Libya and Syria, and the definition of ‘agreement’

When is a political agreement not a political agreement? When it is neither political, nor an agreement.

As jokes go, it may not be the best you’ll hear in the next few days (though in the UK, at least, the standards of Christmas cracker gags vary wildly enough that it might), but despite many representations to the contrary, it’s a pretty accurate description of Libya’s last eight days.

On 17th December, the United Nations announced that a ‘Libyan Political Agreement’ had been signed by Libya’s two current illegitimate and powerless governments the General National Congress (GNC) and House of Representatives (HoR), paving the way for (amongst other things – and we shall certainly return to at least one of those ‘other things’) the formation of a ‘Government of National Accord’ (GNA); a political body made up of members of – and designed to supercede – the GNC and HoR.

This came as some surprise to observers including me, who had noted less than a fortnight before an agreement between the GNC and HoR on a non-UN-brokered proposal for a new Libyan government (this agreement was signed on 5th December), which the UN and international community almost immediately united in opposition against.

It turns out that the explanation for such an abrupt and remarkable volte face on the GNC and HoR’s behalf is simple: it absolutely has not taken place. In any way at all.

At this stage, we should make a brief note. As regular readers of this blog will know, I have generally supported the idea of a Government of National Accord, while noting some extremely serious problems facing any such body – and indeed any agreement to create one.

My view, up to the start of December this year, was that for all its weaknesses (likely lack of support from many politicians in both the GNC and HoR; likely lack of support from the Libya Falr – Dawn – militia which ‘backs’ and in fact controls the GNC; continued and persistent refusal by Khalifa Haftar, the leader of Operation Dignity which backs and therefore controls the HoR to even consider any agreement which prevents the absolute defeat of Fajr, the disbandment in disgrace of the GNC and his leadership of the still-to-be-formed Libyan national army), the GNA was the only game in town, and its creation should be pursued.

Following the provisional agreement of 5th December, and in light of that agreement’s swift rejection by the UN and international community, my position shifted – now that a political agreement initiated and provisionally-accepted by Libyan politicians existed, this should be the foundation for peace and progress in the North African state.

That is not to say that the UN-brokered agreement had suddenly become bad, and no longer deserved praise, just that it was no longer the sole option and is now arguably less relevant to Libya and its people’s desires than the 5th December proposals (this is largely summed up here).

So it is worth being clear. I do not oppose the United Nations’ proposals per se, though I support them a little less than I did on 4th December and before, and when the announcement was made on 17th December I was surprised and a little disappointed, but swiftly reasoned that the UN’s proposals were a close enough second to agreement designed by Libyans to be an excellent step forward.

The reasons for this are reasonably simple. Libya’s second civil war has been raging since May 2014, and is soon approaching its twenty-first month. In that time, thousands of people have been killed and thousands more displaced – lives ended or ruined.

Libya has two illegitimate governments – the GNC, which is a loose continuation of a government which lost legitimacy in December 2013 but voted to extend its own mandate until elections in June 2014; and the HoR, which Libya’s High Court has ruled was never legitimate, and whose own mandate, even on its own terms, expired on 20th October this year. It responded by voting to extend its own highly-suspect mandate.*

*the HoR is often-referred to as ‘internationally-recognised’. It is a clear attempt to bestow legitimacy upon it, but do not be misled. Neither HoR nor GNC is ‘legitimate’ in any meaningful sense.

Neither of them actually hold any power whatsoever in Libya, and rely for their very survival on Libya Fajr and Operation Dignity, both entirely illegal militias – heavily-armed gangs who each claim to be fighting for their respective government even though both were fighting before either ‘government’ existed.

Two other illegal militias are also fighting – the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Al-Sharia and IS in Libya, which now occupies Sirte, the birthplace of Muammar Ghaddafi and for a short period following Libya’s first civil war, my own hometown.

As also noted in previous posts, and on various media in the last few months, peace is not only what the people of Libya need and deserve, it is also the necessary first step to the decisive defeat of IS. So any agreement which can unite Libya’s politicians, and perhaps in turn can enable them to pressure Fajr and ‘Dignity’ to support peace, might be seen as a significant advance.

