Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
The events in Syria on the eve of the Congress of National Dialogue in Sochi, the war against Russia on the diplomatic front, the operation of the Turkish Army in Kurdish Afrin and the cleaning up of the Jabat al-Nusra detachements, banned in Russia, in Idlib attract more media attention than anything else happening in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the situation in and around Libya is equally important for the future alignment of forces in the region.
The rivalry of domestic and regional players, among which stand out the UAE, Egypt and Qatar, sending weapons and mercenaries to the former Jamahiriya through Chad and Sudan, as well as France and Italy, not to mention the initiatives of the UN, fully demonstrate that there are Middle Eastern contradictions. Fortunately, to stop the flow of illegal migrants from Africa to the EU, Libya, even forgetting about its oil resources, is a key country. The article is based on materials from the expert of the Institute of the Middle East A. Bystrov.
Road Map from Thin Air
Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar declared that the validity of the Skhirat Agreement (the political document on the resolution of the Libyan crisis, signed on December 17, 2015 in the Moroccan city of Skhirat by the representatives of the main factions. E.S.) has expired. All bodies created on its basis “have automatically forfeited their legitimacy”. Now in Libya operate the Presidential Council and the Government of National Accord (NTC), supported by the international community and created on the basis of the Skhirat Agreement, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, and the “Eastern Cabinet of Ministers” headed by A. al-Thani, loyal to the House of Representatives in Tobruk, supported by the LNA commander Field Marshal Haftar, who is considered a political opponent of Sarraj.
The “New Road Map” project is being developed with the participation of Algeria, with the involvement of the leader of the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood, Rached Ghannouchi. The latter is consulted on the admissibility of the candidacy of Haftar as future defence minister with Tripoli’s and Misurata’s “Brothers”. Moscow and Cairo guaranteed Sarraj that in the event of his adoption of such a project, Haftar and his forces will not try to assault the Libyan capital. Sarraj and his Minister of Foreign Affairs were given to understand that in case of the realisation of such a scenario a partial easing of the arms embargo is possible. The Government of National Accord of Libya asked the Security Council of the UN for supplies for the Coast Guard and the Presidential Guard.
From Haftar’s statements and panic in Tripoli due to a possible attack by the Tobruk forces on the Libyan capital it only follows that Sarraj, before the expiration of the Skhirat Agreement, did not give his answer on the Russian-Egyptian proposal. The UAE and Egypt, supporting Haftar, did not believe him and were preparing for a military solution to the discussion on the roadways for the exit from the Libyan deadlock, including the transfer of converted to agricultural aircraft in Bulgaria by Erik Prince’s enterprise, which now can be used as front-line bombers. The French predicted the present initiative of military policing operations to combat the slave trade on the coast of Libya in areas around Tripoli…
No Elections, No War
Libya’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections are due to take place before September 30, 2018 but it is clear that the House of Representatives in Tobruk and Haftar will do everything to disrupt them. On paper and in official statements during the negotiations with the Western partners, both he and Sarraj agree on the need for a general vote. At the same time, Sarraj wants to keep the post of Prime Minister. Haftar, who claims that his army will obey only the newly elected President of the Parliament, understands that he and his supporters will not be able to achieve absolute success in the upcoming elections. To obey Sarraj the Field Marshal does not wish but he cannot militarily subdue the principal regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, nor dictate the terms and guarantee the right outcome of the vote for himself. The majority of areas south of Fezzan are beyond his control, as is Tripoli. In Benghazi, fighting periodically flares up with Islamists who are supported by Misurata.
In addition to Haftar and Sarraj, there are other power centres. First of all, it is Misurata, where the positions of those opposed to compromises with Haftar are strengthening. The murder of the mayor of Misurata on December 18, Mohamad Eshtewi, a former advocate for dialogue with him, is evidence of this. Experts believe that one of the main opponents of Haftar and the organiser of the Eshtewi murder is the commander of the strongest clan and armed group of Misurata “Brigade al-Marsah” S. Badi, who concentrates troops in the Sirte area for the organisation of an assault on Tobruk’s forces in the city of Jufra, a key control point for the routes to Fezzan and the “Oil Crescent” deposits.
The former Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril appeared in November in the Libyan capital, where he revived the activities of the “National Forces Alliance” party. He is supported by one of the strongest armed groups in the capital, the Nafisi police, guarding the administrative buildings and the city’s infrastructure in Tripoli. Among other politicians in the capital, may be noted the former Ambassador to Abu Dhabi Aref Ali Nayed, associated with Tobruk, and his Libyan Institute for Advanced Studies. The Chairman of the High Council of State under Sarraj Abdulrahman Sewehli encourages an armed confrontation between Haftar’s forces and Misurates and at the same time negotiates with the former Prime Minister from the Islamist General National Congress Khalifa al-Ghawil. All of them, except Ali Nayed, are Haftar’s opponents.
Gaddafi from the Zintan Clan
The son of the late Libyan leader, Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi intends to participate in the presidential elections. The beginning of his political activities became know in mid-October. The lawyer for the Gaddafi family, al-Zaidi told the TV channel “al-Arabia” that he participates in the life of the Libyan society and maintains contacts with tribal leaders. The 44-year old eldest son of M. Gaddafi, from his second marriage, was considered by his father as a probable successor.
