, European and Russian powers.
It could also be viewed as a wider indication of the loss of steam by Islamists in North Africa and the conviction of the West that attempts to marginalise Haftar have not helped Libya find a peaceful settlement to the conflict.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arrived in Abu Dhabi one day after the Libyan meeting, although it was not clear whether the visit and the talks were connected.
A further indication of the changing tides was given by Libyan political scientist Omar al-Dallal, who said: “All indications point towards Donald Trump opposing the previous American-British project aimed at supporting Islamists in the region. As a result, the positions towards the Libyan crisis have changed.”
“The big powers reached the conclusion that the main problem in Libya is the proliferation of militias in a country awash with weapons. Since there is no possibility for a foreign intervention, the states of the world agreed that backing the army to fight militias is the solution,” he said.
Ramdane Yassine, an Algerian security expert on Libya, argued that the acceptance of Haftar as a political reality had become unavoidable even among his rivals.
“The circumstances on the ground show that Libya could not be indifferent to a military man like Haftar who enjoys a large consensus to restore order and stability,” he said.