The problem is that, as noted above, despite the United Nations and international communities’ claims to the contrary, no such agreement has been made.

There are two major reasons I make this statement, as we shall see.

The first is that neither the GNC nor HoR has signed up to the UN agreement at all.

The story here perhaps begins two months ago, when the United Nations’ Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) – at that time led by Special Representative Bernardino Leon – announced that negotiating groups from the GNC and HoR had agreed to its political agreement, including a proposed Government of National Accord.

The announcement was made with some relief, as Leon was weeks from leaving his post (he eventually did so in disgrace, after e-mails were leaked in which he told the UAE’s foreign minister he planned to destabilise and delegitimise the GNC to the benefit of HoR and Haftar. In fairness, we should note that considering all this, the proposal he finally attempted to drive through was oddly even-handed) and it seemed more than a year of forced discussion between GNC and HoR would amount to nothing.

In the event, it did. Because although the teams representing each ‘government’ did approve the proposals in principle, and although each group had the authority to do so, that was all they had authority to do.

They returned to their respective houses, where the proposals were not only rejected, but never even voted upon.

The reason for this rejection was the same in both cases – though for different reasons: Khalifa Haftar.

The GNC refused to consider the agreement because it did not state that Khalifa Haftar – a man who started the second Libyan Civil War by opening fire on Libya’s Parliament and its members just weeks before a national election, and who had claimed (and still claims), in spite of the reality of the situation, that the GNC’s politicians and all who supported them are ‘terrorists’ (they may be wrong, and indeed they may be bad politicians, but there is no possible justification for labelling them ‘terrorists’) – would not be installed as the head of the new Libyan armed forces.

The HoR refused to consider it because it did not say Haftar would be appointed head of the putative new Libyan military (for his part, Haftar dismissed the agreement out of hand, as he has done every previous attempt at a settlement. Fajr met it with a lukewarm acknowledgement, which was at least progress from its own previous outright refusals).

Things remained locked in stalemate for several weeks – in which Leon left and was replaced as the UN Secretary-General’s special representative by German diplomat Martin Kobler – until 5th December when for the first time, representatives of the GNC and HoR met unbidden by the UN and set out their own proposals for a political solution to the Libyan crisis.

Their initiative, produced in a Tunis hotel and announced internationally, was only slightly better than the UN’s ‘roadmap’, and faced many of the same challenges (the need to convince each house, the likely refusal of Haftar and only slightly less likely refusal of Fajr). But in the event, it was the UN, and international community which offered the first, and most staunch, refusal, as detailed here.

Martin Kobler, by now leading a deeply concerned and perplexed United Nations mission, under considerable pressure from the US, EU and several individual European states including Italy, France and the UK, re-opened talks on the UN’s proposals.

But on Tuesday 15th December, a second landmark meeting between the GNC and HoR – like that in Tunisia, unbidden by and not connected to UN efforts – took place in Malta. The President of the GNC, Nouri Abu Sahmain, met his HoR counterpart Aguila Saleh Issa; the first time any of the leaders of the two governments had met since the HoR’s formation.

The two followed their historic meeting with a press conference, at which the joint message, though blunt and perhaps uncompromising, at least had the advantage of being entirely clear: the GNC and HoR had met out of their shared need for an end to the crisis; their shared belief in a new unified government; their shared desire to combat and defeat terrorism in Libya; and a shared commitment for HoR and GNC representatives to work together to create a political settlement between the two.

The final statement – symbolically given to Saleh Issa, the President of the ‘government’ which the international community claims to lend legitimacy to, to deliver – was almost raw in its pointedness: ‘There will be no official delegate,’ he began. ‘From either HoR or GNC, who will sign or agree to the United Nations’ proposal with any mandate from either. This process must be postponed until we have been able to work together.’

Despite this extraordinarily clear statement, the United Nations, two days later, announced in Skhirat, Morocco, that the two ‘governments’ had signed the UN agreement – first tabled in October and still not even voted on by either – which would enable the creation of a new government of national accord.

