The Desert of Lop. Chasing illusions in Libya

Reading Time: 12 minutes ‘The truth is this.

‘When a man is riding by night through this desert, then he hears spirits talking and will suppose them to be his companions…

‘Sometimes in the night they are conscious of a noise like the clatter of a great cavalcade of riders, away from the road; and believing that these are of their own company, they go where they hear the noise, and when day breaks, find they are victims of an illusion and in an awkward plight.

‘And there are some who, in crossing this desert have seen a host of men coming towards them, and suspecting that they were robbers, have taken flight, so having left the beaten track and not knowing how to return to it, they have gone helplessly astray.

‘Even by daylight, men hear these spirit voices…’

Marco Polo, The Desert of Lop

(*This is the first part of a two-part piece I wrote regarding the conflicts in Libya and Syria in the week up to and including Valentine’s Day 2016)

With only moments of Valentine’s Day remaining, a list of names was issued from Morocco which some believe constitutes the first step towards lasting peace in Libya.

Others – perhaps aware of how convincing the hallucinations of the desert can be – remain less convinced.

The Libyan Presidential Council had until the end of 14 February to propose the names of the men and women (though in the event, only three women were chosen) who it wishes to take the ministerial roles in its ‘Government of National Accord’ (GNA).

It made it, with moments to spare, though not before the one of the two illegitimate, powerless Libyan governments which the international community has decided should vote the GNA into existence had cancelled its scheduled Monday session, assuming the Council would miss its deadline.

In truth – though few outside of Libya would like to be reminded of it – the deadline was missed, both because it had originally been set for 16 January, only for the proposal to be rejected out of hand nine days later, and because of the nine-man Council appointed by the United Nations to name the GNA, only seven actually signed the new proposals, failing to achieve the unanimous decision the UN itself had deemed necessary to grant ‘legitimacy’ to the new government.

Despite these failures, however, the second proposal announcement was made, with 18 proposed ministers – five of whom would take roles considered to have ‘special responsibilities’.

The 18 are:

The 18 are:

(Ministers with portfolio)

Justice: Juma Abdullah Drissi;

Interior: Arif Salih Khojja;

Foreign Affairs: Mohamed Taha Siala;

Finance: Fakhr Muftah Bufernah;

Defence: Mahdi Ibraham Al-Bargathi;

Local Government: Bidad Ghansou Massoud;

Health: Omar Bashir Al-Taher;

Transport: Milad Mohamed Matouk;

Social Affairs: Faida Manosur El-Shafi;

Planning: Al-Hadi Al-Taher Al-Juhaimi;

Economy and Industry: Abdulmutalubb Ahmed Abu Farwa;

Education: Mohamed Khalifa Al-Azzabi;

Labour: Ali Galma Mohamed.


(Ministers with special responsibilities)

(Ministers with special responsibilities)

Women’s Affairs and Development: Amsa Mustafa Usta;

Martyrs’ Families, Wounded and the Missing: Muhanad Said Younis;

Institutional Reform: Iman Mohamed Ben Younes;

National Reconciliation: Adbeljawad Faraj Al-Obeidi;

Migrants and the Displaced: Yousef Abubakr Jalalah

As it stands, the list is not especially controversial.

Serving under the Prime Minister (designate) Faiez Sarraj, a businessman chosen by the UN to be acceptable to both Libya’s illegitimate governments, and who led the process of choosing them, the proposed ministers have been nominated and considered not only for their supposed suitability for the role, but also for their political, social and religious moderation – for their ability not only to serve the state, but also to be acceptable to most, if not all, of its members.

In his words, the ministers were chosen on the basis of: ‘experience, competence, geographical distribution, the political spectrum and the components of Libyan society.’

But the problems with the proposed GNA are far deeper than that – and in some cases originate far from Libya itself.

The announcement came, when it was made, from Skhirat, on the outskirts of the Moroccan city of Rabat (leading to the slightly awkward headline in the Morocco World News ‘Libya Forms National Unity Government in Morocco’).

There are more than one reason for that – including sensitivity to Libya’s broken political system and the leaders of its two main components – but primary amongst them is that the Presidential Council, and by extension the government itself, is not allowed to enter Libya’s capital, Tripoli.

Libya’s political situation is not as destructive as its four-sided civil war (now in its 21st month), but it is an equally-telling indicator of the state’s dire predicament.

