Salame talks of 'progress' in Libya but few share his confidence

Neither the GNA nor the LNA leadership in Libya is willing to agree a ceasefire except on its own terms.
Saturday 08/02/2020
UN Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame holds a news briefing after a meeting of the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission in Geneva, Switzerland, February 6. (Reuters)
UN Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame holds a news briefing after a meeting of the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission in Geneva, Switzerland, February 6. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Since the Berlin Conference on Libya, which was attended by several world leaders, efforts to resolve the Libya crisis shifted from the international scene to the inter-Libyan level.

Libyan military commanders met during the first week of February in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations to turn the shaky truce in Tripoli into a permanent ceasefire.

Five participants were appointed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the besieged internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), and five were named by his rival, Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

There was also a financial track, with Libyan economic officials and business leaders looking at a radical reform of the economy.

A political track is supposed to happen February 26, again in Geneva, which is to involve some 40 Libyan figures, including 13 members of the House of Representatives (HoR) and 13 from the High Council of State.

In his report to UN Security Council January 30, UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame said he was angered and frustrated at the refusal of some countries to keep promises made at the Berlin Conference to abide by Libya arms embargo. A week later, he sounded remarkably optimistic.

In his assessment February 6, he said progress had been made in the ceasefire discussions. Because of “a clear national spirit inspiring both delegations” there were only “a few points of divergence” that needed to be bridged,” he said.

The political track was “a bit lagging,” he admitted, because the HoR was having “some difficulty” selecting its representatives. Nonetheless, he said confidently, the three tracks were “sort of in action.”

It is almost impossible to find any Libyan or independent observer who shares this confidence because the 5+5 discussions were not about agreeing a ceasefire but about how and who would monitor a ceasefire, what happens to the heavy weaponry and the armed groups and how can the displaced return home.

Although both sides agreed on the need to convert the truce into a permanent ceasefire and that a joint military commission would be needed to monitor a ceasefire under the auspices of UN peacekeepers, neither signed up to a ceasefire. Because, as Salame admitted, whatever might be agreed by the commanders from both sides must be signed off by their leaders -- Haftar and Sarraj. In Sarraj’s case that also means the militias and other fighters on whom he depends.

Neither the GNA nor LNA leadership is willing to agree to a ceasefire except on its own terms. The GNA insists that the LNA withdraw to the positions it held prior its Tripoli offensive started on April 4. Haftar insists the militias holding sway in Tripoli be disbanded and the militants there be removed.

The international community wants the militias disbanded and force to be solely in the hands of the military and the police.

There appears to be an unbridgeable chasm between the two sides. For the LNA, the GNA’s withdrawal demand is unacceptable. For the GNA, the LNA’s demand is equally impossible to fulfil, even though Sarraj is known to want to replace the militias with regular army and police. He and Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha had hoped, but failed, to curb the power of the militias in September 2018 and are trying again to move in the direction.

The GNA and US military and security consultants, the Jones Group, signed a contract in October for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) services. There had been talks recently in Tripoli with the Americans on DDR.

Even if the militias agree to disarm and disband, which is far from assured, it would not happen overnight. In the meantime, there is the question of who would be responsible for security in and around Tripoli.

Despite the 5+5 suggestion of a Joint Military Commission, the GNA is unlikely to accept the presence of LNA forces. This raised the question of whether outside forces -- either African or European -- needed to be brought in to help monitor a ceasefire. But would they be acceptable to ordinary Libyans?

Observers said there is no chance of a ceasefire. The consensus is that, although the fragile truce in Tripoli has continued -- despite regular breaches -- fighting will eventually break out again.

With the HoR refusing to name representatives for the political track and setting conditions for participating (one of them, reportedly, is that none of them must have any connection with Qatar or Turkey), there is little prospect of it happening by February 26.

Without a ceasefire and political consensus on the way forward, there is no chance of economic reform being implemented. Meanwhile the oil blockade, carried out by eastern tribes, continues. Libya’s oil exports -- its financial lifeblood -- have dwindled to a little more than 5% of what they were at the end of 2019.