In fairness to the international media which reported this as a ‘done deal’ (and not all media did – the pro-HoR Libya Herald and pro-GNC Libya Observer, which have at times during the second Libyan Civil War seemed on the brink of declaring all-out armed conflict against one another, took the unprecedented step on 18th December of each publishing exactly the same article criticising the UN’s behaviour), the word of the UN is – like the word of the police for local and national newspapers and broadcasters – one of the few legally-trusted information sources.

But to set the matter straight, the agreement was signed by 40 of the 316 serving members of the GNC and HoR, none of which had – as noted – the mandate from their respective houses to do so. There is no sensible way this could under any circumstance be referred to as an ‘agreement’ by either HoR or GNC to the UN proposal.

This is not, in any way, to argue that either the GNC or HoR – or even both together – deserve to be raised above their rather lowly station. Both are entirely illegitimate, and entirely powerless. Neither deserves to be where it is, or perhaps to exist at all – certainly in their current form – and both are reliant for their survival upon entirely illegal, vicious, armed gangs, which hold the real power, such as any exists, in Libya.

For my part, I bow to no-one in the consistency of my criticism of both the GNC and HoR. Up to and including the last week, UNSMIL and the wider international community have been consistent only in their inconsistency.

First, by supporting the illegitimate HoR while speaking publicly about the illegitimacy of the GNC. Second, by offering tacit (and in some cases material) support to Haftar, the warlord of East Libya, while decrying the activities of Fajr, the illegal gang of the West (for completeness, we should note that two states, Turkey and Qatar, have refused to take part in this skewed approach to international relations. Unfortunately, they have offered their support to the illegitimate GNC, while claiming the HoR is illegitimate, and offering material support to the illegal Fajr war machine, while decrying the murders of Haftar. It is depressing that we are so often offered only a choice between two equally wrong, equally unjustifiable options…).

Second, by calling for real negotiation towards a peaceful settlement between the HoR and GNC and then dismissing out of hand the proposal which resulted from the first ever non-UN-led negotiations of this kind.

And third, on 17th December, by dropping all support for HoR, or of negotiation between it and GNC, to instead accept as legal, binding and legitimate the signatures of less than 13 per cent of the groups’ members, none of whom had any mandate or right to negotiate or codify agreement between the two.

What the UN – under considerable pressure from the international community – has done, is not to help Libya’s two illegitimate governments to agree a deal to unite and deliver stability, legitimate governance and resistance to IS’ and Al-Qaeda’s terror in a time of war, but to lay the foundations of a third, equally unpopular and in some ways even less legally-legitimate government than the two unpopular, powerless and illegitimate governments already in existence in Libya.

The ‘agreement’ is sowing yet more discord in a state which requires – and was perhaps edging towards – commonality of purpose, rationality of thought, and the fostering of peace. The UN is currently fuelling chaos, when what Libya needs most urgently is its opposite.

I noted above that there is a second reason why we cannot claim UNSMIL has delivered ‘agreement which can unite Libya’s politicians, and perhaps in turn can enable them to pressure Fajr and ‘Dignity’ to support peace’.

As in so many other cases, the root cause of the second part of this failure is Khalifa Haftar.

Haftar is a man who has so far shown no interest whatsoever in peace in Libya, and who is in fact the main catalyst for the state’s current chaos. He has so far rejected every single move towards peace in Libya, and who in fact started the second Libyan Civil War (three months after calling for a coup, live on national television), and is responsible for airstrikes on Libya’s capital Tripoli, as well as the arrest of several leading political figures across the state (including some from the HoR which he claims to support).

He calls everyone who disagrees with him a ‘terrorist’ despite himself heading an illegal armed group which is fighting for rather unclear political ambitions, at least one of which is certainly for him to emerge as head of the Libyan armed forces – and may in fact be for him to ‘rise’ to an even more important martial and civic role (he has on two occasions claimed he is ‘willing’ to lead a ‘transitional’ government for Libya).

For all Bernardino Leon’s faults, one consistent component of his attempts to deliver a negotiated agreement for a new Libyan political structure was that no proposal tabled during his time as Special Representative promised Haftar any such role.

