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Hope for peace negotiations in Libya

Talks between Tobruk and Misrata offer more hope than the UN-led negotiations

Hanging over any efforts to restore oil production, rescue the economy and see off a growing threat from Islamic State (IS) is Libya’s political impasse. Bernardino Leon, the diplomat heading the UN’s peace initiative, continues to exude hope, but his efforts, which included more negotiations in Morocco as Petroleum Economist was going to press, are running out of steam.

Leon wanted Libya’s two rival governments to approve his latest draft peace agreement – the fourth and, he said, “final” – by 17 June, the eve of Ramadan. He got halfway: the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC), rewarded in the new iteration with control of a proposed State Council, or upper house, endorsed it. The Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), shocked at the loss of power in draft four compared with draft three – which was rejected by the GNC – first raged against it and then countered with an amended version.

Aside from giving the GNC domination over the proposed 120-seat upper house, the latest draft also institutionalised the process itself. The so-called Libyan Political Dialogue (LPD), consisting of the negotiators, emerged as a tertiary political body with powers that would transcend even those of the new upper and lower houses. The LPD would also have the right to appoint a new prime minister, should an elected one leave office.

As an incentive for the negotiators themselves, Leon’s move was astute – but unacceptable to the HoR. There has also been unease among diplomats about his sops to the GNC. The move would “legitimise the wrong people”, one recently returned ambassador to Libya said. The rump GNC had lost an election and only remained in Tripoli thanks to the Fajr (Dawn), the GNC-allied militias that put it there when they took over the capital last August, he noted.

Although Leon is continuing negotiations in Skhirat, in Morocco, the better chance for peace in Libya has been coming from Misrata.

As in the civil war of 2011, Misrata will play a crucial role in ending the conflict damaging Libya now. Its militias have provided the backbone of the the Fajr/GNC alliance. But many of the city’s elders are increasingly irritated by the GNC and weary of the battles against Karama (Dignity), allied to the HoR.

“The city is tired of seeing its young men come home in black bags,” says one Libyan, a former adviser to the oil ministry. The war has been bad for business too.

IS, which has struck Misratan checkpoints guarding the city in recent months, is considered a more pressing threat to a city that was once a commercial powerhouse.

Talks between moderate Misratans and the HoR have been going on now for several months. Cleaving the city and its militias from Fajr would be a coup for Tobruk, leaving the GNC exposed and giving the HoR much more political clout across Libya.

Misratan leaders are understood to be seeking two outcomes in exchange: first, guarantees that Warshefana and Warfalla leaders in the HoR carry out no reprisals against the city (Misrata fought bitter battles against the Warfalla in Bani Walid at Sirte at the end of the 2011 war); and, second, that the HoR, if it holds power in future, provides money to rebuild the city’s commercial prowess.

The road to reconciliation

Such negotiations between tribal leaders themselves hold out promise of a broader reconciliation on the ground in Libya. Prisoner swaps between Warshefana (Karama-allied) and Zawiya (Fajr-allied) militias have already taken place in the west. Misrata is thought to have about 1,800 prisoners that could be released as part of a deal too.

Spoilers abound. Salah Badi, a Misratan Islamist and leader of Fajr, has reacted to the perceived defection of some brigades by setting up a smaller version of Fajr, which is determined to keep control of the land between Tripoli and the border with Tunisia, and defend the capital from Karama. Abdularahman Swehli, a Misratan GNC member, remains powerful and bellicose too, and an implacable opponent of any deal with the HoR.

The HoR has its own potential to implode. Abdullah al-Thinni, the Baida-based prime minister, is opposed by some HoR members and has at best a pragmatic relationship with General Khalifa Hafter, head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and leader of Karama. The HoR’s inititial rejection – and threat to withdraw from the talks – of Leon’s fourth draft originated from some hardline Tobruk men, whose opposition to any recognition of the GNC is as deep-rooted as Swehli’s and Badi’s refusal to deal with the HoR.

Hafter, a former Qadhafi-regime official, has for his part made little secret of his ambitions to lead Libya and crush “terrorists” – a label that for him includes not just IS or Al Qaeda in Derna and Benghazi, but the Islamists within Fajr who have enjoyed ambivalent relations with these groups. Hafter has also been fighting political battles to keep control of Karama and the LNA.

Leon’s peace process has frustrated some diplomats not just for its implied equivalence between the elected HoR and the militia-installed GNC but also because it has not usually involved the militia leaders themselves. Could the men around the table in Skhirat persuade fighters over whom they have little control to put down their weapons? Most analysts doubt it.

The UN’s visit to Misrata in mid-June to meet with some of the town’s militiamen may be a sign of a change of tack, recognising this reality on the ground. Bringing Misrata on board with a peace agreement, Leon knows, will be critical.

The danger in this possible new strategy is that alienating hardline GNC members – such as Swehli – or Fajr men – like Badi – will push them out of the political process altogether and closer to Libya’s terror groups. Badi seems determined not to surrender Tripoli, whatever the politicians say.

IS’ growing strength in the centre of Libya makes some kind of political deal all the more pressing. According to a recent paper from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, its force – many are volunteers from Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia – is now 5,000-strong. Its rise, Carnegie said, was less the outcome of brilliant strategy and more opportunistic, “occasioned by the fissures, distraction, and incapacity of rival factions”.

Its ambition, as in Syria, is to dominate Libya’s Jihadi movement, defeating other terror groups such as Ansar al-Sharia, an Al Qaeda linked group that has in turn been fighting against Hafter’s Karama movement. The weakening of Ansar has helped IS, which has also gained defections from its hardline rival. The 14 June US airstrike on a farm near Ajdabiya, which reportedly killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar and other Ansar leaders, may have weakened the group in its war with IS – an unintended, but potentially serious, consequence of the attack.

LNA forces and Misrata’s 166th Brigade have already coordinated tactically in battles against IS around Sirte. But the terrorists are embedded now, and only much greater coordination will dislodge them. IS’ expulsion from Derna in mid-June by the Shura Council of Mujahideen – an Al Qaeda-linked group that has already said Sharia law will govern Derna – will see IS redouble its efforts around Sirte. It has stated explicitly that its control of Libya’s centre will allow it to strike at energy installations in the oil crescent, which until 2011 accounted for about half of the country’s 1.6m barrels a day of production.

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