It has two governments, both equally illegitimate and powerless, and both – until December – diametrically-opposed to one another.

The first – in chronological terms – is the General National Congress (GNC). Created in 2012, following the death of Muammar Ghaddafi, the GNC is based in Tripoli, the Libyan capital.

It was supposed to oversee the development of a new constitution for Libya, but instead swiftly fell into political squabbling, which in turn developed into more serious rivalry and in some cases paramilitary activity.

The GNC extended its own mandate – without consulting Libya’s population – but was preparing to step down in preparation for elections in June 2014.

Those elections took place, but only against a backdrop of civil war, which began when Khalifa Haftar, a disgraced former Libyan Army General ordered his allies to attack the Tripoli Parliament building, opening fire on the serving politicians inside.

As war raged in Tripoli, Benghazi and in many points in between, (Haftar’s ‘Operation Dignity’ militia fought the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Al-Sharia group in Benghazi, and ‘Libya Fajr’; ‘Libya Dawn’, made up of West-Libyan militias led by groups from Misrata. They are still fighting – though IS in Libya entered the state late in 2014 and now makes up the fourth of the illegal militias fighting to control, it) a new government won power: the House of Representatives (HoR).

The HoR is often described by Western media sources as ‘internationally-recognised’ as if this bestows political legitimacy upon it, but the Libyan High Court ruled in November 2014 that it had never been legitimate and should never have existed.

It is based in Tobruk, in Libya’s East, after its members decided – not entirely unreasonably – that Tripoli was too dangerous a place in which to live and work.

But its failure to take seats in Tripoli was regarded by members of the dissolved GNC – some of whom had themselves won seats in the new HoR – as an abnegation of duty. Those people, and some of their allies, restarted the GNC, which now sits in Tripoli.

The final part of the political farce came in October last year, when the HoR’s own mandate – had any such thing ever existed – came to an end. Like the GNC, it voted to extend it without consultation.

The GNC is – largely – supported by Libya Dawn; the HoR by Haftar, though in the latter case serving HoR members have on occasion been kidnapped by Haftar to prevent them leaving Libya on official business. Both rely on the support of their respective illegal militia to survive, though neither have any power.

(the full story of this ridiculous and terrifying situation is one of many detailed in my book, The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis)

Despite the lack of legitimacy – or power – of either government, and despite the HoR’s complete absence of justified existence even on its own terms (the GNC’s lack of the same is at least acknowledged by most of the world), the international community has chosen the HoR as the body with which it is prepared to do business.

But the GNC’s support in Tripoli and across the West of Libya (as far East as Libya’s most central city, Sirte, which has since February 2015 been overrun by IS) does exercise some power in the region, just as Haftar’s equally-illegal militia does in Benghazi and its surroundings.

And GNC politicians have banned Presidential Council members from entering Tripoli.

The problem is that despite its illegitimacy – and despite the ‘ban’ being not only an overreaction but also somewhat childish, the GNC almost has a point.

Because the GNA was developed as a concept by the United Nations Support Mission In Libya (UNSMIL), which worked for several months to get the GNC and HoR’s members to sit and discuss Libya’s future.

Several times, one side or the other walked away from the discussions, and several times UNSMIL brought them back to talk more about how and when a new united government could be formed.

Any agreement would rely on the (extraordinarily unlikely) approval of both Dawn and Dignity, but UNSMIL’s proposals were literally the only ‘road to peace’ available to Libya. The GNA’s success was the only chance to end daily death in a war few had wanted to begin with, and even fewer wanted after close to 19 months.

But then in early December, the GNC and HoR began to talk not with the UN, but independently.

Its leaders – HoR President Aguila Saleh Gwaider and GNC President Nouri Abu Sahmain – announced that they had developed the first steps towards a reconciliation and the formation of a new government which would – like the GNA – have responsibility for writing the Libyan constitution, before stepping down to make way for full democratic elections.

It was a proposal with all the benefits of UNSMIL’s, plus one: it had come not from outside Libya, but within its borders.

It should have been welcomed as the first true progress within Libya since the ousting – and in October 2011 the killing – of Muammar Ghaddafi.

