Potential Trajectories for the Libyan Struggle: Settlement or Escalation

Bilal Abdullah | 21 Jan 2021

After weeks of the stalemate which followed the failure to reach a consensus among the participants in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), held in November and December 2020, over the mechanisms for selecting government office holders, as well as the faltering attempts to unify the divided parliament, the political settlement talks in Libya were resumed at the beginning of 2021, in conjunction with some regional and international moves in support of preserving the existing ceasefire. On the other hand, serious indications emerged of the presence of a large-scale military build-up. Those indications are mutually accumulating on both sides of the conflict, in addition to the occurrence of low-intensity clashes, coinciding with an escalation of rhetoric by the military parties to the conflict.

Between efforts to reach a peaceful settlement and indications of a slide into large-scale armed confrontations, there are many scenarios through which the current situation in Libya may develop. The current paper seeks to review the most prominent dimensions of the current situation, given its fluctuating nature between settlement and escalation, with reference to the most prominent scenarios expected during the next phase.

Resumption of settlement efforts

During the LPDF, the course of the talks showed the difficulty of creating the desired consensus in the light of the manoeuvres carried out by the local parties to obstruct and conclude deals under the table with the aim of staying in the scene, both to preserve their current positions and in an effort to assume more important positions. With the elections subject to the formation of a unified authority, those manoeuvres may lead to toppling the possibility of organising the elections on time.

In order to de-link the election path from the path of forming a unified authority, and with the failure of the parties participating in the LPDF to agree on the mechanisms for selecting the holders of the executive power, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) announced, during the third week of December 2020, the formation of two committees, one legal and the other advisory. Each committee consists of 18 members, chosen through nominations by the LPDF.

While the tasks of the Legal Committee are to lay down the necessary legal and constitutional frameworks for the conduct of the electoral process at the scheduled time, the Advisory Committee was mandated to put forward proposals on mechanisms for selecting the holders of the executive power. The first meeting of the Legal Committee was held in the fourth week of December 2020, while the Advisory Committee began its work in the first week of January 2021.

Stephanie Williams, the former Acting Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General (ASRSG) for Libya, was keen to confirm the special meaning of de-linking the path of the elections from the path of consolidating power, by stressing the essentiality of the target of holding the elections on time as a major guiding point for all efforts made during the talks sponsored by the UNSMIL which worked on preparing a preliminary proposal for a timetable for the steps needed to achieve this goal.

While the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) appointed, in mid-January 2021, the Slovak diplomat Ján Kubiš as the new UN Special Envoy, this is not expected to lead to the termination of the arrangements that Williams had worked on during the past months, especially that she had international support in preparing for the election process at the end of 2021 and the formation of a unified authority to regulate the conduct of the elections. Kubiš will most likely work to build on the accumulation and progress made by the UNSMIL, at least with regard to the broad lines and the general path of the settlement, given that the formation of a new unified authority constitutes a major pillar in this regard.

On the military track of the talks, within the framework of the 5+5 Committee, there is some progress that cannot be ignored. However, this progress relates only to the less controversial issues, such as the exchange of prisoners between the two parties, as well as showing relative flexibility in opening the coastal road between the country’s east and west. However, the most important issues continue to be pending between the two parties, mainly the withdrawal of fighters from the areas on the line of contact as well as the withdrawal of foreign fighters.

Even in terms of opening the coastal road, regardless of the stances of the most hard-line parties, such as Salah Badi, Commander of the Liwaa al-Somood (Resilience Brigade), who continues to insist on the refusal to open the road, Ibrahim Bait al-Mal, Commander of the Sirte-Jufra Operations Room, affiliated with the Government of General Accord (GNA, Al-Wefaq), announced, during the first week of January 2021, the refusal to open the road unless Haftar's forces hand over maps of mines planted around the demarcation line between the two sides.

