Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared on VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
The call for the Russian leadership to support Italy’s efforts to hold a conference in Palermo on November 12-13 on the unification of Libya following the confrontation between Rome and Paris is evidence of the importance of the problem for the EU. But the aggravation of the situation in this country does not give grounds for optimism.
Armed clashes between rival groups broke out in the Libyan capital. This was announced on October 18 by the TV channel al-Arabia. Clashes in Tripoli resumed after the murder of one of the most influential field commanders of the “Revolutionary Brigade Tripoli” (RBT) Heyri al-Hankura. He was shot dead near the Radisson Hotel in the centre of the capital. Following this, Hankura’s supporters killed two members of a rival group, captured by the RBT. Clashes could disrupt the ceasefire agreements and complicate the situation before the elections scheduled for December.
At the end of September, mediated by the UN mission in Libya, armed groups came to an agreement for a truce. It was envisaged to “return the paramilitary units to the places of their former permanent deployment” and transfer the disputed facilities and positions under the control of “joint military units” formed by the Presidential Council under the Government of National Accord (GNA). The clashes did not cease in Tripoli since August 26, stopped after September 4, but after a two-week lull, groups began to fire at each other with mortars. At least nineteen thousand city residents left the capital.
All this highlights the vulnerability of the Government of National Unity of Fayez al-Sarraj. On September 16, he and the UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salamé rebuilt the “architecture” of Tripoli’s security, creating a “joint force”. The head of the RBT Haytham Tajuri was to become one of the pillars of this system. But the main field commanders consolidated their positions. The new system (as well as the previous ones) was built on the distribution of spheres of influence, ownership and control over financial flows. This model has all chances to collapse at the first serious conflict between the main field commanders.
Not one of them, neither in Tripoli nor in Misurate, wishes to be subordinated to al-Sarraj. But for Salamé and Rome, the main thing is to create the illusion of a viable system on the eve of the convening of an “international conference on Libya” under its auspices. It is impossible to talk about the creation of a sustainable self-sufficient system of public administration in Tripoli. It will always be exposed to the risks of interpersonal relationships between warlords that require al-Sarraj to provide financial and economic subsidies in exchange for relative loyalty.
The main idea of a fix for the international sponsors of the Libya process (France, Italy, the UN) remains the holding of general elections. The efforts of the Italians and Salamé to re-establish a system of stability in Libya are aimed at solving this problem. In the west of the country, Rome has levers of influence on the situation, in the east, it relies on Moscow’s mediation to convince Cairo and Abu Dhabi to agree to at least the participation of representatives of Khalifa Haftar in the November “summit”. The Libyan National Army (LNA) stands ready to ensure the safe conduct of elections in the regions under its control. This was stated by its high command on October 14.
On May 29, the Libyan factions at the talks in Paris during the international conference on Libya under the auspices of the UN and presided by French President Emmanuel Macron agreed to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in the country on December 10. The Secretary-General of the league of Arab States Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the head of the Government of National Accord Fayez al-Sarraj, the commander of the LNA Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, members of the Parliament of the east and leaders of a number of African states attended the conference. In early October, Haftar in an interview with Reuters stated the readiness of the LNA to ensure the security of the vote in December. He accused “other players” of the fact that “they do not participate in the organisation of the elections”.
The Field Marshal Searches for Clans
The problem is that in the ranks of Haftar’s supporters cohesion is not very good. Today, after six months of fighting, he conditionally controls Derna, which was an Islamist stronghold in his rear and had a constant destabilising effect on the security situation in the border areas with Egypt. At the same time, the struggle in Hafter’s close circle and in the House of Representatives in Tobruk worsened. General Abdessalam al-Hassi was promoted as Deputy to Haftar. This Muammar Gaddafi’s former Special Forces officer joined the rebels in Benghazi in 2011, taking over the coordination from NATO. In 2014, he joined the LNA, taking command of the anti-terrorist operation “al-Karama”, launched by Haftar.
Ahmed Salem, another friend of Haftar, is appointed as the commander of the military grouping in the Benghazi region in his stead. He was an army officer in the early Gaddafi era; he later deserted and joined Haftar in exile in the US. Salem’s advancement is a reward for the role he played in the offensive on the Oil Crescent Fields captured by Ibrahim Jadhran in the middle of the year. Al-Hassi and Salem will join Haftar’s inner circle, which is becoming increasingly closed to outsiders. Haftar relies on his sons: Khalid, the commander of the 106th brigade, Saddam, captain of the LNA and Belkacem, who acts in the diplomatic arena, lobbying for his father’s interests in the United States. In addition, in the Field Marshal’s inner circle is the Chief of Staff of the LNA Aun al-Ferjani, who returned to operational duties after being operated on in the summer in Tunisia.
