After much deliberation, the international community is making moves that indicate it is ready to consider lifting the arms embargo on Libya, which was imposed in 2011 as the oil-rich country slipped into turmoil amid the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.
Years later, the country is still living in a world of day-to-day conflict. The new Government of National Accord (GNA), an interim government supported by the United Nations, is fighting for a fortified position in the capital, Tripoli, amid threats from several militant groups, including the Islamic State (IS).
“It’s a delicate balance, but all of us here are supportive of … having a legitimate government and that this legitimate government is struggling against terrorism,” said US secretary of state John Kerry, during a meeting between world powers in Vienna to discuss the Libyan crisis last week. “This government should not be made the prisoner, or should not be victimised, by virtue of the UN action.”
Despite international support and a mandate to rule, the situation on the ground in Libya remains unclear. The new GNA is barely in control of Tripoli, while militants continue to maintain a stronghold in several parts of the country.
The tug-of-war for control between the GNA and Islamic militants is not the only power struggle on the conquest map. The most well-organised force in the country is the Libyan national army, led by General Khalifa Hafter, an ally to the Tobruk internationally recognised parliament.
Hafter, who started what he deemed “Operation Dignity” in May 2014 to fight terrorism in Libya, is supported by Egypt. This is not just because he is the only general who can secure Cyrenaica, located along the border with Egypt, but because he is also committed to fighting Islamic militants, a primary concern for Egypt.
Amid the power struggle and talk in the international community about lifting the arms embargo, the question remains: who will be armed and in charge in Libya?
Who will be armed in Libya?
Political and security analyst Alessandro Di Maio believes world powers will only partially lift the embargo, which would only allow for a supply of specific types of weapons to Fayez Al-Sarraj’s government.
“On one side there is the need to provide a sufficient quantity and quality of weapons to the new UN-backed Libyan government in Tripoli in order to guarantee control of the territory and defence from ISIS and other fundamentalist groups,” Di Maio explains. “However, on the other hand there is the great fear that these weapons will, one day or another, arrive into the wrong hands.”
Considering Libya’s current complex reality on the ground—made by divisions and rivalries in the political, military, ethnical, and regional spheres—a partial lift of the arms embargo in favour of Al-Sarraj’s government would be a good thing, according to Di Maio.
Last week, the unity government announced the formation of a Presidential Guard, which would be assigned with defending ports, airports, roads, gas, oil pipelines, and new ministry offices. Di Maio believes the first step of the arms embargo’s partial suspension would likely be supporting this new military actor.
However, Di Maio explains that weapons would not be supplied to Haftar’s forces, since such an action would go against the UN’s declaration to halt support and contact for authorities opposing Al-Sarraj’s national unity government.
However, merging Hafter and his forces with the GNA could prove to be a solution for this dilemma.
In a joint press conference with Kerry, Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni said Italy is ready to train Libyan forces.
“We are ready to train and equip the Libyan military forces as the Al-Sarraj government asks of us,” said Gentiloni.
He also added that Italy is trying to reinforce political unity in order to fight IS, which would include Hafter as part of the package. However, “full recognition is needed”.
Andrea Falconi, an Italian political and military analyst at the University of Perugia, believes that cooperation between the new Tripoli government led by Al-Sarraj and the military forces of Haftar would be the ideal way to stabilise the country, at least in the medium-term.
“The former [Al-Sarraj] wants to reconcile the whole Libyan situation under his government, with the backing of the international community interested in stabilising Libya and returning an important economical partner,” Falconi told Daily News Egypt.
Falconi explained further: “The latter [Haftar], instead, is more concerned with securing as many areas of the country as possible under his control, starting with Cyrenaica and extending his power to the rich Sirte District.”
It remains quite unlikely that Haftar will cede to Tripoli what he gained on the battle field.
While they both have their differences, Al-Sarraj and Haftar have a common enemy: the militias controlling parts of the country’s centre. Despite this shared interest, however, their positions remain irreconcilable.
If their joint enemy were defeated, Falconi believes that this would only lead to a larger conflict between both sides. “We already had a taste of what is going to happen when IS’s fellows will be defeated in Sirte. Haftar’s forces and the Misrata Military Council, led by Ibrahim Bel-Rajab who is a supporter of Al-Sarraj, clashed near the northern Fezzan oasis of Zalla, with little or no coverage by international mass media.”