He is an architect and engineer by education, having studies in Austria and Great Britain. He graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He headed the international charitable foundation named after his father. He was arrested in November 2011 by a militia from Zintan when travelling by car to the border with Niger. The Court of Appeal in Tripoli on July 24, 2015 sentenced him to death in absentia, accusing him of crimes against the Libyan people committed during the “February 17 Revolution”. However, the Zintans refused to extradite the prisoner to the authorities in the capital, with whom they were at war after the fall of the Gaddafi’s regime, and in early June Said al-Islam was released from prison.
His return to active political life of Libya is not a Western project to create a new compromise figurehead. He will not be accepted in this capacity in Tobruk, Benghazi, Misurata and a number of Tripoli clans. The nomination of Gaddafi’s son is the initiative of the Zintan clan to counterbalance Haftar. The military expansion to the west of the latter and the seizure of the main oil fields of the Libyan Crescent alarmed the leadership of the Zintan tribe, becoming the reason for the increased tension between the recent allies. It was the Zintan people who secretly encouraged the resistance of tribal groups in Central Libya and Fezzan to Haftar’s military expansion in the summer-autumn of 2017.
Al-Islam, in addition to the control of foreign assets of the family of the former Libyan leader, has the support of the Gaddafi tribe. He stood behind the integration project of the Islamists in the political structure of the Libyan Jamahiriya in the last phases of his father’s reign and since then, has not only established contacts with a number of leaders of the Libyan “Muslim Brotherhood” and jihadists (among them, the former head of the Libyan Islamic fighting group Abdelhakim Belhadj), but has compromising material on them as well. Thus, the Tripolinates demanded from Zintan the extradition of al-Islam to execute him, to close the possibility of any disclosure of the dossier.
Gaddafi’s son’s participation in the political process (despite the fact that the Zintan clan is the strongest in the country in combat potential) became know after a matter of days after Haftar’s statement that the army would not obey any political structure, without the legitimate support of the people. He referred to the dialogue between the Libyan parties, including the political agreement they had reached, as an “agreement on paper only”. According to the LNA commander, the government of the national accord is “vested with a non-existent authority”. According to Haftar, the LNA has been cooperating with the international community for more than a year, putting forward its own initiatives to advance the political process in Libya, but this “has not led to any results”.
Haftar essentially disavowed his participation in any agreements with the Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord Sarraj, followed by Italy and the UN Special Representative for Libya, Hasan Salame. He emphasized the rejection of any schemes of the new Libyan authorities, where he would not be the commander-in-chief of the security forces. His sponsors, namely the UAE, Egypt and France, support such statements. According to Haftar, “Libya is entering a dangerous period of aggravation of the situation inside the country, especially in the regions”. This means disrupting the peace initiatives and negotiations and to return to the trilateral power: the House of Representatives in Tobruk, Tripoli clans and the Government of Sarraj, as well as the Western Libyan Zintan clan, who put forward a political alternative to exit from a stalemate.
On January 15, operating in the suburbs of Tripoli, the militants of the Islamist formation “al-Baqarah” attacked the prison, located on the territory of the Mitiga airport and tried to free the prisoners, the majority of whom are connected with terrorism, including groups with al-Qaeda and Islamic State (banned in Russia). The attackers met with resistance from forces controlling the airport, the Special Forces of the Ministry of the Interior of the Government of National Accord of Sarraj. In the fighting, 20 people were killed and more than 60 were wounded. Standing on the airfield, the aircraft were damaged and all flights were diverted to Misurata, located 200 kilometres east of the city.
Mitiga is a military airfield receiving international flights as well as Tripoli’s main airport since it was damaged during the clashes that broke out in July 2014 between the armed rebels of the “Zintan Brigade”, loyal to Field Marshal Haftar, and the Pro-Islamic Alliance “Dawn of Libya”. During the fighting, the infrastructure of the transport hub, with 90 percent of aircraft damaged or burned, was destroyed, as well as the control tower, and the runway requires a major overhaul. In the past, armed clashes have repeatedly led to failures in Mitiga’s work. But Haftar’s forces or the “Zintan Brigade” have no relationship with the latest developments.
The conflict does not dampen the intention of the “al-Baqarah Brigade” fighters to free the supporters, arrested by the officers of the main police force in Tripoli, the “Rada Brigade” under the command of A. Kara, elements of which are the main guarantors of the security of the Government of National Accord of Sarraj. It is against the latter that the armed provocation was sent. This was preceded with preparatory negotiations between the commander of al-Baqarah B. Khalfallah and two representatives of the pro-Qatari platform in the Islamist wing of Tripoli, the former Prime Minister al-Ghawil and the radical mufti of Libya Sadeq al-Garjani.
