Libya: at what point is the night?

Commentary: UN-brokered talks aimed at ending the civil war get underway, but for a number of reasons, including the long shadows of the external sponsors of the two main warring factions, the road to peace will not be paved with roses

UN special envoy Stephanie Williams speaks as Tunisia's President Kais Saied listens to her during the opening ceremony in Tunis on November 9. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

On Monday, November 9, the talks that should decide Libya’s future began in Tunis.

After almost a decade of unrest, chaos and civil war, probably the United Nations - with the direct commitment of the new "special envoy", Stephanie Wilson, will succeed in reasoning with the various factions that have fought one another, with no holds barred, in recent years and in organizing the first national election from which the new Libya after Gaddafi should come out, as hoped for by the whole international community.

During the opening ceremony of the peace conference, before the Tunisian President Kais Saied, Mrs. Williams stated flat out that "the road to the agreement will not be paved with roses and it will not be easy to achieve a good outcome. The conference, however, is the best opportunity in the last 6 years to put an end to civil war".

Seventy-five delegates, chosen by the United Nations to represent an array of political viewpoints, regional interests and social groups, sit at the negotiating table as the main warring sides that have opposed one another since in 2014 General Khalifa Haftar - in an attempt to put an end to chaos and contain the aggressiveness of Islamist militias - founded the "Libya Liberation Army" and launched "Operation Dignity", which actually led to the splitting of Libya into three macro geographical areas that roughly correspond to the Velayat, the three regions into which the Ottoman rulers had divided the country: Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica.

In Tripolitania the following entities are present: the "Government of National Accord" (GNA) established in 2015 under the aegis of the United Nations, recognized (but not supported, as we will see later on) by the international community and led by Fayez al-Sarraj, that controls part of Tripolitania; the Tobruk government that occupies the whole Cyrenaica with Haftar’s troops; a conglomerate of tribal militias representing the independent municipalities of Fezzan.

The key players on the scene are, of course, Haftar and al-Sarraj. A few days ago, the latter - after announcing his resignation last September - announced his intention to hold office until an agreement is reached.

As said by Mrs. Williams, the road is not "paved with roses", for the additional reason that at the negotiating table there are the long shadows of the external sponsors of the two main warring factions. These sponsors have actually turned the Libyan civil war into a low-intensity international conflict which, however, is potentially very dangerous for the stability of North Africa and the whole Middle East.

General Haftar is openly supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, France and Russia, while al-Sarraj can count on the support of Erdogan's Turkey, Qatar and - in its small way - Italy.

Turkey and Qatar support Tripoli for ideological and religious reasons, as all the militias that have so far kept al-Sarraj’s fragile government alive are strongly Islamist, while Italy - with an uncritically "legitimist" position - has sided with the "Government of National Accord" (GNA) to emphasize its loyalty to the UN decisions.

As we will see later on, however, not only religious or nationalistic interests are at stake, but also the interests linked to Libya's wealth, thanks to its huge oil and gas fields, which are still partly untapped.

The external sponsors of the civil conflict have come out since last spring, when General Haftar's "Libyan Liberation Army" launched an offensive on the West, with the aim of conquering Tripoli and getting rid of al-Sarraj and his government once and for all. Faced with this prospect, the Turkish President Tayyp Recep Erdogan - who had already signed an agreement with the Tripoli government for the joint exploitation of oil and gas resources in Libya’s "exclusive economic zone" (practically the whole South-Eastern Mediterranean) - sent his own military and - with a very severe and dangerous move for the region’s future stability - he transferred to the Libyan territory 13,000-20,000 Syrian militiamen, veterans of the anti-Assad civil war, all fierce and experienced veterans and, above all, siding with the most intransigent front of Islamic extremism.

Thanks to Turkey’s decisive support at military level and Qatar’s at economic level, al-Sarraj managed to stop General Haftar at Tripoli’s gates and, since the end of last August, the front has stabilized west of Sirte and a fragile "ceasefire" has brought some calm to a country that is beginning to suffer also under the Covid-19 blows. On October 23, in the Geneva UN headquarters, the truce on the ground was formalized with a "ceasefire" agreement.

While al-Sarraj could rely on Turkey’s active support, throughout last spring's offensive General Haftar was supported by the Russian mercenaries of the "Wagner Group" - an organization of former members of the Russian special forces that was very active during the Syrian civil war - and on the fundamental support of the United Arab Emirates, which, together with Jordan, constantly supplied the "Libyan Liberation Army" with sophisticated and modern armaments.

