The Eighth Ministerial Meeting of Libya’s Neighboring Countries concluded in Tunis on Tuesday, March 22, with statements of support the United Nations backed Government of National Accord and the “necessity to speed up its departure for Tripoli.”
A joint statement from the meeting said that Libya’s neighbors rejected a foreign military intervention against terrorist groups in Libya unless it was requested by a Libyan unity government. A unity government which the ministers present recognized as the Government of National Accord which is tasked with reconciling the western General National Congress (GNC) which runs Tripoli and the House of Representatives (HOR) in Tobruk, which the GNC exiled from Tripoli to eastern Libya in 2014.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui, who hosted the meeting, said that “the proliferation of terrorist groups and their control of certain regions in Libya is a source of extreme concern, a danger for Libya’s people and for the stability of its neighbors.”
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya Special Representative, Martin Kolber, also added “terrorist groups continue to take advantage of the political divide, and the Libyan people – and their neighbors – continue to suffer the consequences.”
Referring to ongoing fighting in both Libya’s east and west Kolber said “The humanitarian situation in Libya is deteriorating further in Tripoli and Benghazi.” affirming that “It is imperative that Libyan political actors take responsibility now, in the higher interest of the Libyan people to stop the human suffering and Libya’s descent into chaos.”
The ministerial was attended by the foreign ministers of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Niger and Sudan; as well as the African Union High Representative for Libya and former Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, the Deputy Secretary General for Political Affairs of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Helga Schmid and the Secretary General of the Arab League Nabil El Araby.
President Beji Caid Essebsi met with the attendees at the Presidential Palce in carthage ahead of the meeting and an official statement said Essebsi had “stressed the importance of the Tunis meeting to support the political process in Libya, stressing the role that neighboring countries must play to help Libyans overcome the difficult situation and reach a political solution which ensures the stability of Libya and the region.” during the meeting.
Jhinaoui later said, once stability was achieved “we [Tunisia] are ready to offer all necessary assistance in governance mechanisms. Indeed, Libya has no state institutions. Human capital is lacking. And as Tunisia has experience in this field, we are willing to help if called upon us.”
In his statement issued at the conclusion of the meeting Kolber also offered a synopsis of the stalemate that has set in since the seventh ministerial was held in mid-December 2015 in Algiers, days ahead of the signing on December 17th of the Skhirat Agreement which created the Presidency Council now headed by Faiez Serraj.
Martin Kolber, also noted that “In the East, a minority has succeeded in blocking a vote in the House of Representatives on the cabinet proposal. In the West, last week the authorities in Tripoli and Tobruk publicly said that they refuse to transfer power to the Government of National Accord, and threatened the member of the Presidency Council and the Government of National Accord with arrest should they decide to come to the capital.”
To that effect on Wednesday, March 17, the European Union agreed to sanctions, first proposed by French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (who will be in Tunis on Friday), on Nouri Abusahmain, the speaker of the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli, and Khalifa al-Ghwell, the prime minister of the Tripoli government. The president of the internationally recognized House of Representatives (HOR) in Tobruk, Aguila Saleh, also saw sanctions imposed for his failure to allow the HOR to vote on a proposed Government of National Accord GNA.
Although Kolber distanced himself from the imposition of sanctions, he has previously called for isolating the parties who hold up the Government of National Accord. It is a difference, between isolation and sanctions, that is as nuanced as Tunisia’s opposition to any intervention except the one which has already been approved, see below.
Despite the bellicose statements of the GNC in Tripoli against Serraj’s move to Tripoli, Kolber is due to meet with some of its representatives in Tripoli on Wednesday, March 22, presumably to discuss with the GNC to the terms of the Government of National Accord’s entry into Tripoli.
The move into Tripoli, appears now for all intents and purposes to be nearing a showdown, Kolber’s trip to Tripoli may be one of the final chances to avoid a military showdown. In terms of diplomatic language there does not appear to be any room for maneuver left other than the GNC accepting the GNA’s entry or the use of force. Whether that force involves pulling the western militias, some of whom have voiced their support of the Serraj led GNA, into a coalition against the Farj Libya elements of the GNC, the only plausible “Libyan-Libyan” solution left, or whether the move into Tripoli will involve foreign support or intervention remains to be seen. Libyan politics are nothing if not unpredictable, and there other even less desirable scenarios.
Jhinaoui warned that “any military intervention in Libya would be disastrous for the Libyan people and for the countries in the region” and reaffirmed Tunisia’s position on principle which opposes a foreign military intervention in Libya.
However, Jhinaoui added several caveats to that diplomatically worded stance saying that “If the [UN] Security Council decides that intervention is required, it has the right to do so. This is still the body responsible for security and peace in the world. This is a matter of international law.” adding, “it is the Security Council that is the judge [of what is appropriate]”.
