A mad flurry of peace talks are underway to try and secure a deal to end Libya’s civil war before it reaches its anniversary next month: They will fail.
Nothing United Nations envoy Bernadino Leon said at talks this week in Algeria, or will say during a second round in Morocco tomorrow and Monday or in the third round in Berlin on Wednesday is going to change the situation on the ground.
Libya has been at war with itself ever since the Islamist-led Libya Dawn, a militia coalition, lost elections in June last year and rebelled against the elected government. The militias captured Tripoli and the elected, internationally recognised government was obliged to flee to Tobruk, with the civil war duly following.
The present series of talks hurriedly organised is supposed to help Leon get the peace deal he says he wants by June 17, in time for Ramadan; the haste is because the international community, at last, is waking up to the overspill from that war, in the shape of migrants pouring across the sea to Europe, and the rapid gains made by Daesh (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), which has added one of Libya’s largest air base at Sirte to the two ports it already holds.
Leon has done himself no favours in recent months by constantly crying wolf: Talks have been opened not only in Libya but in Algeria, Morocco, Belgium and Switzerland, with Leon opening each session by declaring this is the “last chance”, only to see the talks collapse and the process begin again.
The truth, which Leon will not grasp, is that there is no happy compromise out there that could be reached with just one more round of late night discussions in one more new venue.
That is because the two sides are irreconcilable: Last summer Libya held elections supervised by the UN, and approved by the UN, and fulfilling the promise Libya’s former rebels made in the 2011 uprising four years ago to replace dictatorship with democracy.
Those elections were free and fair, but they dealt a devastating blow to the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, some of whom, such as Ansar Al Sharia, are already blacklisted as terror groups by the United States and the UN. Predictably, instead of accepting the election results, the Brotherhood & Co rebelled, formed Libya Dawn, took Tripoli and triggered a civil war. That was a year ago.
Elements in Libya Dawn are not interested in democracy; only in holding Tripoli by force. The elected House of Representatives, in its turn, representing the majority of Libyans, is not interested in giving Dawn more power through the gun than it could get through the ballot box.
A huge error of judgement by British and American diplomats, the most active in supporting Leon, has been to continue pushing for the government’s fiery army commander, 74-year-old Khalifa Haftar, to be replaced, with Libya Dawn’s National Salvation Government in Tripoli insisting they will never make peace while he stays at the helm.
But the diplomats ignore one glaring reality; Haftar is powerful precisely because he is popular, seen by many as Libya’s George Patton, a man willing to take the fight to the enemy. He is just one man, yet the symbolic loyalty he has inspired has enabled him to transform the government’s rag-tag militias and scratch army units into a powerful fighting force. At 74, Haftar is no threat as a potential ‘dictator’; he is no Muammar Gaddafi. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s words, if given the tools, Haftar says he will do the job.
Haftar’s forces are steadily grinding down the enemy.
Meanwhile Misrata, Libya’s third most important city, is contemplating switching sides to support the parliament in Tobruk.
Yet all this is slow progress. Meanwhile, Daesh has taken full advantage, turning its guns against elements of Libya Dawn, and challenging the Muslim Brotherhood for the Islamist crown, which culminated in last week’s capture of Sirte air base, now providing Daesh with an airfield on the shores of the Mediterranean.
What is important, particularly for France, is the fact that Daesh’s strategy is to open a corridor through to the southern border countries, through Fezzan is now self evident. Time is therefore of the essence.
Ironically, the go between for Daesh and the Dawn is none other than former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group leader Abdul Hakim Belhaj, a man invited to the Algeria talks by Leon.
And while Leon dithers, others are making plans. Egypt has met with other Arab states to form what is in effect a coalition that could intervene against Daesh in Libya, as the Saudi-led coalition is intervening now in Yemen. If not actually intervene with boots on the ground, it will dramatically increase it’s level of logistical covert support to the Libyan Army.
Meanwhile, it is predicted that European Union foreign ministers will this week in Berlin finally show their teeth. Note that the meeting in Berlin will follow the G7 summit hosted by Germany on Sunday and Monday. Some very senior unnamed western officials will be attending the Libyan talks.
It is predicted that the Berlin meeting will come with the threat of a blockade, likely to see Nato warships for example stopping all incoming ships, searching for arms.
As indicated earlier, there is light at the end of the tunnel: The non-extremist Islamist militias in Libya Dawn, principally from Misrata, are looking for a way out. The worst the war gets, the more they are tempted to rejoin the tribal fabric. Given the right incentive, they can break from the Dawn coalition and find their place again within the tribal system that is the mainspring of Libyan society and politics.
Leon should be giving them that incentive, and dumping his dream of power-sharing between the elected government and the unelected militias, which will end only in disaster and endless war. Tobruk will never share power with unelected militias, and without a change of policy, expect a major escalation, logistically supported by an Egyptian-led Arab coalition, by the Libyan Army before the end of this month, and for Leon’s predictions to finally come true — that the last chance for peace will have gone.
Richard Galustian is a business and security analyst who has lived in Libya since 2011.