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Is dividing Libya a possible compromise to end the conflict?

May 28, 2020 at 8:31 am

People gather at The Martyrs’ Square to celebrate the 9th anniversary of Libyans’ 17 February Revolution in Tripoli, Libya on 17 February 2020. [Hazem Turkia – Anadolu Agency]

Since 2011, Libya’s territorial integrity and future has never been so deeply intertwined with the fate of one person, as it stands now. In 2011, the country’s future was highly dependent on the destiny of its longtime ruler, the late Muammar Gaddafi. His NATO-backed opponents believed that he was the only barrier standing in the way of an economically prosperous and democratic country. While fighting NATO-backed rebels, Gaddafi did not entertain the idea of dividing Libya in order for him to stay in power, despite having the means to do so. He chose to make his last stand, instead, and pay with his life. He and his loyalists left Tripoli almost intact, only to face unprecedented destruction after him.

Today, Khalifa Haftar’s fate is tied to that of the country, much more than that of Gaddafi. When General Haftar launched his military campaign to “libertate the capital from terrorists” as he stated, he gambled both his own future and the country’s. Each day that passes further limits his options and further threatens the unity of Libya. For him, even a permanent ceasefire, not on his own terms, risks his political role and could write off his future. This explains why he refused many international calls to pause the fighting and return to negotiations. The Moscow ceasefire and the United Nations envoy’s proposal of military commissions to settle its terms, are some examples. Both were rejected by the general.

Now, after suffering repeated setbacks on the ground in western Libya, the defiant general appears to be losing his clarity of target, as well as raising the stakes even higher than they were a year ago. A few days before the end of the Holy month of Ramadan, on 21 May, his spokesman announced moving troops a few kilometres away from the outskirts of Tripoli to “allow people to exchange Eid greetings.” However, on 23 May, the night of Eid celebrations, Haftar, himself, in an audio message to his forces vowed to continue the war until the “colonial” intervention is defeated — a reference to when Libya was under Ottoman control.

READ: Why is Libya so chaotic and ungovernable? 

The most serious indication of tying his fate into that of the country came in late April when he claimed that the Libyan people have given him a “popular mandate” to run the country. Not only that, but the mandate, claimed Haftar, gives him the right to end the political accord of 2015, that created the Government of National Accord (GNA) that he is fighting. While that is unattainable, the announcement could mean that Haftar is susceptible to the idea of governing part of Libya, until such time when he can take over the entire country. He never uttered the word “partition” and always insisted on a unified Libya, but the intention here cannot be missed. He is unlikely to publicly demand that areas under his control be made an independent state. He would prefer that outcome to emerge as the new de facto reality that Libyans and the world alike will eventually accept.

General Khalifa Haftar taking over Libya - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

General Khalifa Haftar taking over Libya – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The notion of a divided Libya is not totally unheard of internationally either. A former Donald Trump foreign policy aide suggested it to a European diplomat back in 2017. Sebastian Gorka, foreign policy expert, even drew a map of the country, on a napkin, divided into three regions, as a solution to the conflict. Before independence in 1951, Libya was indeed three semi-independent regions, namely Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east and Fezzan in the south. After 2011’s toppling of the Gaddafi government, the idea is being revived under the pretext of a federalist system as a solution to the complicated issue of oil wealth sharing. Most of those pushing for a federalist system are in eastern Libya and appear to be supporting Haftar, at least by remaining silent on his actions. If he does deliver a divided Libya, they are likely to turn against him.

What is really worrying are two facts: firstly, Haftar’s own political future centres on the idea of him taking Tripoli. If he fails, as appears to be the case so far, his own popularity will greatly diminish. This, in turn, will eject him from any foreseeable negotiated settlement. Secondly, the other worrying sign is that his military defeat could make his political exit imminent. This leaves the general with one option, which is sectioning Libya to carve out his own territory to rule. Bearing in mind that the general is a septuagenarian man, with recurring health problems, making his mission time-sensitive.

READ: What is Turkey up to in Libya? 

This bleak scenario depends a great deal on his and his rival’s foreign backers. While Egypt might view a divided Libya as a serious security threat, Turkey, backing the GNA, might regard it as an opportunity to have a foothold on the southern Mediterranean shores. Turkey’s heavy military involvement in the war in Libya can only be understood in the wider regional Turkish policy. Controlling Libya will give Ankara a stronger voice in the region within its Blue Homeland doctrine (Mavi Vatan). Mavi Vatan envisions Turkish dominance in the eastern Mediterranean, given its oil and gas potentials, and it is one reason why Ankara signed a maritime accord with the GNA in November 2019. A strong Turkish presence in Libya, also, helps Ankara counter Russian pressure in Syria, making Libya a bargaining chip to be used against Moscow whenever needed. Russia is unlikely to give up on Haftar just yet. Russian escalation on his support is on the horizon.

There is also reconstruction contracts and oil as more incentives for Ankara to gain a foothold in Libya. The country has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa, at about 48 billion barrels of high-quality crude oil, estimated to last over 150 years.  Its proximity to European markets, comparatively, lowers its marketing cost. A victorious Haftar means that he will control major oil fields, located in eastern Libya. Crude oil could also make the idea of partitioning the country more attractive to many players, including, most likely, Haftar himself.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.