Instead, the UN rejected it out of hand, publicly, and immediately set about convincing non-GNC or HoR-aligned organisations (local authorities and in some cases even illegal militia members) to back its GNA, instead of the Libyan proposals.

It worked, in short, to derail the process by which the GNC and HoR had agreed to set aside – or at least ignore, for a moment – the worst of their differences, and set out a better future for Libya’s people.

It is against this that the GNC (which has rejected the GNA outright and been widely ignored in so doing) has reacted and to it that the HoR (which claimed to object to the first proposed government because it had ‘too many ministers’, and must now decide whether to approve the new list thanks to the arbitrary and contradictory decision of the UN to disregard its attempts to work with the GNC, but simultaneously regard it as a legitimate representative of the Libyan people’s aspiration) must respond.

There is a further complication, and one of which UNSMIL, the GNC, HoR and indeed anyone interested in Libya is acutely aware: Khalifa Haftar.

Because as noted above, the HoR is reliant on Haftar for its survival, and many of its members actively support him. And Haftar has political ambition (he has on more than one occasion ‘offered’ to head a ‘temporary government’ to ‘help Libya’ recover from a war which he actually started).

Under other circumstances, the simplest way forward would be to make Haftar Defence Minister – handing him control of the state’s armed forces, or to be more accurate handing him responsibility for building a Libyan armed force worthy of the name. Certainly, this is what many in the HoR would like.

But Haftar is not only an illegal warlord who started the second Libyan civil war by opening fire on members of the GNC at Tripoli, and leads a militia against the GNC’s own sole support, Libya Dawn.

He has also spent the last two years (he began significantly before he started the war) accusing the GNC’s sitting politicians of being ‘extremists’ and terrorists (many of them are many things. Some are incompetent, and all have no right to claim legitimacy in Libya. But none of them are terrorists, or even especially extreme).

As much as part of the HoR admires and supports him, the GNC hates Haftar, and will not support any attempt to legitimise him with a government ministry – especially not one in which he would have the power to send soldiers to perhaps ‘settle scores’.

Even were that not the case, the GNC’s backers, Libya Dawn, are Haftar’s gravest enemies, and are certainly not above applying pressure on their political ‘allies’ to prevent him receiving a reward he certainly does not deserve (even militarily, Haftar has failed: he is not ‘winning’ against either Ansar or Dawn, and unlike those two, he has failed even to engage IS).

Faiez Serraj, to his credit, recognises this.

As in many cases, he has been forced into a compromise, and has chosen sensitively, naming Colonel Mahdi Al-Barghathi as prospective Defence Minister.

Al-Barghathi seems to tick every box. He is Benghazi-born, and the commander of the 204 tank brigade, which joined Haftar’s illegal Dignity militia in 2014, and has remained fighting in Benghazi since.

His brigade has been one of the most successful in Haftar’s campaign against Ansar Al-Sharia, which – combined with the fact that he is known to lead the brigade, rather than direct it from behind, has not fought against Dawn and that he was one of the first Libyan officers to join the fight against Ghaddafi (the GNC and HoR both oppose and abhor Ghaddafi) – means that he is one of few Dignity members the GNC might be able to accept.

The problem is that Al-Barghathi is a competent – perhaps gifted – soldier and as such is known to be critical of Haftar, who is neither.

His main allies are Colonel Wanis Bukhamada, another former revolutionary leader and extremely popular Benghazi to have led successes against Ansar, and Ibrahim Jadhran, the youngest khetiba commander in the war against Ghaddafi and now leader of central Libya’s most effective militia (the Petroleum Facilities Guard, which unlike Haftar has fought against IS – defeating them earlier this year) who has widespread backing across the East of Libya (Jadhran was foiled in an attempt to destroy Libya only by the combined military and militia forces of Libya in late 2013 – a story told in The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis).

In short, he is not just not Haftar – which would almost certainly be enough to have angered some within the HoR – he is potentially better than Haftar, which means Serraj’s government faces a serious challenge even to gain approval in the HoR, having already been decisively rejected by the GNC.

As an indication of how powerful this problem is, the two members of the Presidential Council to have refused to sign off the proposed GNA ministers list are Omar Al-Aswad, the Council’s – and by extension the GNA’s proposed – minister for Legislative Affairs, and Ali Gatrani, one of two deputy prime ministers-delegate. Both refused because Al Barghathi, not Haftar, is proposed as Defence minister.   

