UN a bureaucratic organization, cannot solve Libya’s problems – MENA scholar
Libya is being plunged into a full-scale civil war as military strongman Khalifa Haftar launches a ground offensive to seize the capital Tripoli. Is there any room for diplomacy at this point? We asked Hafed Al-Ghwell, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Hafed Al-Ghwell, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.
Hafed Al-Ghwell: Thank you very much.
SS: While Haftar apparently expected a quick and decisive victory in Tripoli, it looks like the offensive is getting bogged down in the suburbs after militias from Misrata joined the GNA forces. Haftar is apparently keen on keeping fighting, but can he really win now that the momentum is gone?
HG: I don't see him winning, to be honest. I think he underestimated the kind of resistance he was going to face. And the resistance is not just from Misrata, I mean he pretty much is a rallying cry across the entire western part of Libya, from Zintan, from Misrata, from other towns all over the place, groups within Tripoli itself, in addition to the military that is under the authority of the legitimate government of Tripoli, they all are resisting Haftar. So he did not really realize that he was going to be, ironically, the one who's going to unite all of these disparate groups in many ways, some of them were enemies of each other, to defend the west against him. So I don't see him being able to do anything further than that. He's also... His forces are retreating in many parts of the western part of Libya. I think unless he resorts to what he did, for example, two days ago, and there is indiscriminate bombings.
SS: I was going to say that Haftar’s power base is far off to the east, and some analysts are actually saying that his offensive is based on some very shaky logistics. How long can he keep fighting, and how much pressure can he ultimately exert on Tripoli?
HG: I don't think he can keep fighting that long, he is already sending out all kinds of signals saying he will stop the fighting. He just is still holding on to the condition that he is not, he doesn't want to retreat. And there is also the possibility that some elements that he had defeated in the eastern part of Libya will also rise against him again, like in Derna, for example, or parts of Benghazi. I think Haftar needs to, or the military under Haftar needs to rethink about their leadership and maybe sideline Haftar himself through either a coup or through an agreement, and form a whole new military command that can again join any negotiations for the future.
SS: So about the government. The government in Tripoli has pledged to destroy Haftar, but does it really have enough resources to fulfill this promise?
HG: No, I mean, everybody is using her hyperbole. I'm not sure they can, unless they're going to rely on all of these different groups that are under their umbrella, and also recruiting from the eastern part of Libya. I mean, let's remember that Haftar himself, his own so-called army is made up essentially of militias. He has extremist Salafi militias, Islamist Salafis, he has some mercenaries from Chad, from Sudan, he has some tribal militias under his command. So there is also the possibility that some of these groups will switch loyalties. if that happens, or if the Tripoli government receives Western support, then yes, they could defeat him, obviously, because at the end of the day, they are the recognized government.
SS: Now, let's say, even if the battle for Tripoli drags on and on, Haftar is still pretty much in control of east, of Benghazi, and oil fields.That said, I heard that last time he tried to sell oil himself, it didn't really work out, and he had to rely on the Tripoli-based national company. So can the oil factor play itself out in the current standoff?
HG: It can. I mean, like, some of the militias in the past controlled those oil fields over a couple of years before Haftar sort of put his hands on them, and then he wanted to use the oil for his own eastern government. However, the international community refused to allow him to do that, and they forced him to hand over the oil fields to the recognized government in Tripoli. So there is also the possibility that some of these militias that used to be in control of some of these oil fields, whether in the south of Libya or closer to the eastern part, I mean they're not exactly 100 percent in the east, they're a little bit between Tripoli and Benghazi... I think they can, for example, take it over again. And if some militias from Misrata, who are extremely well-armed, I mean, the Misrata militias are as well-armed as probably Haftar’s militias, if they decide to go in the direction of the east instead of joining the fight in Tripoli, they could do some serious damage, not only in the oil fields, but on Haftar’s forces in the east itself.
SS: So just in late February, GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj met with Marshal Haftar, and they both seem to agree on the need for elections. Now we have war. Is marshal Haftar no longer in need of elections, or is attacking Tripoli just his way to make sure they produce a result that is good for him?
HG: Well, I think he miscalculated a great deal, and I think he's going to pay a very heavy price, politically and also militarily, for his miscalculations. You're right, they have agreed on the need for elections, The United Nations envoy, Mr. Ghassan Salame was planning a peace conference in Libya to bring all parties together that was supposed to start literally a few days ago, on the 14th of April. Haftar seemed to have agreed to that, wo was the Tripoli government, other parties in the Libya conflict all agreed to join this conference, and then Haftar surprised everybody, including some of his allies outside Libya, with his move militarily. I think he thought at one point that he can take Tripoli very quickly and therefore can demand or can dictate the future of the country. That didn't work out. Now I think he's playing for the idea that he can exert pressure on Tripoli without invading it by asking that he's going to lay down the arms and stop fighting, but he wanted to stay just on the outskirts of Tripoli in a couple of areas that he holds, as a sort of a reminder of his power. I don't think the Tripoli government is going to agree to that. They already said that, at least publicly, it remains to be seen on the ground. So I think Haftar miscalculated a lot, both by becoming officially, in the eyes of everybody, the spoiler of a political process. He's the one who reneged, and therefore there is now an argument that can be made that Haftar should be under international sanctions, like others who have tried to pre-empt a political process in Libya. There is a lot of calls inside of Libya from all parties, to be honest, to say that Haftar is no longer a viable partner for peace, and that unless he is removed, they will not continue to negotiate with the eastern government. So everything seems to be riding now on the character of Haftar himself, he is a very polarizing figure. And I think we're going to wait and see whether he will be sidelined, and for the country to move forward with some kind of a unification between east and west.
