Home and Away: the international community and progress in Libya

Libya agreementWhile the UK’s attention has been understandably focused on Syria in recent weeks, life – good and bad – continues elsewhere. And recent political and military developments regarding Libya have exemplified both the good and the bad at national and international level.

Against the background of a four-way civil war – which includes IS and an Al-Qaeda affiliate – which continues to rage, disrupting, ending and wrecking lives all over the state, a Libyan political initiative few saw coming was announced on Saturday (5th December).

Late in the evening, members of negotiating teams from the General National Congress (GNC) and House of Representatives (HoR) – Libya’s two ‘governments’ – declared that they had, in a hotel in Tunis, hammered out a political proposal to which both could agree.

As some of you may know, I was invited onto Al Jazeera to discuss this remarkable step, including its possibilities for success, and what might happen next.

As an aside, this was – after the first interview I did with the BBC World Service earlier this summer – another moment at which I was honoured to be asked. Al Jazeera is an excellent and reliable news service, and on a number of deployments and visits to Africa and the Middle East has been the first place I have turned for far-reaching news and analysis. In Sudan, for example, I watched little else (apart from several Bollywood films, though that’s another story).

But the point – and indeed the reason I or anyone else was invited to speak about it – is that this ‘deal’ (it can only be described with inverted commas at this point, as will become clear later in this piece) is genuinely not only a potential, but perhaps also an actual game-changing moment.

The proposal is more of a sketch, at present, than a clear step-by-step process, and came about when teams led by the GNC’s deputy president Mohammed Awad Abdul Sadiq and HoR member for Benghazi Ibrahim Amaish met, unprompted, to discuss their respective positions and the future for Libya.

What they are proposing is that a ten-person committee, made up of five HoR members and five from the GNC, should be set up to:

  • Choose a new Libyan Prime Minister and two deputies (one deputy would be from the HoR, the other from the GNC).
  • Amend and update Libya’s 1963 constitution (Libya’s last pre-Ghaddafi constitution, which effectively ended the state’s federal structure, bringing Fezzan, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania together in name as South, East and West Libya: all had been Libya before, but the state now became a more centralised entity), which would remain until a new national constitution is developed by a working group also set up by the ten-person committee.
  • Choose a government, which would pave the way for full democratic elections which would take place no later than December 2017.

The first thing we should note is that this is an extraordinarily positive first step.

It marks a moment at which the two opposing political factions in Libya have met, without pressure or impetus from the United Nations or any other external player, and hammered out a proposal on both appear to agree – and which requires both to act in balanced partnership with one another.

Twelve months ago, this would have been impossible. Six months ago, nobody would have predicted it happening any time soon.

For that reason, whether the ‘agreement’ itself is ever enacted, Saturday 5th December 2015 is a potentially extremely important moment in modern Libyan history.

It – or an agreement like it – is also vital to Libya and its people.

Libya is now well into the second year of its second Civil War; a war in which four illegal militias battle for control of the state while two equally illegitimate and completely powerless ‘governments’ – the GNC in Tripoli and HoR in Tobruk – are forced to watch without the capacity to affect the war’s prosecution or outcome.

In fact, the GNC and HoR each rely on one of the four for their entire survival and existence – the GNC on Libya Fajr (Libya Dawn), made up largely of militias from the city of Misrata, held to be the strongest collection of ‘khetibas’ in Libya, and the HoR on ‘Operation Dignity’, a militia headed by former Libyan army general Khalifa Haftar, who today operates as an East Libyan warlord.

Though IS – and to an only slightly lesser extent the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Sharia militia – are understandably somewhat higher on the immediate list of concerns for Libya, it is inescapably unacceptable that the two so-called ‘governments’ in Libya rely on illegal armed groups for their survival, both from a political perspective and because the result is a war in which thousands have died, and many more had their lives ruined by the fighting.

The ‘agreement’ would not, of course, solve all of these problems – in fact, it may not necessarily solve any of them on its own.

But as I have noted previously on this site, political agreement between the GNC and HoR is, at present, the only realistic accord which can be made. And if it unites the political factions in Libya, it could be a first step to bringing Haftar and Fajr to a point where they must either begin to negotiate, or drop their pretence of ‘supporting’ either ‘government’.

Of course, what each of these points indicate is that the proposal faces some major challenges.

For Sunday’s interview, I had prepared a brief note on each of the three major obstacles, which were:

First, the proposal had been agreed by representatives of the GNC and HoR, but not by the bodies themselves. Both teams must convince their ‘houses’ of its merits, and convince them to vote in support if it is to have any chance of being adopted and attempted.