On Wednesday 16th December, Martin Kobler met with Khalifa Haftar. By 2pm that day, Kobler announced that ‘a way forward has been found’ and that Haftar had been persuaded to agree to the UNSMIL proposal for Libya’s political future.

To be as open as possible to the brightest of conclusions, it must be stated that this could simply be because Kobler is an excellent, charismatic and persuasive diplomat, showing Haftar the error of his ways, and convincing him that what is best for Libya – and also for Haftar – is the UN’s (but for some reason not the HoR and GNC’s) political settlement and Government of National Accord.

Even if we were to be a little less wide- (and damp-) eyed, we might conclude that, faced with the overwhelming threat of IS (which Haftar has signally failed to engage in combat at any moment of the last 19 months. Both Fajr and Al-Qaeda have fought IS in Libya in that time), and the increasing clamour from EU and other Western states for IS to be destroyed in Libya, Haftar was simply ‘persuaded’ to back down a little and give the GNA a chance.

Either is possible. But neither is especially likely – certainly not compellingly so.

Martin Kobler is no doubt an excellent and expert diplomat and negotiator. He is an experienced politician and UN representative. But on the other hand, so was Leon. And there is nothing in Kobler’s background which particularly marks him out as of any higher standard than the (extremely) high standards of any other UN negotiator.

In DRC, for example, he signally failed to deliver agreement or meaningful progress in negotiations between the government and rebel militias. There is no shame in that – no-one has succeeded where he failed – but neither is there any indication that he is the ‘specialist’: the UN’s ‘go-to’ guy in times of hardship.

Nor is the pressure anything new for Haftar, who has known for 12 months that the UN represented international opinion on Libya, that its push for peace reflected the will of the international community, and who has steadfastly ignored IS in Libya.

And Haftar’s own desire for power (whether military, political, or both) has been one of the sole consistent factors in the last two years of Libyan public life.

So we must at least consider (and as yet, no details of Kobler and Haftar’s conversation has been revealed) the possibility that in order to force through the UNSMIL deal, Haftar has been offered what he has demanded from the start – the command of the new Libyan state’s armed forces.

It is, of course, clear that this offer would immediately undermine the UN’s plan for roughly half of Libya’s population – making the GNA effectively impossible to sustain (though at present, as noted, the GNA is in fact just a proposal to create a third powerless government in Libya).

So why would the UN be willing to risk such abject failure?

First, ironically, because the GNC and HoR’s increasing warmth towards one another and willingness to negotiate appears to be seen as a threat by UNSMIL, and certainly threatens its proposed new political structure – why would Libya need a UN agreement when it is delivering its own? What legitimacy is there in international imposition of a government on Libya if it can form one itself?

The only way UNSMIL might see to rescue its deal is by rushing through its signature by anyone it can persuade, and then claiming anyone who has not signed are themselves a barrier to ‘peace’ and ‘stable governance’ in Libya.

And the international community and Kobler himself are doing exactly that, arguing that only ‘extremists’ in the HoR and GNC (as opposed to 90 per cent of the combined membership of the two) oppose its deal, and ignoring the fact that those ‘extremists’ include both houses’ presidents, who have publicly stated an agreed commitment to political agreement and settlement.

And as previously noted, the ‘agreement’ of HoR and GNC can be dispensed with – neither holds any real power in Libya anyway – but only with the agreement of Fajr and Haftar.

Fajr has already stated it is ‘open to’ the idea of agreement on a political settlement between GNC and HoR (though this is not by any means the same as it actually agreeing to any such thing) while Haftar has dismissed any such agreement altogether. So a deal with Haftar was far more of a stumbling block than anything Fajr stood for or required.

Equally, while Fajr would dismiss out of hand any prominent role for Haftar in post-war Libya, as yet, no such announcement has been made. The longer UNSMIL pretends legitimacy for the deal, the harder it will be for Fajr to back away, and the easier it will be for UNSMIL to paint any such reversal as ‘anti-peace’ (as, in fairness, it would by that point be).

