Sarraj's failed European tour could herald wider shift on Libya war

Following Trump's apparent decision to swing behind Haftar, others are said to be reassessing their backing for Sarraj and the GNA
Sunday 12/05/2019
French president Emmanuel Macron meets Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj, who heads the UN-backed government in Tripoli at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, May 8, 2019. (Reuters)
French president Emmanuel Macron meets Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj, who heads the UN-backed government in Tripoli at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, May 8, 2019. (Reuters)

TUNIS - The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, said it intended to suspend the activities of 40 foreign companies because their licences were "out of date."

Many of the companies are French, including Total, Thales, Alcatel, GGC and Ponticelli. Siemens, the German industrial manufacturing giant, is also on the list.

The announcement came May 9 after Sarraj had been to Berlin for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then to Paris to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron.

The European tour included stops in Rome and London as Sarraj tried to rally support for the Government of National Accord (GNA) in the face of the attack on Tripoli by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Amy (LNA).

The trip, however, was a failure and suspending the companies was widely seen as revenge by an angry GNA.

The most Sarraj obtained in Europe was confirmation that all four governments recognise him and the GNA as Libya’s legitimate government but his hopes that the Europeans would take practical action to stop Haftar -- at the very least demand he withdraw his forces to their positions prior to when the assault on Tripoli began -- were dashed.

In all four capitals, Sarraj was told there had to be a ceasefire and a return to the UN-led political dialogue with Haftar. In Paris, he was told the ceasefire had to be unconditional. Sarraj had insisted that he would accept a truce only if the LNA withdrew to its pre-April 3 positions.

Despite outward smiles and warmth on display, the talks with Macron appear to have been particularly negative.

Taking a hard line, Sarraj was reported by his media office as having told Macron that not only would there be no ceasefire unless Haftar withdrew, but that he would no longer talk to either Haftar or Aguila Saleh, the president of the Libyan House of Representatives. Sarraj said he no longer considered them acceptable because of the Tripoli attack.

Sarraj criticised France for its pro-Haftar stance, reportedly telling Macron that it had deeply angered Libyans, which led to anti-French demonstrations in Tripoli.

Following his talk with Macron, Sarraj during an interview with France 24 TV demanded that the French government adopt "a clear political position" on the Libya situation.

Trying to get the Europeans behind him made sense given that the conflict in Libya has been internationalised. With Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, the United States and, somewhat more surreptitiously, France backing Haftar, Sarraj is dealing with sliding international support.

Following US President Donald Trump's apparent decision to swing behind Haftar, others, including Italy and the United Kingdom, are said to be reassessing their backing for Sarraj and the GNA

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte appears to be showing signs of wanting to reach out to Haftar and UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that while Britain did not agree with what Haftar was doing, it did not rule him out from having a role in a future Libyan government.

There are also signs of a shift among Western diplomats accredited to Libya whose governments publicly support the GNA and Sarraj. “What’s wrong with a Haftar victory?” asked one senior European diplomat at a private meeting in Tunis. “He’s the only person able to unite Libya. Sarraj can’t.”

The only assured firm foreign support for Sarraj seems to come from Turkey and Qatar.

For both sides, foreign support has been practical as well as verbal. The LNA has accused Iran of shipping thousands of Syria-made missiles to Misrata. Said to be paid for by Qatar, the missiles were reportedly deployed south of Tripoli.

Conversely, a UN panel charged with investigating breaches of the arms embargo on Libya reportedly concluded that at least one recent LNA strike involved a Chinese Blue Arrow air-to-surface missile almost certainly fired from a Chinese Wing Loong drone. If the system was not supplied by China, another foreign power did.

Foreign involvement came on a personal basis as was seen with the news that the LNA had captured a foreign fighter pilot after shooting down his jet near Gharyan, south of Tripoli.

In a videoed interrogation, the pilot claims to be Portuguese, although he spoke English with a clear American accent. He is thought to be one of a group of foreign pilots based in Misrata, many of them, Ecuadorean, drawn to Libya by large amounts of money and the thrill of action.

Sarraj’s military spokesman claimed that the story was fake and that it had lost no aircraft but there were few believers, even in Tripoli, which remains solidly anti-Haftar.

Both sides constantly claim the other is using mercenaries. As well as Ecuadorean and possibly Portuguese pilots, the LNA accuses the GNA of using Chadian fighters. The GNA accuses the LNA of using Sudanese Darfuri rebels and Egyptian troops dressed in Libyan uniforms.

For the moment, there is a distinct possibility that the announcement about suspending the companies’ activities in Libya because their licences had expired may backfire on Sarraj by further straining relations, particularly between the GNA and France.

The GNA appears to understand that. It initially announced that the companies were suspended but backtracked, giving the companies three months to renew. That, however, was probably too late. The move did little to win support for the GNA.