The future of Haftar
Italy, the US, and other international actors are concerned about Haftar’s power in Cyrenaica. While the UN is trying to stabilise the country and giving legitimacy to Al-Sarraj’s unity government, Haftar is viewed not as a solution to the civil war but as one of the main actors of the second leg of the Libyan civil war.
“He will probably be considered a problem if he will not support the new government in Tripoli or if his forces will not be included in the new government’s army,” said Di Maio.
Another source of concern for Italy comes from the strong political ties between Egypt and Haftar, which comes at a time when diplomatic ties between Rome and Cairo have weakened amid the ongoing murder investigation into Giulio Regeni’s death. “Rome, of course, would not like to see a man [supported by] Egypt in Libya,” said Di Maio.
For the US, Haftar rings alarm bells as he is a close friend of Moscow.
“In the US, Haftar still has a bad reputation as he’s considered a military proxy of Saudi Arabia and a close friend of Moscow,” Falconi explained. “Maybe Obama would prefer ending his mandate with a solution for Libya, but in that project, Haftar must play no part. Even in a realistic perspective, a leading military role for Haftar in a future Libya would mean major Saudi influence in the whole Maghreb [North Africa], in an historical moment in which the US is striving to get Iran back into the international community amid Saudi resistance.”
However, Falconi believes that consideration is necessary to help achieve stabilisation.
Several international reports spoke about the possibility of an international intervention in Libya to stop the spread of the IS militia. However, Al-Sarraj told a British newspaper last week that he does not want any intervention in Libya. “No boots on the ground,” he said.
Pentagon spokesperson Peter Cook said a small US force in Libya is carrying out some intelligence missions to collect information about IS in Libya. Cook said Monday that the goal of US forces there is to identify the real players on the ground.
US troops are working in two locations in Libya to gain local acceptance for an international intervention, reported the Washington Post, citing anonymous US officials.
“Every foreign intervention in Libya, no matter who’s participating or what the purpose or the rules of engagement are, would be considered by the Libyans as military occupation, thus enforcing the position of tribal and radical militias,” said Falconi.
Their disarmament, however, would be the sole and fundamental purpose of such a mission. Foreign boots on the ground would be all but a solution, and nothing more than fuel added to the fire.
“That’s why in these days, many countries are talking about a limited support role, with just a few special units sent to protect UN buildings and to train police and border guard’s forces,” Falconi added.
Unless the situation gets worse, Di Maio does not believe any big international or Arab military intervention will take place soon in Libya. “It seems that Italy will send a small number of soldiers to Libya, but just to defend the embassy or some other small strategic points, nothing compared to the plans the international community has for Iraq.”
The role of Egypt
International powers are expecting Egypt to play an important role in stabilising Libya, as the spread of terrorism in the neighbouring country will have an impact on Egypt’s national security.
“Nowadays, Egypt has to carry on its own shoulders the burden of problems which have few connections with its internal situation, and more ties with the regional and international situation, such as illegal trade across North Africa, religious radicalism, and the international economic crisis, especially in the field of oil and gas markets,” Falconi said.
Security in Sinai is compromised by the presence of militias, which use the criminal arm and drug trades as sources of income and stability. For decades, the international community asked Egypt to guarantee the security of South and North Sinai, from Rafah to Eilat, and of the Suez Canal, with economic support guaranteed in return.
“Major issues, such as disputes about Nile water sharing, were postponed to avoid conflicts, and many liberalisation and privatisation measures led to a drastic surge in foreign debt,” said Falconi. “All this increased the Egyptian perception of isolation. No surprise, then, if nowadays Egypt is looking for new partners, such as the Saudis in the east and Haftar in the west.”
From the US perspective on Libya, Egypt is expected to carry out a role similar to those asked of Tunisia and Algeria: a tighter control over its western border and an end to arms supply and trade which compromises Libyan security.
“I’m sure that in the next few months we will see many offers of western military equipment to Egypt in order to achieve better control of its western borders, such as radars and monitoring drones,” said Falconi.