And there is no guarantee of this whatsoever. As noted elsewhere on this site, teams from the GNC and HoR agreed to the terms of a proposed ‘Government of National Accord’ (GNA) proposed by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and announced by its Special Representative Bernardino Leon on 8th October this year, but neither ‘government’ has agreed to a single line of that proposal. The HoR publicly refused even to vote on it.

Equally, there is some evidence to suggest that neither group’s President – Nouri Abu Sahmain of GNC or his HoR counterpart Aguila Saleh Issa – even knew the Tunis meeting was taking place. In fact, Issa had been discussing the GNA with current UNSMIL Special Representative Martin Kobler just hours before the negotiators made their announcement.

Second, this proposal was drafted without any input from the United Nations itself. Though this is in fact extremely positive – showing the willingness and capacity of the opposing political factions in Libya to meet and negotiate without outside impetus or pressure, I had predicted that Martin Kobler and his team would wish to see the ‘deal’ and be seen to approve it before it could move forward.

I had expected that this would be the smallest of the obstacles to progress, as the existence of the proposal signalled a clear step towards the exact political unity the UN had been working towards for many months, and its contents – as far as they went – appeared to work to exactly the same aims as the UN’s ill-fated GNA initiative.

The third challenge, on the other hand, seemed the hardest to overcome.

As noted on this site many times before, neither the GNC nor the HoR actually has any real control – military or otherwise – over Libya. That control is held instead by the illegal Fajr and Dignity militias, which not only hold the weapons but also, due to the brute force of each one, also control the ‘governments’ of Libya (the GNC relies entirely upon Fajr for its survival; the HoR on Dignity).

Of the two, Fajr has in recent months shown some willingness to enter negotiations (some – though by no means all – of its members appeared to be open to the idea of the GNA), though as yet this has not seen it stop fighting.

Haftar, on the other hand, has simply dismissed every attempt to open channels for discussion, and has refused to countenance any proposal which might lead to GNC and HoR collaboration. One reason the HoR cited for refusing to even vote on the GNA proposal was that it might prevent Haftar leading the new Libyan army – an insult to Haftar almost as serious as his leadership of that force would be to the GNC and its supporters.

Once again, this situation is unacceptable, but it is where modern Libya exists. Without the support of Haftar and Fajr, neither ‘government’ is even capable of working with the other, making any ‘political’ agreement basically impossible without the unity of two heavily-armed, illegal militias who have been attempting to slaughter one another for the last 19 months.

On the other hand, while the HoR and GNC are weak and illegitimate, they are not only the only people in Libya currently even considering diplomacy and negotiation, they are also the only groups with any real likelihood of regular contact with – and the possibility to influence – Fajr and Haftar. This is an undeniably optimistic perspective, but as noted in previous blogs, agreement between the HoR and GNC is literally the only game in town at present. Without that, there is nothing in the offing but more war, more death, and greater chaos.

In the event, I was wrong.

Not about the vast difficulties faced by the GNC and HoR in attempting to do anything not directly approved by the illegal militias who hold power in Libya, and not about the significant challenge of attempting to pull either group together to back the proposals (in part because of the greater influence of Fajr and Haftar on some members than on others), but about the international community and the United Nations.

Because, seemingly not wishing to be beaten to the punch by either Libya’s illegitimate, powerless governments, or its illegal, heavily-armed militias, the Ambassadors and Special Envoys of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Head of the EU Delegation to Libya inexplicably dismissed the proposal.

Its statement, issued on Tuesday 8th December, read: ‘(The Ambassadors) reaffirmed their strong support for the UN-facilitated Libyan Political Agreement, negotiated in Skhirat, as the only way forward to resolve Libya’s political, security and institutional crises.

‘(The Ambassadors) noted that a recent ‘declaration of principles’ has been announced by a very small number of HoR and GNC MPs while a sustainable solution to the crisis can be only as inclusive as possible. No last minute attempt to derail the UN driven process will succeed.

‘They stressed the urgent need for a united government to resolve the situation, and highlighted the comprehensive support the international community is ready to provide to a Government of National Accord.

‘(The Ambassadors) urged those who remain opposed to the agreement to act urgently and responsibly in the interests of the Libyan people, and to join the majority who want peace in unity under a stable and inclusive Government of National Accord.’

There are of course a number of problems with the statement. First, although my own view is that the proposals for a Government of National Accord were in the main positive and reasonable, it is by no means clear that ‘a majority of people’ actually do support the plan.

A large number of objections have been made to it by civilians, politicians and combatants from all over Libya, some unreasonable, but others less so (the role of Haftar in the new regime being one major and understandable sticking point, as discussed in a previous piece on this site).

Though the international community – and I – may wish the GNA to happen, that does not mean we can just pretend it is overwhelmingly supported (of course, most people certainly do want ‘peace and unity’ but that is not necessarily the same thing).