Haftar is trying to consolidate supporters amid unrest in the ranks of the LNA command. This is shown by repressive measures against assistants who tried to replace him when he was in France in April in the hospital. The Chief of Staff of the LNA Abderrazak Madhuri, who was called the main candidate as successor to Haftar, has come under investigation on charges of embezzlement. The nomination of al-Hassi to the position of Deputy is a step for the resignation of Madhuri. Fathi Hassouna al-Dersi, Director of the Bureau of Foreign Relations of the LNA was arrested and released on October 11. The Director of Ideology and Morality of the LNA Hashem Burgas al-Kezza was arrested. Former Interior Minister Younes al-Kahwaji was detained from October 4 to 8. He was accused of conspiring to overthrow Haftar. On October 2, person “number 2” was arrested in the military intelligence structure of the LNA and the former Governor of Benghazi Ahmed al-Araibi.
Appointments made by Haftar are trying to strengthen ties with local tribes and to create a new clan alliance in Cyrenaica and Fezzani. The promotion of Abdessalam al-Hassi and Ahmed Salem strengthens the alliance with the al-Hassa tribe to which these soldiers belong. A native of the same tribe, Salem al-Hassi, a former member of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSF) and the former head of the Libyan intelligence in Cyrenaica, after the assassination of Gaddafi, joined Haftar and was responsible for operations in Derna in 2015. His cousin Hamed al-Hassi, the former head of the Military Council of Cyrenaica, took part in several missions in secret consultations with the other parties to the Libyan conflict and has played a leading role in recruiting former officers of the Libyan army and secret services to the LNA.
Haftar relies on his Ferjani tribe, to which belongs his Chief of Staff Aun al-Ferjani. On the other hand, his relationship with the Al-Awagir, which improved after the release of the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Faraj Qaim, was in jeopardy after the arrest of Hashem Burgaz al-Kezzi, a member of the head of the clan of this tribe. At the same time, Haftar tries to consolidate relations with the members of the Salafi movement, which in Tripoli is represented by a field commander who consolidated his influence in the capital after establishing control over the port, the national bank and the LNI investment fund.
Consultations are also ongoing by the Field Marshal with the tribes of Fezzan about the incorporation of their troops into the LNA. Haftar has asked the leader of the Tuareg Ali Kanna to represent the strength of the Fezzan in the future Military Council. The Field Marshal reported about the plans for its creation on October 14. The body, modeled on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt (SCAF), is designed to “reunite” the Libyan army. Kanna, who has a trusting relationship with the military intelligence of Algeria, is a staunch supporter of Gaddafi and among his fighters are many former Gaddafists. The conditions of their incorporation into the LNA and the very cooperation with the supporters of the former Libyan leader cause discontent in the LNA command and affect the final success of these negotiations.
The Egyptians are trying to reboot the creation of a “single army” of Libya through the resuscitation of a single tribal union of Cyrenaica under the conditional command of Haftar. After the failure of similar steps by Cairo in the spring, the talk is about the creation of a new system of a “united army”, which will be based not on the advisory council, but on a centralised command. To talk about creating a classic Libyan army is unnecessary. Collegiality and the army are incompatible. The main thing is that Cairo is going to create a new security system, which the Italians and the UN are trying to implement in Tripoli. This means recognising that neither Haftar nor Sarraj can resolve the issue of military dominance himself.
On top of this, the LNA command wants to win the loyalty of the Tubu in the south, promising military support in the offensive on the position of the Chadian opposition in Umm al-Aranib, 120 kilometres from the administrative centre of Fezzan, Sebha. Haftar suggested involving four brigades of the LNA in the assault. The head of the Tubu tribe swore to expel the Chadians from “Chinatown” to the north from this town (built by the company “Sinohydro”). The same with whom Haftar is also trying to strengthen his alliance with President Idriss Deby of Chad.
Today, parts of the Tubu “Katiba Khalid Ibn Walid” armed militia under the command of Yusuf Hussein Salah are leading an offensive against Chadian rebels based in Umm al-Aranib. Established in early October and supported by others, the Katiba Tubu, which includes the Rubiyan militia, is attempting without much success to attack the positions of the armed coalition of Chadian and Sudanese rebels (Toro Boro and the Justice and Equality Movement) from the Garane, Tubu and Zaghawa tribes. The Tubu’s counter-attack followed the kidnapping of two Tubus on October 14 by members of the coalition. It seems that this skirmish is in the nature of inter-tribal clashes, which are constant in Fezzan for any reason.
Haftar’s hope (and Cairo’s) for the creation of a single LNA by incorporating into it the tribes of the Fezzan (Tubu, Awlad Suleiman and Tuareg) are doomed to failure. It is not even that the Tubu refused to support Haftar. In Fezzan there are strong anti-Haftar sentiments, and all the previous attempts by the Field Marshal to lure into his ranks the representatives of those tribes have failed. The Rome Pact operates in Fezzan, which the Italians were able to arrange in the spring. It consists of the establishment of a “border guard” from Tubu, Awlad Suleiman and Tuareg tribes to combat illegal migration from the Sahel. For loyalty, Rome pays tribal leaders wages and compensation to the victims of tribal strife of the past. The alliance is fragile, but Haftar has not presented a financial alternative. The extension by Cairo of a deadline for tribal militias to indicate their readiness to enter the LNA under new conditions suggests that the initiative has stalled and has not taken shape in reality. This puts off the prospect of resuscitation of a single army and a single country in Libya for the distant future.