Indications of military escalation

The pace of the Turkish military buildup in Libya has accelerated, with dozens of military cargo planes heading to each of the Al-Watiya Air Base and the Air Force College in Misurata, which were monitored during November and December 2020, in addition to a number of Turkish warships that also entered Libyan territorial waters, specifically in the ports of Misurata and Khums. On the other hand, during the second week of December 2020, the allegations of the spokesman for the GNA Sirte-Jufra Operations Room Abdul Hadi Dara were repeated about the landing of military cargo planes at Al-Qardabiya Air Base in Sirte, which included Syrian mercenaries loyal to Haftar's forces.

This mutual mobilisation was accompanied by indications of the deployment of forces by the two parties along the contact areas located on the Sirte-Jufra line, in parallel with the mobilisation of the two parties through the issuance of statements by the operation rooms of each of the two parties, operating at the contact lines, indicating that the level of readiness of the forces has been raised.

The mutual accusations of violating the existing ceasefire did not cease, the latest of which being the accusation by the spokesman for the GNA Sirte-Jufra Operations Room Abdul Hadi Dara, on 5 January 2020, of Haftar's forces of opening fire on the GNA forces and carrying out large movements in the area of ​​the Thermal Power Plant and the west Sirte neighbourhoods.

Official statements by the highest military levels came in the same direction. During his speech on the occasion of Independence Day, on 24 December 2020, Field Marshal Haftar called on Libyans to take up arms to expel the Turkish occupier. On the other hand, the Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar responded, from the heart of the capital Tripoli, vowing to directly target Haftar and his supporters if Turkish forces were attacked in Libya.

What reinforced speculation about an imminent military clash was the attack by Haftar's forces on the Tende camp in Ubari, in the country’s far southwest, in the first week of December 2020, and subsequently the announcement of control of the said camp in the last week of December 2020. This is the camp in which the forces loyal to Major General Ali Kanna, who is loyal to the GNA, are stationed. Ubari's importance lies in its proximity to the Sharara oil field, the largest in the country. This indicates that the current escalation is connected with the conflict over the oil installations, especially that any planned attack by the GNA forces on the Sirte-Jufra line, even if, from the US point of view, it is aimed at controlling the Qardabiya and Jufra bases in which the Russian forces are stationed, it will most probably be an initial target before setting off to try to control the Oil Crescent, the focus of Ankara's ambitions.

On the other hand, on 4 January 2021, other clashes took place in Sabha, the largest city in the south, between two battalions belonging to the two parties to the conflict. The clashes ended with the control by Haftar's forces over the Central Bank of Libya (CBL) headquarters in the city and over the main government and military headquarters.

At a third level, the Director of the Moral Guidance Department in Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) Khaled al-Mahjoub indicated, during the first week of January 2021, that forces belonging to the GNA Western Region were monitored while heading to Ghadames, suggesting that this move was aimed at providing military support for an expected action by the GNA forces southward.

Positions of the conflicting parties

The positions of the parties to the conflict varied regarding the efforts of the UNSMIL to revitalise the negotiation tracks. As far as the Western parties are concerned, the ambassadors of the US, Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom (UK) expressed, in a joint statement issued on 30 December 2020, following a virtual meeting with the GNA Prime Minister, their support for all political, economic and security paths to end the division, with the need for having a "strong and engaged Libyan leadership" ahead of the elections.

In contrast to the Western positions, Moscow’s position came through the statements of the Deputy Foreign Minister Vershinin Sergey Vasilievich on 5 January 2021 in which he emphasised the need for a Libyan reconciliation that does not exclude either the supporters of the former regime or Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. This position reflects Moscow's desire to include its direct allies in any prospective settlement that would result in a unified government, even as the UN-supported talks are limited to the  House of Representatives (HoR), the High Council of the State, and the government institutions affiliated with both sides of the division.

