Sarraj and Salame are betting on Libya’s militias not its army

Most of the manoeuvring by Salame and Sarraj serves the agendas of the militias and the Islamist current and its backers.
Wednesday 21/11/2018
Eye to eye. UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame (L) and Libya’s UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj ahead of a new conference in Tripoli, last August. (AFP)
Eye to eye. UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame (L) and Libya’s UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj ahead of a new conference in Tripoli, last August. (AFP)

The Libyan crisis continues to resist all efforts to stabilise it.

UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame reported to the UN Security Council on November 8 and, as expected, the focus on the humanitarian dimension of the conflict was clear.

Salame also reported on the situation with militia activity in Libya and said the militias’ role had shrunk and their weapons silenced to the point of achieving a great deal of calm in Tripoli. He suggested using some militia leaders and elements of the armed factions as internal security forces.

On this point, Salame agrees with Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the Presidency Council of the Libyan Government of National Accord. They do not see the unification of the Libyan armed forces as a pressing priority.

In his presentation to the Security Council, Salame raised the issue of the armed forces, saying that “in the medium term, we have to contribute to the consolidation and restructuring of the army to make it a national professional army.” This means that, in the short term, the militias will play an influential role.

The task of unifying the army has faltered. Without accomplishing that, it will be difficult to reach a state of full calm and stability in Libya. The issue is being ignored because attention is focused on how to withdraw the legislative authority from the Libyan House of Representatives and on questioning its intentions. This is expressed by the push for a national forum for early next year, to be followed by elections in the spring.

The focus on the forum is meant to divert attention from elements of the current situation and to restructure the Presidency Council in a way that would place Sarraj in front stage in the Libyan scene.

The UN envoy’s endorsement of Sarraj’s views is part of a marketing campaign to make the latter seem as the saviour of Libya. There are deliberate efforts to ignore the view that he is one of the complicating factors in the current crisis.

This explains the lack of attention paid to the unification of the military institution and for the role of Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), who began pulling his many strings in the opposite direction.

Haftar was recently in Moscow. He wanted to show that he has multiple internal and external tools to exert pressure. By hinting at the possibility of greater Russian involvement in Libya, Haftar was issuing a restraining order to Sarraj enthusiasts.

If Salame were truly keen on having elections next spring, he must first develop a comprehensive vision of the solution in Libya. The election process is, in itself, not a goal. Elections may contribute to more problems. Having the national forum in the manner suggested by Salame and amid contradictory visions and positions will not lead to fair elections.

Most of the manoeuvring by Salame and Sarraj serves the agendas of the militias and the Islamist current and its backers, Qatar and Turkey in particular. It shrinks the roles of the government institutions and of the military. Having elections in unfavourable conditions provides the perfect one for boosting the presence of Islamist parties and their armed factions.

These efforts coincide with the orientations of several Western countries that see a need to moderate the Islamic current in Libya. This is an issue that hinders reaching a real settlement of the crisis.

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist comrades are purposefully exaggerating the role of the Brotherhood in a peaceful solution in Libya and wish to give it a power share far exceeding its real proportion in Libyan society. Some estimates say the Muslim Brothers and their allies represent only 15% in Libya. They do, however, serve foreign interests that refuse to let go of them and wish to employ them.

Sarraj is pursuing the goal of having under his command a regular armed force that would match the capabilities of Haftar’s LNA in the east. He is relying on military forces in the west to deter thoughts of an invasion like or superior to the operation by the 7th Infantry Battalion last August.

Some observers say Sarraj wants to limit Egypt’s role in the Libyan crisis. This would explain why he started withdrawing the file of unifying the armed forces in Cairo and threatened to hand it to other parties. Ankara seems to make the perfect candidate for that. As his relations with Ankara grow, Sarraj will be able to infiltrate the regular Libyan armed forces with militias loyal to him.

In this context, all we have to do is note that Haitham Tajouri, commander of the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigade, is playing a key role in the security arrangements in the streets of the Libyan capital. Recently, he sent members of his brigade, known to be for hire, to Turkey for advanced military training. This is a sign that the Istanbul command centre for the Libyan crisis belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood will be increasing its field activities.