From Abu Dhabi, fundamental help has been provided to Haftar’s troops by the parastatal company International Golden Group (IGG), an armament company that has close business relations with similar Western groups, first and foremost the French Thales.

The International Golden Group is in partnership with the "Royal Group", a holding company owned by Tahnoon Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the powerful National Security Advisor of the Arab Emirates. 

IGG is therefore at the forefront in supporting the policy of intervention in Libya decided by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. It is also at the forefront in arms procurement for General Haftar's faction, since it is able to purchase heavy and sophisticated armaments in Russia, such as T-72 tanks, SA-3 surface-to-air missiles, S-300 anti-aircraft batteries, all weapons that Abu Dhabi is firmly intent on delivering to General Haftar's troops. 

According to reliable local sources, considering their complexity, these weapons should be entrusted to the Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group, some of whom have already been seen driving Mi-24 helicopters during the spring offensive against Tripoli. These helicopters come directly from the Arab Emirates' arsenals.

An important source of armaments for the Emirates - and indirectly for General Haftar - is Serbia.

Thanks to the personal commitment of Mohamed Dahlan - former Head of the Palestinian intelligence service and protagonist of reckless joint operations with Israel against Hamas, who currently holds the position of advisor for the special operations of Crown Prince Mohamed Al Zayed -  the "Serbian connection" was able not only to ensure a constant supply of weapons to Haftar’s troops, but also to provide 80 French Leclerc tanks to Jordan, after the Jordanian State company Med Wave Sipping had been subject to heavy sanctions by the European Union for violating the arms embargo to Libya on September 21 last.

Jordan, however, is still very active in supporting the Tobruk troops, thus managing to provide to Haftar also a substantial supply of South African Mbombe 6X6 armoured vehicles, which are very useful for fast movements in the desert.

This is the situation at the beginning of the peace talks in Tunis.

The front has stabilized along the border between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania that the Egyptian President, Al Sisi, another supporter of Haftar, declared to be a "red line" that if it were to be crossed by al-Sarraj's troops, or by Turkish soldiers and Syrian militiamen, would force Egypt to deploy its troops on Haftar’ side.

The most important stakeholders of what in the past was a civil war - later degenerated into an international conflict - side with their protected, in Tripoli and Tobruk, and they will set the time schedule of a possible, but extremely difficult solution to a ten-year crisis, which is infecting the whole Mediterranean basin.

At the centre of this basin there is Italy which, almost unconsciously, under the formal UN umbrella, actually sides in Libya with Turkey and Qatar, two countries which have never made any secret of their sympathies for jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as protagonists of unscrupulous operations in Syria to support Isis.

With these troublesome and embarrassing travel companions, Italy is now facing not only the sensitive issue of protecting its interests in Libya, starting with ENI's commitment in that region, but also having to manage the delicate affair of the 18 fishermen from Mazara del Vallo, kidnapped by Haftar’s Navy for many weeks and thrown into a prison near Benghazi.

Considering that the Italian government - overwhelmed by the problems related to the spreading of the Covid-19 pandemic – seems unable to carry out - let alone to conceive - an operation for the liberation of the Sicilian fishermen using its excellent special forces, the only way to achieve their liberation is a negotiation with General Haftar, either directly or indirectly, possibly with the support of France, Russia or Jordan, not to mention Egypt, which has spent itself so much to support the Tobruk government’s demands.

The Italian media have leaked news that the fishermen of Mazara del Vallo could be exchanged for a Libyan smuggler and trafficker detained in Italy. 

The news appears unreliable, because it is known that all the boats transporting illegal migrants which sail daily from Libya to the Italian coast, leave from the beaches and small harbours of Tripolitania, all controlled - at least theoretically - by the forces of al-Sarraj we support because "recognized and backed" by the United Nations.

In all likelihood, General Haftar detains our fishermen to convince us to have milder political and geopolitical views, certainly not to obtain the release of a Tripolitan thug.

We have talked about the chessboard on which the pieces of the Libyan game are placed. 

If we want to positively influence the final outcome of the game and do our best to protect the national economy and the safety of our fellow citizens, unjustly kidnapped and detained in the prison of Benghazi, probably we should give up the role of mere pawns and try to gain more influence in a game in which the key players are Turkey, France, Russia, Egypt, Jordan and the Arab Emirates.

A game in which you cannot participate simply by reiterating slogans such as "we need to protect the international legality enshrined by the United Nations", but which would require the same good dose of realism and courage as France has proved to have.

 

Professor Valori is President of the International World Group

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