But none of this matters without the second reason – after all, why should UNSMIL or the United Nations care whether Libya’s new government is set up by it, or set up by the GNC and HoR under the exact conditions the UN had been attempting to promote for more than a year? Professional jealousy certainly exists, but few would seriously believe that one diplomat’s desire to take credit for a peace deal would lead him to prolong a war – or that the international community would play to such vanity for his sake.

Unfortunately, there is a far more dangerous reason: IS, and the international community’s fear of it, combined with its consistent and complete failure to recognise its nature, reach or capacity.

In May this year, IS claimed that it was sending ‘thousands’ of terrorists from Libya in the guise of refugees on boats crossing the Mediterranean.

As I have noted on a number of occasions, this was one of the most transparent falsehoods ever stated in public.

Tactically, it would have been one of the stupidest possible ideas ever enacted – thousands of people die in the crossing: almost 4,000 this year alone, and even those who are successful are then processed (including being searched for weapons) and/or then face a gruelling land journey to wherever they hope to be allowed to live.

Why on earth would any armed group risk its soldiers, send them unarmed and then make them live as vagrants for months on end before asking them to commit acts of terror in which they would certainly die? Especially because, as has been clearly proven, there are people already in Europe willing to carry out such atrocities and outrages.

But even if it were not stupidity of the highest order, it is also demonstrably untrue. Since May, when the ‘announcement’ was made, well over 600,000 refugees have entered the EU, around 133,000 of them crossing from Libya. Yet the EU is not now awash with active IS operatives. The entire ‘tactic’ has simply not happened.

It was a simple attempt by IS to spread fear and chaos in Europe, and to prevent the EU from offering safety to refugees who would then be forced to return to places IS holds some semblance of power, to be told that their experience simply proves the false claim that ‘the West’ hates and is fighting ‘Islam’ – a central and consistent argument made consistently by IS in its recruitment drive.

But the point was made – IS in Libya poses a threat to the EU, a threat which could result in murder, mayhem and death across the continent.

It was a seed which IS planted and which – perhaps despite their best efforts – some EU leaders allowed to sprout. And the attacks on Paris on 13th November appear to have nourished this understandable but wildly overblown fear even more.

Since that date, French diplomats have been arguing that the West must ‘re-engage’ in Libya: that it must take on IS or face attack from the South Mediterranean.

It has so far convinced Italy, whose defence minister Roberta Pinotti has suggested that 5,000 Italian soldiers could be sent to Libya as a ‘peace-keeping’ force, while UK defence secretary Michael Fallon argued on Friday 18th December that his country might send 1,000 special forces (though he claimed these soldiers would be in Libya to train Libyan forces, rather than to be directly engaged in fighting).

And at the 13th December meeting of leading international politicians and diplomats in Rome – to which despite the fact that the sole topic of conversation was Libya, not one Libyan politician was invited – US Senator John Kerry demanded a unity government must be formed ‘by whatever means necessary’.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, and the subsequent (in my view extraordinarily flawed) decision by the UK to join other states bombing IS positions in Syria, Kerry and others now understand that some IS members may now flee to Libya. Ergo, under this remarkably poorly-considered plan, the West must now launch airstrikes on Libya, to harry IS from that state. But to do so, at present, UN permission would be required.

No such permission is necessary if a state’s government calls for assistance, and it is hoped in Europe and the US that a UN-installed government would make such a call far faster than a government formed by Libyans (on Thursday 23rd December, the UN Security Council gave its full backing to the UNSMIL deal, and called for ‘all parties’ to sign up to it immediately).

As ever, this entire plan is based on several remarkably simplistic and in many cases simply incorrect notions. We will touch here only on the most serious of them.

First of all, no-one seems to have considered where IS may go next after being bombed in Libya, and exactly how long we are committing to bomb state after state after state across the world until we understand and accept that permanent global warfare is the only logical outcome of our current tactic.

But from the perspective of this piece and its context, we shall look closer to Libya itself, as well as at IS.

IS requires warfare and chaos to exist – to recruit and receive supplies. In a well-regulated, well-governed state, it is starved of supplies and the ability to act, and as a result of recruits (this position is analysed far more deeply here).

