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Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for Libya?

October 29, 2020 at 9:20 am

UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) conference [Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Wkipedia]

In just two months, the situation in Libya has shifted dramatically, creating hope that a solution to the ongoing crisis might be around the corner.

The latest event, in a series of meetings starting last month, is the 5+5 Joint Military Commission meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, which ended with the signing, for the first time, of a permanent ceasefire between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

Despite its flaws, the document signed on 23 October establishes a Libya-wide ceasefire. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) succeeded in bringing the two sides together to formalise an unofficial ceasefire. In a statement on Tuesday, the UN Security Council welcomed the development and called on the Libyan parties to: “Show the same determination in reaching a political solution through the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF).” The LPDF is planned to start on 9 November.

The 5+5 Joint Military Commission comprises an equal number of military officers from the GNA and the LNA, organised by UNSMIL. The real test of the ceasefire agreement will come when UNSMIL’s planned LPDF convenes on 9 November in Tunis, Tunisia.

Can this military breakthrough be translated into a political agreement?

Stephanie Williams, acting head of UNSMIL, sounded hopeful as she chaired a preparatory virtual meeting of a 75-strong delegation who will attempt to chart the road ahead towards peace in the country. In the 26 October meeting, she urged the delegates to “place the supreme national interest” above all others.

The LPDF is not starting in a vacuum, as small political progress has already been achieved.

READ: Why do Libyan politicians refrain from criticising NATO’s war on their country, despite civilian deaths? 

Representatives of the two competing administrations in Libya, the GNA in Tripoli and Libyan Government in Tobruk, agreed on common criteria to select heads of sovereign positions in future Libya.

Sovereign positions include the governor of Libya’s Central Bank and the head of the Supreme Court, among others.

Seen as a first step towards facilitating the reunification of the divided state institutions, the agreement signed on 7 October could help smooth the upcoming political dialogue. Since 2014, most of Libya’s bureaucratic institutions were divided between the two administrations. Lack of comprehensive political agreement, so far, made discussing their unification a useless exercise, as long as two separate governments existed.

If the LPDF goes as planned, Williams hopes to have a consensus on reshaping the current GNA in two ways: to have a three-member, instead of current nine, presidency council and by setting up a separate, independent national unity government accepted by both current administrations. This, supposedly, will last for a short transitional period after which there will be a constitutional referendum, national legislative and presidential elections. This is something that former UN envoy Ghassan Salame envisioned last year and was about to enact when the LNA attacked Tripoli, plunging the country into a year-long war.

Since the devil is in the detail, and if the reactions to the 5+5 commission’s ceasefire agreement is anything to go by, things do not look promising for the upcoming LPDF dialogue.

Many nations are trying to interfere in Libya's affairs- Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Many nations are interfering in Libya’s affairs – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The Higher Council of State, a consultative body allied with the GNA, appeared to be rejecting parts of the 5+5 ceasefire agreement. In a statement published on its Facebook page, the council announced that the agreement does not apply to the GNA’s security agreement with Turkey, signed last year. Paragraph 2 of Article II of the ceasefire agreement calls on all foreign troops to leave Libya within three months. In a televised interview on 24 October, LNA Spokesman Ahmed Al-Mismari countered by insisting the agreement specifically means Turkey. Ankara is siding with the GNA in the conflict and brought thousands of Syrian mercenaries to beef up the GNA’s defences against the LNA, pushing it back to the Sirte region, 500 kilometres east.

Shortly after the ceasefire was announced in Geneva, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to undermine it. He was quoted as stating that the document lacks credibility because it was not signed by “high ranking officials” from both sides. He also cast doubt on its implementation by asking if it is “correct” for mercenaries to leave Libya.

Ankara, particularly since November 2019, has invested heavily – both politically and militarily – in supporting the GNA, and it is difficult to see it pull back just because the GNA and the LNA decided to talk peace.

The same goes for Moscow, who is supporting the LNA. However, Moscow never publicly acknowledged that, always denying any connection to hundreds of Wagner Group mercenaries who have been fighting for the LNA.

READ: Three women, loads of lies and the destruction of Libya 

Failure to translate the Geneva ceasefire agreement into a political accord in Tunis, in less than two weeks, could derail the whole process that the UN has been building up to for months.

This bleak scenario is a valid threat to the whole peace momentum that has developed, following a series of meetings last month, that saw delegates meet in Montreux (Switzerland), Hurghada (Egypt) and Bouznika (Morocco), before the 5+5 commission met in Geneva last week.

The failure of the LPDF could unravel the ceasefire agreement itself, and renewed fighting could become reality around the Sirte-Jufra line, very close to Libya’s oil crescent. Oil, of course, was and is the main driver of conflict between local rivals and their foreign backers.

However, what is likely in the case of failure, is that UNSMIL hopes to maintain the status quo, including the ceasefire, until the new US president is inaugurated early next year. If President Trump wins the 3 November election, as I predict, it is likely that the Libyan file will become a priority on his agenda. US presidents’ second terms tend to focus more on foreign policy.

While the LPDF failure is not an option for UNSMIL, foreign powers meddling in Libya’s affairs are still capable of circumventing any deal that they do not like. They have done it before, and will try to do it again.

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