At the regional level, the most prominent move was made by Egypt, through the visit by a delegation headed by Major General Ayman Badie, Head of the Egyptian Security Committee on Libya, to Tripoli at the end of December 2020, during which he held meetings with the most prominent GNA leaders, and the announcement of the imminent resumption of business at the Egyptian Embassy for the first time since 2014. The direct significance of the Egyptian move is Cairo’s desire to prioritise the language of dialogue and narrow the gaps with its opponents, and subsequently reject any military moves by Haftar’s forces that may lead to fuelling the conflict and the return of armed confrontations.

In parallel with this move, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at the end of December 2020 that his country was working on a road map regarding his country's relationship with Egypt. While these statements do not necessarily mean a decline in the escalation plans in Ankara, in the light of the continuing indications of the Turkish military build-up in Libya, they may reflect the desire by Ankara to reach common understandings with Cairo on the issues in dispute, perhaps in a way that goes beyond Libya itself.

In a different context, and in connection with international efforts to preserve the signed ceasefire from the risk of collapse, and in the light of the existence of parties not enthusiastic about the current course of talks, the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UNSG) António Guterres proposed sending an international monitoring mission to monitor the ceasefire agreement in Sirte. The interactions with this proposal came indirectly, through the avoidance by the external parties of expressing an explicit position. This could be described as an anticipation of the finalisation of the proposal, and giving an opportunity for discussion about it between the various parties, while simply driving local proxies to express reserved positions on this matter.

The differing statements issued by the two parties to the conflict in response to the proposal revolve around the desire not to appear as the obstructing party while seeking to benefit from this proposal in order to consolidate the gains achieved. While the initial statements have been in the direction of rejecting the idea, the discussion turned towards the nature of the tasks, the types and nationalities of the forces, and the lines to which the two parties to the conflict might have to withdraw.

Locally, the positions of the conflict parties reflect the desire of each party to push the situation in the direction that would enhance the centrality of its role in the conflict, given that the most flexible parties appear to be the parties whose names are linked to the existence of "some deal" that is being arranged, such as Aguila Saleh and Fathi Bashagha, as opposed to the most intransigent positions on the part of the parties that are more likely to be marginalised in the event of an end to the division, such as Field Marshal Haftar who is considered the party most vulnerable to attack and whose stay in the scene is most likely to be rejected by the GNA camp. The same applies to the militia leaders who are subject to reduced influence or exclusion and prosecution, such as Salah Badi and some of the Tripoli militia leaders.

Possible scenarios

Possible future scenarios depend on the interaction between a number of factors, the most prominent of which are the following:

  • The extent of the priority of the Libyan issue for the Biden administration during the first months of his presidency.
  • The possibility of presenting a satisfactory US deal to Moscow within the new arrangements.
  • The level of cohesion between the local allies within each camp.
  • The chances of consensus around oil revenue management.

Within the framework of the interaction between those factors, events can develop along a number of paths, the most prominent of which are the following:

First scenario: the consolidation of the Libyan authority and the continuation of the ceasefire: pursuant to this scenario, the existing international efforts would succeed in fostering a Libyan reconciliation that would end the existing division at the government level and preserve the existing ceasefire without collapse.

The most prominent conditions of this scenario are Cairo's ability to prevent Haftar from fuelling the conflict; the pressure exerted by the US on the various parties by employing the Libya Stabilization Act to deter the parties liable to exclusion from the scene from disrupting the settlement; and the provision of serious international guarantees that the elections would be held on the scheduled date. This would reduce the importance of staying in the new authority that would continue for less than a year and whose tasks would be limited to preparing the necessary legal and political environment to hold the elections.

The most prominent limitations to this scenario are the multiplicity of the parties affected by this occurrence on both sides of the conflict, prompting them to resort to various disruptive tricks; the conflict of interests between the European parties themselves; and Russia’s relatively marginalised role during the current course, especially with the exclusion of its closest allies (supporters of the former regime) from the talks, and the difficulty of Moscow’s acceptance of the completion of the military arrangements calling for the removal of the Wagner operatives from Libya or the termination of the Russian presence in the Qardabiya and Jufra bases.

