‘Strategic incoherence’ of foreign powers complicate matters in Libya

Sunday 24/07/2016
Libyans gathering around remains of helicopter that crashed near Benghazi

TUNIS - Libyans in the country’s big­gest city of Benghazi were called to celebrate military advances against Islam­ist militias while people in western Libya protested against France for embedding special forces with rival forces.

Meanwhile, leaders of the UN-brokered government led by Fayez al-Sarraj had three days of talks in Tunisia to narrow divisions among rival political forces.

Some of the leaders deplored that, almost four months after Sar­raj’s government arrived in Tripoli to unify the country, it is still not able to have meetings in Libya be­cause of insecurity.

“Sarraj complained during the meeting he received no support from those Libyans who then voiced backing,” said one of the participants who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The three-day talks ended July 19th without a communiqué be­cause participants were divided about support for rival militias.

“One of the main hurdles be­fore the government is the military moves taking place outside the state legitimacy,” said Fathi al-Majbiri, one of the leaders attending the talks.

Libya’s divisions are being ampli­fied by what analysts called “strate­gic incoherence” of major powers who give rhetorical support to Sar­raj’s government while embedding special forces with rival militias.

“Yes, foreigners are in Benghazi and they are military experts, not soldiers taking part in the battle. There are 15 French ones, ten Brit­ish, seven or eight Americans,” said Saqir al-Juroshi, head of the air force of Libya’s rump national army commanded by Khalifa Haftar.

Haftar and his allies in the in­ternationally recognised House of Representatives have rejected Sar­raj’s government as an umbrella of Islamist militias they brand as ter­rorists.

“Foreign actors need to be aware of the capacity they have to influ­ence processes of conflict and con­flict resolution and of the neces­sity of assessing and managing this influence with care,” said Virginie Collombier, a Libyan analyst.

“The support and recognition they give to local actors — either di­rectly or indirectly — when it takes place in a context of conflict, will often trigger competition at the lo­cal level, affect the balance of forces and, eventually, risk resulting in in­creased fragmentation.”

Western powers appeared to have delegated policy to help Sarraj’s government to the United Nations and its representative Martin Kob­ler with little progress. However, Kobler’s limited effectiveness was shown by his comments that he tried to contact Haftar three times but was ignored.

That came after French President François Hollande deplored the death of three French soldiers from a military intelligence unit in what he called an accidental helicopter crash.

The French have been working with forces loyal to Haftar who have been battling Islamist militants, in­cluding Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), which claimed it had shot down the helicopter.

That embarrassed Sarraj’s gov­ernment as it further revealed its weakness and exacerbated Libya’s divisions. Benghazi’s municipal­ity, which supports Haftar, called on Libyans to take to the streets to celebrate advances against Islamist militias.

Omar al-Hassi, an Islamist fig­ure who was prime minister of the government backed by Islamist mi­litias, said: “France siding with Haf­tar strengthens the counter-revolu­tionary front led by Haftar.”

“Libyan revolutionaries will never forgive Hollande for saying France targeted terrorists,” Hassi added, using the term “revolution­aries”, which means, in the Libyan context, radical Islamists who seek to turn Libya into an Islamic funda­mentalist state.

The advance of Misrata militias aligned with Sarraj’s government failed to rekindle hopes among Libyans about the country’s future as shown by the falling Libyan cur­rency. One US dollar was exchanged for 2.2 Libyan dinars a year ago; it now brings more than 5 dinars.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Islamic State (ISIS) fight­ers in Libya are facing the “distinct possibility” of defeat in their last stronghold in Sirte and are likely to scatter elsewhere in the North Afri­can country and the region.

Ban said in a report to the UN Se­curity Council the estimated num­ber of ISIS fighters in Libya is be­tween 2,000 and 7,000.

He said that after the recent offen­sive against ISIS by forces aligned with Sarraj’s government, “the current number of those in Sirte is now likely well less than 1,000. It is thought that large numbers of ISIS fighters fled the city, likely regroup­ing “in smaller and geographically dispersed cells throughout Libya and in neighbouring countries”.