Will Peace Ever Come to Libya or Will Outside Powers Ruin Any Deal?

February 14, 2021 Topic: Politics Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: LibyaLibyan Civil WarPeace BuildingTurkeyRussia

Will Peace Ever Come to Libya or Will Outside Powers Ruin Any Deal?

The Libyan Civil War is at another juncture, but there is no shortage of actors who could spoil any attempt at peace.

Parties who stand to lose from progress toward a permanent peace deal in Libya will try to halt the process, and will create ground realities that limit the implementation of any agreement that does emerge. The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) approved a voting mechanism Jan. 19 to select a new transitional government to shepherd the country to Dec. 24 elections. Separately, representatives from the country's two rival parliaments met in Egypt on Jan. 19 and agreed on the need to hold a referendum on a draft constitution to determine the structure of the new government. 

  • The new transitional government would have a three-member presidential council. Each of Libya's three geographic regions will be represented by one member, one of whom will chair the committee as president, with the council functioning as head of state. It would also have a new government of national unity headed by a prime minister separate from the presidential council; the premier will function as Libya's head of government. 

  • Voting will likely occur as joint lists that include a candidate for each position, requiring cross-regional support from the LPDF to be eligible, encouraging alliances. The United Nations has set Feb. 1-5 as the dates on which the vote will take place.

  • The Constituent Assembly of Libya will hold a referendum on a 2017 draft of the constitution. The referendum will be approved if it receives a simple majority in each of Libya's three geographic regions. 

The new transitional government will take the lead on critical reform issues like security sector reform (SSR) and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR), which aims to disband and/or integrate Libya's plethora of militias into the official security apparatus and professionalize them. The new government would also need to merge different Libyan institutions that have become split after seven years of two rival governments, including military bodies, police forces, various ministries and the country's national oil company. 
A unified government will require a power-sharing arrangement. The voting mechanism for selecting a new government is complicated and there will be numerous back-room negotiations on forming lists, making it highly uncertain who will be selected. But Government of National Accord (GNA) Interior Minister Fathi al-Bashaga and House of Representatives President Aguila Saleh appear to gain the most, since they could align with one another to win cross-regional support. Under the proposed deal, Saleh would be Eastern Libya's representative to the presidential council and its president while Bashaga would be the unity government's prime minister. A joint list comprising the two could find cross-geographic support given Saleh's support in the east and al-Bashaga's being a key architect of the SSR/DDR plans that will find support among Western Libyans tired of militia fiefdoms in the region. Moreover, neither candidate would provoke a significant backlash from other regions, unlike Khalifa Hifter might do because of his offensive on Western Libya.

The system appears to disadvantage Hifter and the Libyan National Army (LNA), which could result in the LNA's trying to undermine the process. Some have speculated that Hifter could be prime minister or the east's representative on the presidential council, but a lack of support for him in Tripolitania due to his offensive could limit his ability — or that of any of his close allies — to do so, meaning he would need to partner with a strong representative from the West to win office.

    A Map Showing What Forces Control Libyan Territory

    The LNA and Hifter would also view anyone close to the Muslim Brotherhood or Turkey or leading SSR/DDR reforms as particularly dangerous to their interests. Hifter has a long history of playing the role of spoiler when it looks like progress will be made that could diminish his influence. 

    • In April 2019, he launched an offensive on Tripoli just days before the United Nations was to hold the Libyan National Conference in Ghadames, Libya, that was to have produced proposals for elections later that year.

    • In January 2020, Hifter and the LNA cut off oil exports from Eastern Libya's oil terminals just hours before the Berlin Conference, a process that still underpins the current peace process, was supposed to begin. 

    Hifter has been outspoken on three critical issues, and could use each of them to justify another attempt to disrupt the peace process. Due to his near-monopoly on physical force in Eastern Libya, he retains enough power to follow through should he choose to play the spoiler.

    • Foreign Mercenaries: Hifter has called for the removal of foreign forces, including Turkey's military deployment. The October cease-fire included a provision for foreign forces to depart within 90 days, but that did not happen. Hifter earlier cited the deployment of Syrian mercenaries and Turkish forces against the LNA to justify his January 2020 oil blockade.