Thus, al-Baqarah officially enters the Libyan army under the name “Infantry Brigade 33”, which was subordinate until recently to the government of Sarraj. Both of the mentioned above Tripoli warlords are currently trying to weaken Sarraj in his attempts to negotiate with Haftar the creation of a single government and army. Negotiations on this subject took place throughout January in Cairo under the auspices of the Egyptian President, and recently a trilateral meeting with A.F. al-Sisi, Haftar and Saraj was expected and the announcement of breakthrough decisions on this topic. The events in Mitiga are an attempt to disrupt the process and discredit the powers of Sarraj by demonstrating that he “is not sufficiently” able to control even his own army.
At the same time, the events in Mitiga made it possible to reorient the main air transportation to the airport controlled by the Qataris and the Turks in Misurata, blocking the supply of material and technical support from Italy and the UN to Sarraj’s government. Doha is behind this, strengthening recently the financing of subversive operations as a direct sponsor of its protégés in Libya and the deployment of convoys of weapons through the Sudan-Chad-Libyan border controlling units. Doha’s main objective is to disrupt the general elections in Libya and to avoid blocking its supporters in Misurata.
We will note that the Qataris’ and their proxies’ attempt failed. Sarraj demonstrated the managerial potential and the degree of influence on the troops under his control in the army. On his side, in addition to the Rada Brigade, 10 different armed groups took part in the events. Among them are Tripolitans under the command of Kh. Tadjuri and Kh. al-Kikli. They received directly from the Americans the information about the situation, using reconnaissance aircraft for this, based on the Italian island of Pantelleria and, during the fighting, loitering over the Libyan capital. This suggests that the United States have a direct channel of intelligence exchange with the relevant structures of the Sarraj government.
Sudan, Chad and Smuggling
The Libyan Armed Forces (with the help of the Air Force) conducted a large-scale military operation against armed groups from Chad, south of the Jaghbub Oasis, in the direction of Kufra, close to the border strip with Egypt. The convoy of SUVs was located by French pilots (a group of combat aircraft and helicopters from France is based on the Air Force base near Benghazi), which gave the coordinates to the Libyan Air Force. The Kufra Oasis lies at the intersection of logistic channels of arms smuggling and illegal migration flows. The Sudanese corridor and the border areas of Chad play a major role in the smuggling. The attack shows that the convoys of weapons (in this case Qatari) continue to go to Libya.
Approximately a month ago Khartoum, under pressure from Riyadh, announced the tightening of border control measures and transferred the new Janjaweed forces there, simultaneously eliminating the rebellion of one of the field commanders of the formation, who decided to control the flow of weapons without instructions from Khartoum. The transfer of cargo to Chad and from there to Libya suggests that the Sudanese intelligence services (they are behind all smuggling through the country, from weapons to fuel and migrants) have changed the scheme, focusing on the Chadian logistics routes. This minimises Khartoum’s formal role of these operations and calms Riyadh.
The use of the Chadian transit for Sudanese security services is not very difficult due to the porousness of borders and the presence of one tribal group in the adjacent territories in the area, the Zaghawa. They are the main members of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). It was created during the struggle of the Zaghawa against Khartoum for social autonomy and the incorporation of its members in the official power structures of the Sudan. It was headed by I. Khalil, who was part of the Zaghawa tribal elite and used Chad as a rear base.
At that time, he enjoyed the support of the Chadian President I. Deby (as well as of the Zaghawa) and was in contact with the leadership of the ambassadorial residences of the French and American intelligence services in N’Djamena. After Deby and the Sudanese President O. al-Bashir reconciled, the need of Khalil for the Chadian leader diminished. He began to dread him because of the struggle in the tribal leadership of the Zaghawa. Khalil was ambushed during the crossing from Chad to Sudan after returning from Libya. The experts associate the tip-off from N’Djamena with the Sudanese intelligence knowledge. The group was headed by Khalil’s brother, Hussein.
Soon JEM collapsed, a significant part made peace with Khartoum and joined the ranks of the Janjaweed, and the rest, headed by Hussein, snuck into South Sudan, where they fought on the side of the authorities against the Nuer rebels of the former Vice-President R. Mashara. They are, to this day, still part of the security system of the South Sudan President S. Kiir. In Kufra the “reconciled” part of JEM operates with Khartoum. The Libyan special services during Gaddafi’s time fed JEM and used them, among other things, to destabilise the situation in Sudan (Gaddafi’s relations with al-Bashir were contradictory). During the overthrow of the Libyan leader Khalil, along with his then unified group fought on the side of Gaddafi. So the territory of Libya supporters of the JEM are well acquainted and have established relations with the local tribes.
That the French reconnaissance aircraft directed the Air Force of the “Libyan Army” of Haftar (or rather the planes of the PMC Erik Prince) on the weapons convoys proves once again that they were Qatari and the weapons were controlled by the Qatari forces in Misurata. This shows that Doha is not yet ready to participate in the UN plan to solve the Libyan crisis and is trying to disrupt the elections. The use by pro-Qatari groups of Chadian territory for smuggling (formally Deby is an ally of Haftar) is understandable: Doha pays well for services. The reorientation by the Sudanese of part of the smuggling channels to Chad brings local authorities considerable revenue…
Evgeny Satanovsky, President of the Middle East Institute