Haftar-Serraj meeting raises hopes, but Libyan factions must compromise

Haftar-Serraj meeting raises hopes, but Libyan factions must compromise
Comment: After a significant meeting in the UAE, Serraj and Haftar are also set to visit Washington next month. But high-profile meetings are only half the story, writes Guma ElGamaty.
7 min read
09 May, 2017
A power-sharing framework must be agreed upon for lasting peace, says Gamaty. [AFP]

High expectations and a considerable level of media hype accompanied the recent meeting in the UAE between the head of the Tripoli based UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya, Fayez al-Serraj, and the military commander controlling the east of Libya, Khalifa Haftar.

The meeting in the UAE was particularly significant as it was the first time the two men met face to face since January 2016. An attempt by Egypt to break up the standoff and bring the two men together around mid-February of this year failed, as Haftar refused to meet with Serraj.

The change of heart that led Haftar to agree to meeting his political rival is not yet clear. However, pressure from the UAE - the most active backer of Haftar and his military campaign over the last three years, offering unlimited military, financial and media support - may well have played a role.

Among the various countries that support Haftar, there is no doubt that the UAE can wield the strongest leverage over him.

Haftar's dragging military campaign and his failure to achieve any conclusive victory after three years, may have finally persuaded his main backers - UAE and Egypt - to accept the reality that the military strategy is not working.

It will take more than a few high profile meetings between individuals in order to achieve a genuine breakthrough in Libya

The meeting between Serraj and Haftar indicates that they have likely realised it is time to revert to the option of a political solution, in which Haftar must operate within the UN-backed Libyan political agreement (LPA) framework, making him accountable to and under a civilian political leadership.

Most media outlets and analysts have hailed the Serraj-Haftar meeting as a significant "breakthrough", in which an agreement has been reached to form a new Presidential Council in a power sharing deal and to hold new elections in Libya by March 2018.

This may have been unsubstantiated media speculation, as no final joint statement has been issued to confirm any agreement. Also, the two men hold no authority or position to make any changes to the only political agreement available on the table, which is the UN-sponsored LPA.

Libyan factions have until now show few signs of readiness to compromise and reach a consensus on a power sharing framework

Serraj was named by the LPA as head of the GNA, and is therefore not a signatory to it, but rather an outcome of it. Haftar, on the other hand, was nominated by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HOR) as the general commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and it is the HOR that was one of the key signatories of the LPA, possessing the right to suggest and agree amendments to it.

Over the last two months, Haftar has extended his military campaign by taking the war to the south of Libya. Forces loyal to Haftar have repeatedly attacked the strategically important Tamnihint airbase, north of the main southern city of Sabha and have also clashed with forces loyal to the GNA in Tripoli.

Tamnihint, writes The New Arab, is also "a base for the "Third Force", one of several powerful pro-GNA militias from the western city of Misrata". The attempts by Haftar for many weeks now to establish a complete foothold in the south have so far been unsuccessful.

  Read more: Outside interference is fuelling discord in Libya

Had Haftar's forces captured the key military base and took control of the whole of the south, it would have encouraged him to close in on the west of Libya, and ultimately to attempting taking control of the capital, Tripoli. But without control of Tripoli, Haftar's end goal of total military and political control of Libya can never be realised, and he will have to accept a defined military role under a civilian political leadership.

The Serraj-Haftar meeting should also be seen against a backdrop of other high profile meetings that have taken place, such as the recent one in Rome on 21 April between the Tobruk based HOR President Ageela Saleh and the head of the Tripoli based State Council, Abdulrahman Swehli. This meeting was also hailed as a breakthrough in solving the Libyan conflict, yet no concrete agreement or follow up actions have materialised.

Just a few weeks ago the Italian Prime Minister Gentiloni met US president Trump at the White House, and two-thirds of the talks were reportedly centred on Libya. Italian officials also confirmed that the Trump administration has invited both Serraj and Haftar to visit Washington for talks next month. It is rumoured that the Washington visit was conditional on the two Libyan men showing willingness to work together, thus the UAE meeting could be seen as a confirmation or prelude to the upcoming Washington meeting.

It is likely that the importance of the Serraj-Haftar meeting will reduce in significance, unless efforts are focused at bridging the gaps

Italy, along with other European countries, as well as voices from within US congress have highlighted to the new Trump administration that disengagement and playing no role in Libya is not the right option.

In a hearing on April 25, some members of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee expressed that "it is vital to US security interests that the Trump administration work with the international community and local forces to craft a political solution" in Libya.

It may well be the case that a new political alignment between the US, the UAE and Egypt, agreeing that Haftar must abide with a political solution, was behind the meeting with Serraj recently in Abu Dhabi, and the crucial meeting in Washington planned for next month.

Many countries have been trying to help clear the political impasse and overcome obstacles to implementing the UN sponsored LPA signed in Morocco in December 2015. Italy and Algeria, in particular, have been very active lately, engaging in diplomacy and discussions with all the main factions in Libya.

Despite all the regional and international efforts, Libyan factions have until now shown few signs of readiness to compromise

High-profile diplomats who visited Libya recently include the British, Italian and Austrian foreign ministers as well as the Russian deputy foreign minister. This week, Algeria plans to host a meeting between foreign ministers of countries neighbouring Libya, and it will receive, a day later, the head of the GNA, Serraj.

But there are also regional initiatives which are not all pushing in the same direction, and which could even be seen as competing with each other. Algeria, on one hand, is supposed to be working on an intiative with Tunisia that will be supported by the African Union.

Egypt, on the other hand, is working closely with the UAE trying to dictate what happens in Libya by making Haftar a key part to any initiative they put forward, and ensure that any final settlement will serve their own interests and agendas.

Yet despite all the regional and international efforts, Libyan factions have until now shown few signs of readiness to compromise, and reach a consensus on a power-sharing framework.

However, the recent Serraj-Haftar meeting in the UAE and the Ageela Saleh-Swehli Rome meeting could genuinely help break away from the antagonism of late, and begin to rebuild some unity amongst Libyans.

As time passes, it is likely that the importance of the Serraj-Haftar meeting will reduce in significance, unless efforts are focused at bridging the gaps further with possibly another follow up, similarly high profile, meeting. This is likely to be in Washington next month and will no doubt also be described as a major breakthrough.

It is important to remember that the Libyan conflict has many facets and involves many sides, especially those with the weapons who exercise the real power on the ground. There is no doubt that the Serraj-Haftar meeting is a positive step in the right direction, however it will take more than a few high profile meetings between individuals in order to achieve a genuine breakthrough in Libya. 

An alignment of all the key regional and international players involved with Libya will be necessary, to push in the same direction and put their weight behind a comprehensive solution, crafted by Libyans themselves, to help them end their ongoing destructive conflict.

Guma El-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the UN-backed Libyan political dialogue process. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Guma_el_gamaty

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.