This is a stance which Jhinaoui previously stated during his visit to Moscow earlier in March, when he and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov issued a joint statement which declared any intervention in Libya must go through the U.N. Security Council.
A day later on Tuesday, March 15, the United Nations Security Council “Unanimously adopting resolution 2273 (2016), the 15-member Council recognized the need for UNSMIL to re-establish its presence in Libya and make the necessary security arrangements to that effect.”
The U.N. Resolution on Tuesday added that the Security Council “Recall[ed] its determination in resolution 2213 (2015) that the situation in Libya continues to constitute a threat to international peace and security,”
Essentially it is an open ended authorization for a military intervention in Libya, one which Tunisia is not opposed to.
Egypt who also lined up behind the official statement against an intervention, has issued statements which suggest it has a plan B, whether or not the GNC continues to refuse entry to the Government of National Accord. While encouraging the Tobruk based HOR to accept the Government of National Accord, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was quoted in the Italian ‘La Republica’ newspaper as recommending supporting Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, (LNA) saying: “If we give arms and support to the Libyan National Army, it can do the job much better than anyone else, better than any external intervention that would risk putting us in a situation that could get out of hand and provoke uncontrollable developments.”
In Tunis on Tuesday the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said “Maintaining the coherence of Libyan institutions, including the Libyan army, is a necessity that we have asserted since we began the process of joint work. I call on the renewal of this commitment and to spare the armed forces and the national security apparatus the threats from any action that aims to divide and weaken them,” adding to that a call for the lifting of a ban on importing arms to the Libyan army.
Egypt’s diplomatic nuance is less subtle that of Kolber or Tunisia, it is only against any intervention that it does not lead. Egypt after all supported the Libyan National Army of General Khalifa Haftar during the fighting between the HOR and the GNC. It and the United Arab Emirates violated the arms embargo to resupply Haftar’s forces. While Qatar and Turkey did the same for the forces of Farj Libya who formed the GNC.
Even in December Shoukry was quoted in Ahramonline before a meeting of Libya’s Neighboring Countries in Algiers, the seventh one, as saying that the Libyan parliament (HOR) should ratify a political agreement before the end of this year “so we wouldn’t have to look into alternative plans that might meet resistance from some of the Libyan factions.”
Algeria’s minister for Maghreb Affairs, the African Union and the Arab League, Abdelkader Messahel, also said in December that the need to find a political solution was urgent adding that if the Libyans did not find an agreement one would be found for them. Algeria has stoically maintained its opposition to a foreign intervention in Libya, but it has mobilized tens of thousands of troops on its border with Libya in recent months, just in case.
The most convincing case against the likelihood of an imminent intervention in Libya is the fact that those statements were made in December. The Islamic State had already captured Sirte, which lies between the rival governments, is the hometown of Gaddafi and the scene of his last stand. Sirte was shunned by both rival governments and without the sectarian divisions present in Iraq, the Islamic State still managed to replicate its the conditions of its takeover of the Sunni areas of Iraq in Libya and Sirte by exploiting geographic divisions rather than sectarian ones.
It did so because instead of a community ostracized by Shias and Kurds as in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit and the Sunni tribal areas of Iraq, it found in Libya a city of disaffected former regime supporters with no place in the new Libya’s regionalism and tribalism. Libya’s regional rivalries did for the Islamic State what it took years of Al Qaeda in Iraq and Paul Bremmer’s ill advised de Baathification to achieve in Iraq, had Bremmer been a historian he might have noticed that even the de-Nazification he named his policy after wasn’t conducted with as much blind lack of foresight.
Although after Gaddafi’s rule and his Potemkin like People’s Councils there wasn’t much to de-anything. For all the talk of diplomats outside Libya the path to stability appears no clearer and the objectives of an intervention beyond airstrikes no more achievable than they were in December. Afterall this won’t be nation building, it will be Nation Creating, and only the Islamic State for now seems to have a plan for that.
As Poland’s Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski noted, when after the EU meeting which announced the sanctions he said “We have four centers of power in practice and it turns out that the most effective one is the one created by Islamic State, which is developing its structures there.”
But what must never be forgotten is that the Libyan people, who are paying the price for the alphabet soup of Libyan Politics, or what U.S. President Barack Obama refers to in private as “the shitshow”, did what they were supposed to. They overthrew a despot and voted, twice, it was only because the militia cum-government now in Tripoli refused to recognize the outcome of the second election which placed the HOR briefly in power. Where it not for Qatari money and Turkish weapons to fulfill Qatari flirtations with extremists and Erdogan’s foolish notions of a restored Sultanate, at least in Libya there probably wouldn’t be the Caliphate.