The second major problem is of course that this statement treats in an entirely negative way the first genuinely Libyan attempt to broker a peace deal between Libya’s opposing political groups. As such, it is a startling missed opportunity.

Even if the proposal had been at odds with the ideas and aims of the GNA suggestion, there was an opportunity for the international community to warmly welcome the GNC and HoR attempting to co-operate after 19 months of all-out war and slaughter – perhaps adding that this could be a new opportunity to re-open talks on the GNA initiative.

And Saturday’s proposal was not particularly far from the UN’s GNA project, making this clumsy, undignified and tactless comment all the more difficult to understand.

Where the ambassadors and special envoys had the chance to be warm and open, they have instead chosen to be dismissive and aloof. Where they had the chance to support – or at least acknowledge – Libyan efforts to solve Libya’s crisis, they have instead issued a demand: ‘allow us to impose a similar agreement from outside, or you oppose peace’. It is an astonishing and unjustifiable line to have taken.

Nor could the UN itself resist taking a swipe at Libya’s first ever self-generated attempt at peace talks. On Monday, special representative Martin Kobler commented: ‘I encourage those who still oppose to join the majority; the remaining questions can be addressed after forming the new government.

‘I have met today the two delegations of HOR and GNC, who signed a declaration in Tunis yesterday. I urged them to join the process; Libyan people cannot tolerate any more delay.’

In Kobler’s case, there is at least an acknowledgement that the GNA proposals themselves contain gaps (‘questions’) – and it is fair to note that Sunday’s ‘agreement’ contains its own potential for debate and opposition. But this is an opportunity missed by the international community to support and assist Libya, rather than to impose upon it a ‘settlement’ which even its supporters accept contains deep and rather serious flaws.

It is hard to shake the feeling that the international community opposes the latest suggestion not because what is within it is bad, but because it was not proposed by the international community. That may be unfair, but we must demand that leading international politicians, diplomats and negotiators take care to avoid similarities with dummy-throwing toddlers.

Meanwhile, UN-brokered talks re-opened on Thursday in Tunis between GNC and HoR teams. It is to be hoped they end positively, though of course they face the same problems (the teams must convince their own houses – and crucially the armed groups who actually hold the power in Libya to agree, or the talks will result in nothing) as Saturday’s agreement.

And on Sunday (13 December), a meeting focussed on Libya began in Rome. It is being attended by foreign ministers from China, France, Russia, the UK and US, as well as those from Turkey, Egypt and the UAE amongst others.

No-one from Libya itself was invited to attend.

Once again, we must hope it ends positively. But it’s hard not to conclude that this meeting is an unusually succinct summation of the international community’s attitude to diplomacy and power in the modern world.

Also in Libya, claims (the US government has officially confirmed the strike and its result, but mistakes have been made before) have arisen that the senior leader of IS in the state, Abu Nabil, was killed in an airstrike by the US air force on Derna on 13th November.

The Pentagon confirmed it hoped the death of Nabil – an Iraqi named Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi – would ‘degrade’ IS in Libya’s ability to recruit members and establish bases in Libya.

By the middle of this week, (the first reports surfaced on Wednesday 9th December) Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the overall leader of IS, was reported to be at Sirte, Libya, where he fled due to ‘fears the US and Iraqi intelligence services were closing the net around him’. Libya Fajr representatives claim he is already planning attacks on Misrata, and on Tunisia.

If these stories are true – and there is no absolute proof that either is – they actually underline an uncomfortable but important truth: IS is an international armed organisation, and needs to be treated in a way few people seem to be committed to, or even particularly aware of.

I was fortunate to attend, late last month, a presentation at the UK Houses of Parliament on the strategic risk of drone strikes, at which exactly this kind of ‘precision targeting’ of ‘high-ranking’ IS members was discussed.

One participant, General Stanley McChrystal; the former Commander of ISAF and US Forces Afghanistan and Joint Special Operations Command, commented: ‘…experience does show us that taking out the top people will not cause an organisation to cease to function.

‘I worked on the ‘2+7’ programme (the idea was that killing Bin Laden and eight other high-ranking Al-Qaeda members would cause Al Qaeda to crumble) but that’s not what happens. We didn’t see it with Al Qaeda or with IS. I doubt it will ever be the case.’

The point is not that we should not target the leaders of IS, but that even when successful, the policy is extremely unlikely to significantly damage the group. Even when leaders are killed, they can be replaced, because the group, rather than a few charismatic leaders, is where the attraction, power and tactical impetus lie.

As noted in previous blogs, IS’ power – such as it is – is concentrated in four states: Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Libya. It is no coincidence that all four are in the midst of ongoing civil war, with governments and infrastructure which have either failed or are failing. IS requires these conditions to survive, and only when they are removed can the group be eradicated.