In this weakened position, and in a nation with a stable government, a well-regulated, capable military and police force, and in which all citizens have a stake, IS simply cannot thrive and cannot win. It will be eradicated in these states – states at peace – far more easily than in those at war.

In fact, airstrikes are likely to fuel, rather than significantly harm IS, helping create the chaos it needs to thrive, and enabling it to continue to present the case for a ‘war’ by ‘the West’ against ‘Islam’, rather than IS’ actual aim, which is a war against everyone who is not IS, by IS, and then a state or number of states in which IS will dominate and oppress millions and millions of people.

So the basic foundation of the UN’s international community-demanded rush to force an agreement on Libya – the desire to drop yet more bombs on Libya – is transparently flawed.

It will fail not because people do not want it to succeed, but because it cannot succeed. And the policy which could succeed in destroying IS – or at least paving the way for its destruction – in Libya: the delivery of peace, will be significantly set back by international airstrikes on Libya and by the imposition of another unwanted government on the state.

Because we already know such a government will not be ‘accepted’ in Libya – a state where chaos and the bullet already hold sway over political action and activity. A third government does not solve the problems of a state with two illegitimate and powerless governments; it increases them by 50 per cent.

That is, the international community wants to force more chaos on Libya to destroy a terror organisation which thrives on chaos.

It is following a policy of war – and at the same time a political policy which is likely to increase conflict on the ground – in order to weaken an organisation which requires war to survive.

And it is crushing a nascent move towards peace in Libya – which would be the first step towards eradicating IS in the state – in an attempt to allow airstrikes on IS which are likely only to strengthen IS in Libya.

So perhaps we should ask once more: ‘When is a political agreement not a political agreement?’ When it has been dreamed up by people who refuse to accept any of the experience or evidence of the last five years, and who do not understand that in this case, their own best interests are served by allowing the Libyan peace process to advance, not imposing a government in one city, and attempting to bomb peace into others.


‘When is a peace agreement not a…’

OK, I am not going to do that again.

But on 18th December, the UN Security Council was reported to have ‘agreed’ a resolution calling for peace in Syria.

It is a step forward – the first time the Council (two of whose five veto-holding members, Russia and to a lesser extent China, support Bashar al-Assad, the other three – France, the UK and US – oppose him and want him removed) has agreed any resolution relating to Syria.

But it is a step forward only to the extent that it’s a step forward when someone sees a raging inferno in a tower-block full of people and for the first time thinks: ‘Hmmm. I wonder whether someone should do something about that?’

Because this ‘resolution’ states that the UN should have in place proposals for peace by 18th January, and that negotiations should begin between the armed groups who have now being fighting for four years and nine months ‘early in 2016’.

What it does not do is propose any means by which a workable peace could be achieved or maintained, or – sadly even more importantly – mention how any negotiations can take place between Assad (who has killed 250,000 civilians in Syria, and who is being backed by Russian airstrikes in the state) and the rebel groups including the Free Syrian Army, who say that a pre-requisite of any negotiation must be Assad’s removal from power*.

*There are other – and extremely serious – obstacles to peace in Syria, including the make-up of the FSA’s own support and what might happen should any one side take power following the war. They are detailed here and here. But the matter of how negotiations can even begin seems such a huge impediment to the UN’s suggestion that it seemed important to highlight here.

And in the immediate aftermath (quite literally, within hours) of the UN announcement, and for several days after, Russian airstrikes were launched on a range of civilian areas of North West Syria, a part of the country with literally no IS presence whatsoever.

This is not to completely dismiss the Security Council ‘agreement’ – it is encouraging that after four and three-quarter years, the international community can agree that peace is better than war.

But it is to note that not only is an agreement not on the table, it is currently hovering around outside the window of a travel agent several thousands of miles from the table, wondering whether to book a four-step flight, after which it will need to take a train, a bust, two taxis and then a dangerous mile-long journey on foot through a poorly-lit region overrun by criminals, before it gets to the building where the table sits, on the 47th floor.


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