Efforts to resolve the long-standing conflict in Libya following the Berlin Conference seem to deliver some relative success on the military, economic and political tracks despite persisting challenges and difficulties. Given past failures of similar international conference and negotiations, this relative headway is of paramount importance to avoid another talk breakdown caused by the deep divisions between the various parties to the conflict.
It remains difficult to predict a total success in any of these tracks in a manner that would make way for hammering out a final and lasting solution to the ongoing conflict. It is likely that one or more of these three tracks will hit a stalemate in an advanced stage of negotiation.
The military track of the intra-Libyan negotiations is handled by the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission which kicked off a second round of talks in Geneva, Switzerland, during the third week of February. Despite the fact that the Geneva talks are indirect, UN envoy Ghassan Salamé has announced that the parties had reached an agreement on prisoner swap.
The immediate goal of this round of negotiations is to upgrade the current fragile truce into a permanent ceasefire. Whatever progress will be made to attain this goal, there are several factors that may undermine the talks on this track and bog down efforts to strike a comprehensive agreement on the establishment of unified Libyan national security, police and military forces under central, civilian authority as announced in the final communique of the Berlin Conference.
Libya's National Accord Government (Al-Wefaq) fears that any progress on the military track will inevitably lead to chaos among the ranks of its military forces. These concerns are driven by three facts, including the large militia component, multiple loyalties and the absence of a strong hierarchy that ensures the implementation of whatever agreed upon in Geneva.
The commonality between the three factors is the militia. In the weeks after the Berlin Conference, there have been more signs of a strained relationship between the various factions of the pro-Sarraj government forces. On the one hand, tensions escalated between the Minister of the Interior, Fathi Bashagha, and militia leaders and between Libyan militias and Syrian mercenaries on the other. Other factions are totally out of control, such as the Al-Samoud Brigade, led by Salah Badi.
The Al-Wefaq government understands its many weaknesses in the face of Haftar. In this regard, the government has repeatedly reversed fundamental steps it had taken on the military track. This includes a request for the withdrawal of Haftar's forces to the pre-April 4 lines as a precondition for participating in the track, and its decision to boycott the talks after Haftar's forces bombed a ship in the port of Tripoli one day before the start of the second round of negotiations.
On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine Haftar agreeing to a settlement that does not guarantee him control of the military, which cannot be accepted by influential parties in the western region. Also, field balances, which guarantee him greater control over the airspace of the battlegrounds, may push his representatives to the Geneva talks to take a more stringent position.
The second round of the economic track’s talks was held in Cairo during the second week of February, with the participation of 28 financial and economic institutions, experts and officials. The first round of this track was launched on January 6, before the Berlin conference, and its third round will be held during the first half of March.
The discussions focus on three main issues that are structurally related to the core of the conflict: The first is the unification of economic and financial institutions; the second is the equitable distribution of wealth; and the third is the question of reconstruction. In addition to these issues, there is a fourth immediate issue, which is the reopening of oil facilities, which were closed prior to the start of the Berlin conference by tribal elements loyal to Field Marshal Haftar.
For Haftar, pulling the oil card at the negotiating table may help achieve what might be more costly to achieve in the field, and a change in this position is unlikely without a firm U.S. intervention. In the event that the camp supporting Haftar is forced to give up this card before receiving substantial gains in the negotiating rooms, this could herald a major wave of military escalation.
The political track is represented in the 40-Strong Committee which is scheduled to kick off its meetings in Geneva on February 26. The committee comprises thirteen members of the House of Representatives, one representative of the High Council of State, and fourteen members chosen by the UN envoy.
The formation of this committee has faced many difficulties on more than one level. As for the House of Representatives, it was late to nominate its representatives. Regardless of the reasons invoked by the house, however, the delay was driven by real concerns over a UN mission plan to give the new committee legislative powers to complete the legal requirements to end the transitional phase, in addition to endorsing a united government that replaces Al-Sarraj government. Earlier, the house speaker, Aqeela Saleh, had announced twelve principles as a condition for participating in the talks.
As for the High Council of State, the nomination of representatives has sparked internal divisions, especially between the current and former presidents of the council, Khaled Al-Mishri and Abdul Rahman Al-Sewehli. These differences have reached the point of attempting to revoke Al-Sewehli's membership in the council. As a response, the latter mounted a stinging media attack on Al-Mishri and the Muslim Brotherhood to which he belongs. Later on, the council suspended its participation in the talks four days before their start.
As for the fourteen members who are to be named by the UN envoy, they have not been announced yet, but it is likely that they will include representatives of the Gaddafi regime supporters, who are the most marginalized party during the past years, and who, at the same time, are able to change the political map. Since taking office, the current UN envoy has been working to involve this component in the conflict-resolution process.
Although the agenda for this path has not been announced, the formation of a unified government in the country is likely to be one of the main objectives of the talks. It should be noted here that there are growing indications of diplomatic normalization with the Al-Bayda government by traditional allies of the Al-Wefaq government, such as the United States, Algeria, and Morocco. This means breaking the Al-Wefaq government’s monopoly on international recognition, which supports the hypothesis of a serious international move to bypass Al-Sarraj, and support the formation of a unified government.
In light of the presence of permanent motives for renewed fighting, it can be said that the maximum prospects for success that may be achieved through the negotiating tracks is to reshape the balances between the two main parties to the conflict and control their behavior. This can be accomplished through achieving three main goals: The first is to curtail the militia component of the Al-Wefaq government as an enemy for all in the long run; and the second, the gradual rehabilitation of supporters of the former regime as independent representatives in the political process, and not just a party inclined to Haftar. The third goal is to deepen the discussion on the equitable distribution of wealth in a manner that primarily satisfies the interests of the social components, as well as the interests of the foreign parties supporting each domestic party.
Until this is achieved, the local parties to the conflict will seek to expand the margin of maneuverability, by taking advantage of the roles and aspirations of the regional parties in order to win more time, not only through further military escalation, but also in leveraging parallel conflict-resolution initiatives, such as this promoted by Algeria, for example.
* Libyan Affairs Researcher.
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