Not only is there no military solution to IS without peace where it is based, any such arms-based strategy is doomed to fail unless peace is delivered first.

This is a lesson the world may not have much longer to learn.

In the UK’s understandable preoccupation with Syria in recent weeks, another IS-related attack was largely overlooked. This is a pity not only because those killed and injured – like all people who lose their lives or are hurt in attacks – deserve to be recognised and remembered, but also because it is another potentially important indicator of IS’ ability and limitations.

On 24 November, in Tunis, a suicide bomber – Abu Abdullah al-Tunisi – killed 13 people and injured 20 more on a bus which transports the Tunisian Presidential guard.

As if the symbolism of the attack were not clear enough, IS released a statement the following day in which it claimed responsibility for the attack (naming al-Tunisi in the process) but also stated: ‘tyrants of Tunis will not have peace and we will not rest until the law of God governs in Tunis.’

It hardly needs to be said that IS suffers from an irony-deficit, and claiming a democratically-elected government are ‘tyrants’ who must be removed to make way for the ‘law of God’ while campaigning for a one-man dictatorship and murdering people despite that being against the direct orders of ‘God’ would be hilariously ridiculous if not for the despicable horror of IS itself.

But the attack is the third on Tunisian soil this year – and all were carried out by Tunisians themselves. This is undeniably an indication of IS’ major strength; the ability to play on people’s frustrations and anger at their own situation within societies from which they feel alienated, to arm them and encourage them to murder in its name.

Even this, however, signposts its ‘Achilles’ heel’: in order to present itself as a ‘combatant’; an active fighter against unreasonable regimes and/or a beacon of order in a sea of chaos, IS must exist where that chaos is, where warfare enables and highlights unacceptable and often despicable behaviour, and where IS can itself attempt to justify its outrages in a context of meaningless, avoidable, unjustifiable death.

It is here; in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya – where those outrages are taking place – that we can strike at IS. Not by bombing it and so contributing to the exact conditions it needs to thrive, but by removing the pillars on which it has pulled itself up: mayhem, chaos, war, slaughter.

In well-run states, not only will IS’ supply lines be closed, and not only can an organised military and police effort target the resultantly weakened group, so will IS’ clarion call – that it offers a decisive solution to chaos and disorder – be stifled, by the clear evidence that in fact, it is a cause of those things: that it offers nothing but oppression and death.

And the latest attack is also a symbol of IS’ obvious weakness: as noted, there have now been three attacks by IS on Tunisian soil in the last 12 months. The last was the most symbolic – a direct strike at those who protect the President, and by implication, therefore, protect the system.

But Tunisian democracy has not fallen – nor are there calls for it to be swept away, either to make way for IS, or a ‘strong leader’ (for which, read ‘tyrant/dictator’) who can resist it.

There are concerns that some of the measures introduced by the Tunisian government to attempt to counter the ‘threat’ (a 30-day state of emergency is in place, which includes a 9pm curfew) are themselves making inroads into Tunisians’ civil liberties: they are not unfounded.

But if the attacks show IS’ ability to act across borders, they also show its inability to actually alter or change anything. In Tunisia, as in France, in Lebanon, in Turkey and everywhere else where war and chaos do not already reign, IS is weak: it can do nothing but beat its fists against a wall until they bleed.

While none of us should ignore it, or its horrific, unjustifiable acts of torture, oppression and slaughter, we should also never forget that IS is nothing more than a weak, angry man, railing against the wind. It is, in short, pathetic.

A note, to finish, on a far more positive event.

On 25 November, a small UK-based organisation working on the ‘Western end’ of the international refugee crisis celebrated its 25th anniversary.

I am not here to write promotional puff-pieces for humanitarian organisations – if I were, I would have done so several times already, and for groups I have worked with or for – and Asylum Aid is not entirely alone in its focus on promoting and ensuring the rights and lives of people who enter the UK as refugees.

But in the midst of a crisis which is in the main still being either poorly dealt-with or not dealt with at all (and we shall revisit the international refugee crisis in some detail over coming weeks), it was refreshing and encouraging to spend an evening with people who are actively working to improve the lives of people seeking refuge from war, terror, oppression and death.

In case you are interested in its work, a reasonable place to start is its new campaign website: www.would-you-rather-quiz.com.


Rory O’Keeffe is an International Journalist and the Author of “The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis” available from Amazon and the  Publishers Website



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One Response to Home and Away: the international community and progress in Libya

  1. Basudeb Biswas says:

    Why worry about Libya? The Democracies’ wanted the Libyans in this state of things. Libyans cannot be in a worse condition without daydreaming.

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