On November 9, Libya’s rival factions met in Tunis, under the umbrella of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, to end the nine-year civil conflict in the country, set up a unified government, and prepare for national elections.
On the opening day, the forum was showered with support. The host, Tunisian President Kais Saied, called it an “historic moment” and rejected the idea of an east-west partition of Libya.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged delegates “to shape the future of your country,” while the convener, the acting head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Stephanie Williams, applauded the “significant progress” that had been achieved recently.
The failure of Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar to take Tripoli in June this year seems to have affirmed to the contending parties that, after all the years of armed conflict, a military solution is not likely. Now, instead of armed encounters, the country’s rival commanders and political leaders have been meeting in conference rooms under the auspices of UNSMIL to hammer out a political settlement.
A meeting of military commanders took place in the Egyptian town of Hurghada at the end of September that focused on reopening air and land links and resuming oil production. This was followed by a conclave in Geneva on October 19. Here, the commanders agreed on a permanent, countrywide cease-fire, with frontline troops returning to their bases and all foreign troops and mercenaries leaving the country in three months. They also agreed to set up a joint military commission to monitor the peace.
The agreements at Geneva were taken forward by the military commission at Ghadames, located about 500 km southwest of Tripoli, near the borders of Algeria and Tunisia. The unifying of the Petroleum Facilities Guards to protect oil installations across the country was accepted.
Besides the military track, there have been discussions on political issues. To ensure continuity, the prime minister of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez Al-Sarraj, on October 31 withdrew his decision to step down, announced earlier in September, and agreed to continue in office until a new presidential council was selected. Soon thereafter, political leaders from the GNA and its Tobruk-based rival, the House of Representatives (HOR), met quietly in the Moroccan town of Bouznika to prepare the agenda for the crucial political dialogue that began in Tunis on November 9.
These meetings and agreements suggest a remarkable movement forward from the carnage that has characterized the Libyan scenario for nearly a decade. However, despite the progress made by the military commanders, the deep divisions among the country’s political leaders and the conflicting agendas of their foreign sponsors, leave some cause for concern about the future.
The immediate issue to be addressed relates to the continued presence of foreign forces in the country that back the rival governments and have been sponsored by foreign powers pursuing competing interests.
Haftar, who is affiliated with the HOR, remains a powerful influence. He is supported by the private Russian military group, Wagner, that is said to have provided between 1,200 and 3,000 Russian mercenaries. They are backed by about 2,000 fighters that Russia has brought in from Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who backs the GNA, has shown no enthusiasm either for the proposed cease-fire or the removal of foreign fighters. Besides its own senior military advisers, Turkey has deployed a few thousand militants from the rebel cadres it controls in Syria. Turkey also maintains an air base at Al-Watiya, in western Libya, and a naval base at Misrata, both of which support its aspirations to dominate the Mediterranean under its Blue Homeland strategy.
There are ideological issues at play as well. The GNA is influenced by its Muslim Brotherhood adherents, some of whose leaders enjoy the patronage of the Turkish president. A critic of the peace process has pointed out that several Brotherhood members are at the Tunis conclave. Brotherhood influence is unacceptable to key Arab nations in the region.
In the absence of an effective central authority, the proliferation of militia and weaponry, and the ambitions of domestic politicians and foreign powers, Libya could continue in the throes of war.
This divide in the strategic interests of Libya’s principal foreign players means that the peace process will make only halting progress, particularly as foreign fighters remain in the country to back rival groups. This could have a number of negative implications for Libya’s future.
One, it will make it difficult to revive oil production across the country and agree on revenue-sharing.
Two, the political process aimed at organizing national elections and a unified government will be seriously jeopardized.
Three, in the face of these existential rivalries, it will be well nigh impossible to identify and penalize militants and commanders associated with massacres and human rights abuses.
In this situation, the most likely scenario for Libya appears to be a de facto partition along the Sirte-Jufra line. Thus, unless the Tunis conference waves a magic wand, in the absence of an effective central authority, the proliferation of militia and weaponry, and the ambitions of domestic politicians and foreign powers, Libya could continue in the throes of war.
Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.