Risks in Dinars
Speaking about the “Italian” conference, an attempt to seize the initiative by the French as mediators in the Libyan settlement, we note that Moscow does not really believe in the future of the Sarraj government and does not trust its field commanders because of the Islamist past and present. Relations with Haftar and Cairo supporting him are much better, including regarding the supply of Russian weapons. In addition, the head of the “eastern” Central Bank of Libya (CBL), located in Bayda, Ali al-Hibri, is preparing to place an order for printing 12 billion dinars in Moscow. His CBL already received 660 million dinars from Russia in May 2017 and four billion a year earlier.
The replenishment of the holdings of the “eastern” Central Bank goes against the appeals of the western governments and the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) headed by Ghassan Salamé to reunite the two Central Banks, which is considered by him as one of the main bases for the reconstruction of a single country. Salamé supported the proposal to conduct a general audit of the Central Banks of Tripoli and Bayda, which was previously agreed to at a meeting in Tunisia on August 28 by the head of the western Central Bank in Tripoli Saddek Elkaber and al-Hibri. The CBL in Tripoli is finalising a tender to find an international audit team to audit all accounts of the two CBLs from 2011.
The fact that al-Hibri decided to print money again in Russia, shows it was decided in Tobruk (and in Cairo and Abu Dhabi) to block the conference in Palermo. It is not clear what foreign policy benefits Russia receives from mediation. It is more profitable for Moscow to keep neutrality in the Italian-French confrontation, while maintaining working relations with the Egyptians. Especially set against the recent visit of Egyptian President al-Sisi to Russia, which marked serious progress in the formation of a strategic partnership in bilateral relations.
Cairo is trying to solve urgent issues for itself, forming a single Libyan army under the command of Haftar. The recruitment call for paramilitary groups to join the LNA on November 10 is set as the deadline for joining the regular army. This was indicated in the statement by the army command on October 23. All who decide to join can do so at the “nearest division”. The recruitment call came against the backdrop of ongoing negotiations in Cairo on the formation of a single army. According to the official representative of the LNA General Ahmed al-Mismari “a large number of commanders of Libyan military units take part in the consultations”. According to him, the parties have already agreed to establish three command councils in the management of the united army: the National Security Council, the Supreme Defense Council and the General Command Council. This is not the first attempt by Egypt to create a serious military force under the auspices of Tobruk, which is considered by Cairo as the only opportunity for the emergence of the most unified Libya under its supervision. The latest armed clashes in Tripoli and the activity of Salamé and Rome in the formation of a new security system for Sarraj are additional incentives for Cairo.
Recall that on April 18, Egypt made the latest efforts to unite the Libyan army under the command of Haftar. The Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Egypt Mahmoud Hijazi controlled the process. He was supposed to lead in the long term to the result that Haftar’s army would integrate into the GNA jurisdiction led by Sarraj. This was then actively supported by France, which was preparing the May conference on the reconstruction of a united Libya and had good contacts with Sarraj. Today, however, the Prime Minister of the GNA lost a lot of political weight. Anyway, starting negotiations on April 18, the Egyptians knew that they were doomed to failure.
Previous negotiations on the “reunification” of Libya’s army, which ended in Cairo on March 21, failed, despite the presence of Sarraj’s and Haftar’s chiefs of staff, Abdul-Rahman al-Tawila and Abderrazak Madhuri. Under the chairmanship of Hijazi, it was necessary to develop a procedure for recruiting officers of the western Libyan army into the LNA. But one question led to its failure. Who should sign the agreement as the Supreme Leader of the Armed Forces? The Prime Minister of the GNA Sarraj, or the head of the House of Representatives in Tobruk, Aguila Salah Issa? Salah Issa had a legal basis for this under the current constitution of Libya but the political agreement of 2015 gave Sarraj superiority in this matter.
It seems it is not worth it for Moscow to take any position in the Libyan crisis. On the one hand, there are topics for the development of relations with Paris and Rome, but it is much more important to maintain the dynamics of bilateral relations with Cairo and Abu Dhabi. Previous events in Libya and the experience of the west’s peacekeeping efforts heave no illusions about the reality of any mediation. It is much better to stay above the fray, correcting the position solely in non-public sectors.
Thus, London and Washington are extremely not interested in strengthening Moscow’s military presence in Libya. This is evidenced by the information attack of the British press in October regarding the presence of the Russian military in this country, specifically “oil interests”. In fact, Moscow does not need the presence of a united Libya in the hydrocarbon market. Such a scenario can radically change the situation thereon from a point of view of increasing the volume of production.
This, of course, is useful for lowering gasoline prices in the US and for President Trump, but not for Russia. It is much more effective to observe how western countries are trying to overcome the crisis created by themselves, which hits their pockets and creates domestic political risks in the continuation of the migration crisis. For the situation to remain in the interests of Moscow, no military operations are needed. It is enough not to interfere with the US and its allies to “bury” themselves in Libya, where they very successfully are succeeding.
The article is based on materials of the MEI expert A. Bystrov.