    • Oil Revenue Sharing: The September deal to restart oil exports was conditional on increasing transparency on oil revenue and reaching a revenue-sharing agreement, neither of which has been finalized. Hifter could reverse his decision if this continues.

    • SSR/DDR: Hifter has viewed the LNA as the only legitimate security/military body in Libya, and as the only necessary interlocutor for SSR/DDR implementation. He would not back plans in which he played a secondary role. 

    In Tripolitania the voting mechanism for the transitional government appears to weaken the hand of GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and some of the region's most powerful militias. In September 2020, al-Sarraj announced his intention to resign as a power play against al-Bashaga, but has since tried to position himself to stay on as the transitional government's prime minister until elections. Al-Sarraj's challenge is that he was originally selected to be the prime minister in 2015 specifically because he did not have a powerful faction backing him, meaning he is quite weak relative to other contenders, and forcing him to build more political alliances. Western Libya's militias have also benefited from the status quo, which has empowered them to take on policing operations in certain areas, which they have proved effective at — and which have proved very lucrative for them. Western Libya's militias are far from monolithic, however, and some could benefit from the peace process if one of their political allies were empowered. Al-Sarraj would not have the ability to spoil the process on the scale that Hifter could, but for their part, the militias in Tripoli will play a critical role in the effectiveness of any transitional government.

    • On Jan. 18, al-Sarraj formed the Stability Support Apparatus, a police force that reports to him, and appointed a leader of one of Tripoli's most important militias to formalize an alliance with it. 

    • Al-Sarraj has also reportedly offered to enter a power-sharing arrangement with Hifter where Hifter, or an ally of his, would be the prime minister while al-Sarraj would lead the presidential council. 

    • The Tripoli Protection Force (TPF) — the broad coalition of Libya's main militias — issued a statement Jan. 19 rejecting the LPDF's selection mechanism. 

    Beyond Libya, foreign powers, particularly Egypt, Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, could also seek to compel, and/or facilitate efforts by, Libyan allies to disrupt the peace process. Turkey and Russia have either directly or indirectly deployed forces in Libya, and neither appears willing to withdraw them, while Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have provided substantial financial and military support to the LNA. 

    • Egypt has largely supported Hifter, but has viewed his offensive on Tripoli as something that brought rival Turkey to its doorstep and as undermining Cairo's priority in Libya, namely, stability. Nonetheless, while Egypt has since reached out to Western Libyan political actors and has facilitated the military and political tracks of negotiations, Cairo remains extremely wary of the influence of Libya's Muslim Brotherhood.

    • Russia's deployment of mercenaries aligned to Hifter bought it political influence with Hifter and made him dependent on Moscow. Russia has been willing to back the U.N.-led LPDF peace process, but it has also set up a parallel track that could restart if the LPDF process fails, giving Moscow even more leverage. 

    • Turkey has benefited immensely from its relationship with the GNA and would be concerned that a transitional government could reverse the maritime border agreement it signed in November 2019 or exclude Turkish construction companies from the Libyan market. 

    • The United Arab Emirates has supported Hifter due to his strong stance against the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey. They will likely support and facilitate any push by Hifter to undermine the process if Turkey- or Muslim Brotherhood-aligned political figures in Western Libya (including al-Bashaga) take key roles in the transitional government and process. 

    Consensus building around any new transitional government will be difficult, as at least one major faction will be unavoidably sidelined. 

    • Economic: Hifter and the LNA could restart blocking oil exports from Libya's east — which accounts for about 60% of Libya's oil production. This would prolong Libya's economic and financial crisis. 

    • Political Legitimacy: Significant concerns already exist about the transition process being "imposed" by foreign powers. This plagued the legitimacy of the GNA when it was created through a similar U.N.-backed process in 2015. Political groups could exhibit their displeasure by referendum and/or election boycotts.

    • Security: Hifter and the LNA could restart military operations in Fezzan, Sirte and Jufra to expand their influence. Militias in Tripoli could also prevent the implementation of the new government, or wind up fighting among themselves again.