Which raises the question: why, when the GNA and particularly the issue of Haftar, is likely to de-rail the GNA even before it starts moving, and when by dividing the GNC and HoR yet further is also likely to add a third illegitimate and powerless government to the two already in existence in Libya, would UNSMIL be working so hard to force it upon the state, rather than allowing the organic diplomacy of Libyan people to develop a united approach to the country’s future, and as a consensus movement also perhaps solve the issue of Haftar in the process?

Why add a third government, when with almost no effort whatsoever, the UN could watch the two already there merge into one?

The answer is short, simple and moronic: IS.

IS in Libya has somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 active members, including trainees. It has recently been resoundingly defeated by the Petroleum Facilities Guards, which was itself defeated in 2013 by the combined militias and armed forces of Libya.

IS is the weakest force currently fighting in Libya (having been fought to a standstill West of Sirte by a Fajr force battling on two fronts simultaneously, and chased in ignominy from Derna by the Al Qaeda-affiliated forces of Ansar Al-Sharia) and has to date not only not carried out any attack anywhere outside of Libya, but has not developed the capacity to do so.

This does not mean it never could, and nor does it mean it should be simply left alone. It simply means that it is – of the four forces fighting in Libya at the moment – the weakest and emptiest by some distance.

And yet, as if embodying Polo’s hallucinatory enemies, IS in Libya, which is suffering defeat after defeat in the Libyan Civil War, appears to be making the noise of a far greater force – of a threat to the entire globe – in the heads of the international community.

As an example, Senator John Kerry – a man generally known for being able at least to pretend to rise above the stresses of international negotiation – is reported to have lost his temper at a meeting of international representatives (though notably none from Libya) in mid-December to discuss the Libyan conflict, including demanding that the UN ‘gets something sorted out as a government there fast!’

Equally, representatives of the French and Italian governments have been lobbying other NATO member-states to join them in a bombing – and perhaps also ground – campaign against IS in Libya (effectively, a campaign to once again reduce my former hometown of Sirte to rubble. You can read about the first iteration of that policy in The Toss of a Coin…).

On 9 February, Sir Peter Ricketts, a former security advisor to UK Prime Minister David Cameron who has just returned from a posting as Britain’s ambassador to France told the BBC that Libya ‘urgently needs’ a ‘coherent government’ to combat IS.

And going back to the December Libya conference, John Kerry announced to the press that: ‘We cannot allow the status quo in Libya to continue. It is dangerous for the viability of Libya, it is dangerous for Libyans, and now, because of the increase of the presence of Daesh, it is dangerous for everyone.’

NATO has a problem. Having claimed the HoR was a legitimate government, it cannot enter Libya to attack IS unless specifically requested to do so.

And Haftar – who for now is the actual power behind the HoR – appears to believe that IS in Libya can be allowed to continue, acting as a thorn in the sides of his enemies: effectively, he appears to hope that IS will act to make up for his own tactical incapabilities.

So NATO is now in the embarrassing situation of actively requiring the replacement of the government it has publicly supported, in order to be ‘invited’ to bomb Libya once again by the GNA which – as a government with no source of legitimacy other than that granted it by non-Libyan actors – it will effectively own.

Haftar is of course wrong. IS is a despicable organisation, and must be removed from Sirte – from all of Libya – as soon as possible.

But the best way to do so is to develop a viable, inclusive government, which can recover Libyan infrastructure and develop and train loyal police and armed forces. That government and the state it creates will be capable – perhaps with the assistance of the international community – of removing and eradicating IS in a way that not even NATO has proven capable of in conflict situations to date.

Instead of that – because of the desert’s capacity to force delusion on those caught within its sands, making friends and enemies where neither really exist – we are forced to watch the outrage of the UN, driven by the US, UK, Italy and France, underhandedly undermining Libyan moves to peace, and the embarrassment of the UN courting Haftar like a smitten schoolchild.

The desert’s deceit, which has seemingly transformed IS in Libya into a being far greater than its actual power, and Haftar from an incompetent power-hungry warlord into a ‘friend and ally’ has not only led NATO from the path to safety, but also caused it to drag the United Nations and the Libyan state along with it.

IS can be opposed, but Libyan unity, rather than a third illegitimate government, is the surest first step towards it.


























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