Sarraj government rattled by UN envoy’s criticism

The GNA was particularly rattled by Salame’s statement that extremists had been allowed to join the fight.
Saturday 03/08/2019
In a tight spot. A file picture shows UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame speaking during a news conference in Tripoli.  (Reuters)
In a tight spot. A file picture shows UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame speaking during a news conference in Tripoli. (Reuters)

TUNIS - UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame briefed the UN Security Council on the situation in Libya, as he does every couple of months. This time his presentation, with criticism meted out in equal amounts to both sides of the divide in the conflict, caused a serious political rumpus.

The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, took offence at Salame’s criticism, accusing him of bias and misrepresentation.

Sarraj formally protested to Salame about the July 29 briefing. Supporters of Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA), which regularly accused Salame of pro-GNA bias, were jubilant, claiming he had shifted his position.

Libyan figures who oppose Haftar, such as Grand Mufti Sheikh Sadiq al-Ghariani, demanded Salame be removed and the Tripoli militia was reported to have issued threats against the UN envoy.

There was, however, no swing to the LNA in Salame’s briefing although that he was strongly critical of the GNA — but also of the LNA — at all drove LNA supporters to imagine that he thinks of Haftar in better light and the GNA to fear that he has turned against it. That the briefing was one day after Salame met with Haftar added to the belief there had been a change in position.

The GNA was particularly rattled by Salame’s statement that extremists had been allowed to join the fight. It is highly sensitive to the allegation, which is constantly repeated by the LNA, and has tried to refute it; the decision to extradite the brother of the Manchester bomber to the United Kingdom was seen very much in that light.

Following the Security Council briefing, the GNA demanded that the United Nations provide details of any such individuals in its forces. That should not be difficult because details of a number of those fighting with the GNA but sanctioned by the United Nations have been published in Libyan media.

Salame’s appeal to the GNA to stop using the city’s only functioning airport, Mitiga, for military purposes also resulted in a point-blank denial by the Transport Ministry, despite photos of destroyed Turkish combat drones at the airport widely circulated on social media.

Since the denial, the LNA published additional photos of a Turkish-made drone destroyed at Mitiga, supposedly on July 29, when the airport was closed twice after coming under missile attack.

For ordinary people in Tripoli and other areas controlled by the GNA, Salame’s intervention is of little significance.

“They don’t give a [expletive] about him,” a senior Tripoli official said in very down-to-earth English, adding that most people felt the same way about Sarraj as well. Far more important, he insisted, are the daily power cuts, the cost of living and lack of money, particularly with Eid al-Adha days away.

By the beginning of August, state salaries for June and July still had not been paid and the cost of a small sheep to sacrifice was as much as $1,275 with little expectation that prices would go down.

There were long queues outside banks. Making matters worse, banks refused to provide credit against unpaid salaries and limited cash withdrawals to 1,000 dinars ($715).

Many families have had to accept that there will be no sacrificial sheep this year, which boosted favourable comparisons with the Qaddafi era. “Under [Muammar] Qaddafi, when it was Eid, we always got our salaries well in advance so we could spend what was needed,” one Tripoli resident said.

Now into its fifth month, there is — as Salame noted in his Security Council briefing — no sign of one side or the other winning the fight for Tripoli. The death toll at the end of July was put at nearly 1,100, including 106 civilians. The overall figure is widely considered an underestimate.

As Salame also noted, neither side shows signs of wanting a ceasefire. Once again reassured of full Turkish support at the end of July, Sarraj and the GNA believe their forces can repulse the LNA. Conversely, LNA sources enthusiastically predicted yet another offensive that would result in Tripoli being captured before Eid, which seemed unlikely.

While causing the LNA advance in Tripoli to stall, the GNA is equally unable to move it out. Its plans to take Tarhouna, the LNA’s main forward base in the Tripoli offensive, or force it into neutrality appear to have been put on hold.

As for the attack on Jufra and subsequent GNA claims that it would soon fall into its hands, that is just wishful thinking, the Tripoli official noted, adding: “The GNA does not have any local support there.”

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