Second scenario: preserving the ceasefire and maintaining the division: the scenario is based on the continuation of partial progress within the 5+5 talks, and the extension of the confidence-building measures for a longer time without the collapse of the ceasefire, with the rejection by the international parties supporting the two sides of the proposed settlement formula, especially in terms of the link between the Libyan issue and regional and international issues, and the intersection thereof with the desire of some parties to the conflict to obstruct the settlement in order to preserve their current positions and gains. This scenario constitutes a continuation of the current conditions.

Third scenario: the collapse of the ceasefire and the resumption of the war: under this scenario, it is difficult to reconcile the international parties supporting the two sides, and the fragile ceasefire currently in place collapses due to the refusal by the most influential parties in the two camps to make concessions on the most contentious issues, such as the withdrawal of foreign mercenaries and the evacuation of military bases, especially the Qardabiyah and Jufra bases, and the green light given by the US to Ankara to attack the two bases to banish the Russian military presence.

Fourth scenario: limited escalation and the continuation of the division: according to this scenario, the existing division continues without the achievement of a new breakthrough, both at the level of unifying the executive and legislative powers, and at the level of the withdrawal of foreign mercenaries and the evacuation of the militants from the areas at the contact lines. At best, under the impact of Western pressure, this scenario may witness progress in the course of political discussions at the level of consensus over the mechanisms for selecting the holders of the executive authority, without the possibility of unanimity on names that have sufficient support from each of the two camps to assume those positions. The scenario does not include a complete breakdown of the armistice and the outbreak of confrontations on the front lines. Alternatively, a less severe escalation would take place at three levels: the first is the return to the use of the oil card where Haftar's forces would disrupt operations, albeit partially, at the oil installations; the second is the outbreak of clashes and a war of positions in different regions of southern Libya; and the third is the occurrence of security tensions between some militias affiliated with the GNA, specifically the Tripoli militias, in the face of militias loyal to Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha.

The most prominent conditions of the scenario are the persistence of the dispute between Russia and the external parties supporting the GNA, together with the desire of the international community to prevent the collapse of the talks, as well as the desire of the foreign parties to prevent an overall escalation, especially in view of the presence of priority issues for President Biden at the beginning of his presidential term, and the preoccupation of the European parties with managing the repercussions of the coronavirus crisis. At the local level, the chances of realising the scenario increase in the event that no consensus is reached between the local parties regarding the management of the oil revenues, albeit with the persistence of fissures between the local parties within the same camp, which reduces the possibility of large-scale confrontations due to the decline of local support. This scenario is the most likely in the short term.

Conclusions and expectations

  • The fluctuation between the risks of escalation and the possibility of reaching new consensuses is the prevailing feature in the Libyan conflict during the post-Tripoli war phase. The change in the US administration constitutes a pressing element in two divergent directions: on the one hand, each party’s desire to impose a new status quo before the inauguration of US President Joe Biden, and on the other hand, the desire not to take responsibility for the failure of the current talks.
  • The state of fluidity that characterises the environment of the Libyan conflict prompts the various parties to buy time in anticipation of the finalisation of the orientations of the new US administration. Meanwhile, the minimum aimed by most international parties is to preserve the existing ceasefire from collapse, at least around the contact zones located on the Sirte-Jufra line, and to keep the talks running, while preserving the military preparedness for the worst-case scenario.
  • While it is difficult to reach a comprehensive consensus on forming a unified authority, the importance of the progress achieved so far lies in the partial consensuses that can subsequently be built upon regarding the mechanisms for selecting the executive office holders, as well as delinking the election path from the path of unifying the two existing authorities.
  • The most prominent security and military tensions expected in the coming weeks are the outbreak of confrontations between the two parties to the conflict in some areas of southern Libya, the possibility of the outbreak of internal tensions between the parties to the same camp, especially within the capital Tripoli, between the militias under the authority of the GNA, and , finally, the possibility of a return to the limited employment of the oil card by Haftar's forces.

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