Scheduled for October 10, 2020, the Second Sirte Conference has been named after one held a century earlier — the first Sirte Conference of January 1922 on the unification of eastern and western Libya — in an attempt to give the upcoming meeting a particular sense of historical and national importance. The second conference follows on the heels the Bouznika negotiations in Morocco, at which the various Libyan parties reached an important agreement on the criteria for appointing officials to sovereign positions. It also comes on the eve of the next round of talks among the 5+5 committee, which is part of the military track seeking a settlement.

This article will examine the complexities facing the Second Sirte Conference in the quest to achieve a Libyan settlement, which has been the focus of intense efforts in recent months, and the likely challenges and opportunities in that regard.

Security challenges

The dismantlement of the militias is one of the most pressing issues yet to be settled, whether as part of a permanent settlement to the conflict or in efforts to end the division within the country during the transitional phase that would come before a comprehensive solution. Following the withdrawal of Khalifa Haftar’s forces from western Libya, fierce conflict broke out once again between the militias in Tripoli, which have held a monopoly over security in the capital since the formation of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s government following the signing of the Skhirat Agreement. The conflict is not limited to Tripoli’s militias, however, having spread to militias in other cities of western Libya, such as Al-Zawiyah, Al-Zintan, Tajoura, and Misrata, which are now competing for influence over the security situation in Tripoli.

These conflicts have peaked in recent weeks, with fighting breaking out in residential areas of Tajoura between the Solidarity and Black Tajoura battalions. Conflict has also arisen between militias in Al-Zintan and in Al-Zawiyah, the hometown of the new Minister of Defense Salah al-Nimroush, who has attempted to help the militias there seize Tripoli International Airport (the Al-Zintan militias were one of the two main sides that fought over the airport during Operation Libya Dawn in 2014). In addition to the cycles of conflict that frequently erupt among Tripoli’s own militias, the Minister of the Interior has attempted to consolidate the influence of the Misrata militias over the capital.

These security disruptions have spread as far as Janzur to the west of Tripoli, where the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has its headquarters; on October 5, 2020, a huge explosion occured in Janzur, which has unsettled the security situation in the city and undermined the chances of establishing a unified government in Tripoli, especially as the Government of National Accord’s talks of creating a “National Guard” in an attempt to integrate the militias into the unified regular armed forces remains hard to stomach for the representatives of eastern Libya, even if it is unlikely to succeed.

Given the difficulty of resolving the situation with Tripoli’s militias, Sirte has instead been proposed as the headquarters of the future unified government in an effort to avoid making the success of such a pressing issue as ending the country’s divisions dependent on the resolution of the militia problem, which will take far longer to resolve. While it will not liberate the government from restrictions imposed by security pressures tied to the militia presence, it will shrink the stakes over which the militias are fighting, which will, in turn, help to overcome the obstacles that have prevented any real progress from being made in recent years.

Military challenges

Early October saw renewed military tensions between the two parties to the conflict. Abdulhadi Drah, spokesperson for the government’s Sirte–Jufra Operations Room, has indicated that hundreds of military vehicles belonging to Haftar’s forces and the Wagner Group have been sighted in the town of Al-Shuwayrif to the south of Misrata, which is on the road to Bani Walid and is part of the Gharyan axis established during Haftar’s Operation Flood of Dignity launched in April 2019. Armed Forces Commander Mohammad al-Haddad, who is from Misrata, has since visited Beni Walid, which is the most likely destination for Haftar and his supporters should they seek to relaunch military operations to target the capital.

Meanwhile, various sources have reported that 36 Turkish military aircraft arrived in Libya between the last week of September and the first week of October, primarily at Al-Watiyah Air Base. Photos have also been published that suggest that Turkish military personnel have been clearing mines at the base. Efforts are clearly being made to swiftly re-equip the base, which is one of the largest and most secure of those held by the Government of National Accord and would be the most suited to F-16 fighter aircraft, should Turkey decide to deploy them in Libya.

If the unified government does base itself in Sirte, controlling Tripoli will become of lower strategic importance for Haftar’s forces, especially as they already control Al‑Qardabiyah Base to the south of Sirte and various bases in central and southern Libya, including Al-Jufrah, Brak al-Shati, Tamanhint, and Sabha. Haftar’s forces have also seized most of Libya’s oil fields, while the Turkish-backed armed forces control all strategic airports, bases, and ports in the west.

Despite the potential balance, stability, and reduction in military escalation, especially between local and regional parties, that such a situation could bring, the USA may prefer to maintain the current geographical division of control until Moscow withdraws the forces purportedly allied to it from strategic bases in central and southern Libya and until the oil fields and ports are placed under the control of a neutral party.

Social challenges

Despite the numerous factors behind the significant flexibility shown by both sides during the Bouznika negotiations, social and regional considerations carry a great weight in determining their negotiating positions, given the potential for renewed military escalation in the eastern and western regions and the sensitivity of tribal communities to human losses. The war also enhanced the influence of security and military leaders within both the regular armed forces and the militias, thereby limiting the power of civil leaders on both sides to make important political and military decisions.

Sirte, in its regionally neutral location, therefore serves as a meeting point between eastern and western Libya. Moreover, the prominent position occupied by the city during the Gaddafi era and the important influence of the Qadhadhfa tribe actually serves the international approach to achieving a settlement, which seeks to reintegrate supporters of the former regime into the political process.

This approach, of which Russian is a major supporter, could serve as an entry point for negotiations between Moscow and Washington that could lead to the USA’s acceptance of some form of non-military Russian influence in Libya in which significant positions are secured for its allies within the new political arrangements, either to a limited extent during the transitional period or to a greater degree following the approval of a comprehensive settlement.

Moscow will be reluctant to accept such a deal, however, as the US–Russian conflict in Libya has since extended beyond the gains to be made in the country itself, becoming instead more closely tied to wider issues in the Euro-Mediterranean region and throughout the African continent.

In this context, the upcoming Sirte Conference will be an important test of whether the tribal social element will open the door to achieving consensus on the Libyan issue and whether it could serve as an effective platform through which competing international interests in Libya could be represented, as an alternative to military conflict.

Conclusion

  • The strategically-located city of Sirte has an important role to play in resolving many of the complex issues that are currently blocking the peaceful settlement of the Libyan conflict, such as the need to dismantle the militas, calm the east–west regional conflict, reduce reliance on military conflict, and integrate supporters of the former regime into the political process. Until those needs have been met, however, a more stable settlement will not be reached.
  • The Second Sirte Conference will be an important testing ground for whether the Libyan parties to the conflict can build on the political progress achieved thus far with a view to expanding consensus on social issues and taking another step closer to a settlement. However, this approach will not be enough on its own unless it receives adequate support from external stakeholders involved in the conflict.
  • The main challenge lies in convincing the international parties to the conflict to take a social approach to protecting their interests and those of domestic parties and to achieving reconciliation, rather than resorting to military conflict, especially as the US–Russian conflict in Libya is tied to each country’s strategic interests both within and beyond Libya’s borders.

Latest Briefs