SS: So then we have the ISIS situation, right? And ISIS took a blow in Libya when it lost Sirte. But as far as I know, it's still active in the south-east. Does the showdown between Haftar and GNA open the door for its revitalisation?
HG: Absolutely, there is no question. Well, first of all, it was the Libyan Tripoli-based government that actually defeated ISIS in Sirte, it was not Haftar. And they did so with the support of the United States, it was a publicly acknowledged support, both air and logistics. And they sort of liberated that area from the ISIS. So from at least an American point of view, the guys in Tripoli, or the government and its forces in Tripoli, cannot be considered terrorists, as Haftar would like to say, because they fought terrorism and proved their worth. Now that this chaos is happening, some elements of ISIS have been seen over the last week or so in Libya in public in some areas. And it's obvious, some of them attacked Haftar forces in some areas, like al-Fuqaha, an area in Libya where he held the upper hand. So a lot of these elements, as we all know, thrive on chaos. And what Haftar did last week increased the level of chaos across Libya. Even if he wins Tripoli, that chaos will continue, because there will be pockets of very-very intense resistance to him across the country. And I am afraid, like everybody else, that this chaos, prolonged for a while, is going to attract more extremists from around Africa and the region, including ISIS and al-Qaida elements, who are going to thrive as they always do in an area of complete chaos.
SS: So the GNA has incorporated various militias as part of its security force, and then there have been reports that they don't just fight Haftar, but they're also fighting each other every now and then. So even if the GNA manages to throw back Haftar’s forces can it still rely on those militias’ loyalty?
HG: Now that's a very important question you ask, Sophie. And nobody knows, whoever from either side wins this conflict, whether those militias that follow him or follow the government in this case, what role they're going to play in the future. I think, there is a very strong possibilities for the Tripoli government that it can control these militias after this episode because they have to some extent with the very active support of the United Nations have succeeded over the last year to control a lot of these militias and incorporate them as regular army officers. We haven't seen a lot of fighting in Tripoli as it was before. There were some incidents but nothing really spectacular. The UN envoy was able to get an agreement with all of these militias last year. He had also threatened and named some of those who violated those agreements. So they were up until last week more or less under the control of the government. Now what happened last week threw everything up in the air, I mean, across the board, and these militias now are acting, yes, in defense of the Tripoli government, but at the same time they went back to their old habit of basically just following their own commanders on the field. It so happened that they are all converging on one goal and that is to defeat Haftar. But after that is done the question is very much open.
SS: So let's talk about who supports who. It's no secret that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, even France have been providing Haftar and his army with political and military support. The GNA is recognised internationally, but doesn't really command the same level of support. Why not?
HG: Well, actually the GNA does. Its support is open. I mean, Italy, Germany, England, the United States, much of the Africa region, much of the Arab world with the exception of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as you mentioned, and Egypt. Egypt is not really 100 percent behind Haftar. Egypt is very much interested in just simply securing its borders with Libya. And so they happen to be under Haftar’s authority. That's why they are dealing with Haftar, but on a very limited level, not like, for example, the United Arab Emirates which is essentially giving him, you know, a blank check across the board and all kinds of military equipment which are now, by the way, under investigation by the United Nations. But there is also political support for Haftar, like you’ve mentioned. France is a primary one. And France has also provided him with some kind of logistics and intelligence support, with special forces at some point. But there is also, for example, Russia. Russia is also a supporter or at least perceived publicly as a supporter of Haftar. It wasn't so strongly seemed that way until last week when it stopped the United Nations from issuing a condemnation of Haftar. And now there is a little bit more stronger feeling that Moscow is supporting Haftar which is, you know, a very... I don't know how to describe it, but I don't see it as an ultimate benefit of Russia. And I think Russians are too smart to throw their lot behind Haftar.
SS: So the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has tried to persuade Haftar to call off his offensive, yet we see the offensive happening. Can you really trust the UN with the mission of solving the Libyan crisis if it seems that nobody really is listening to them?
HG: Yeah, I mean, the power of the UN rests essentially with the five permanent members of the Security Council. So, unless you get all five to agree on something you're not going to get much from the United Nations. I mean, that's the case in every part of the world. The UN alone is a bureaucratic organisation, it’s not going to solve anybody's problem unless countries like Russia and the United States agree on something and then they can force it, which is what happened for example in 2011. Gaddafi would not have been brought down if there wasn't a consensus at the Security Council to allow a military intervention. The same thing here and the same thing in every part of the world.
SS: And then we have U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and he called on Haftar to stop his offensive, but at the same time as the fighting intensified the U.S. withdrew some of its forces and India evacuated some of its peacekeepers as well. I mean, why would Haftar heed the calls for peace if no forces are there to make him?
HG: The only forces that now are proving they are there to force him down are the Tripoli forces and over the last few days at least they seem to be winning and rolling him back with fierce resistance. I will not be surprised, however, Sophie, that the Tripoli government is receiving a lot of support from countries like Italy, for example, and the United States. But it is probably not public. I think AFRICOM which had always a very strong relationship with the Tripoli government is probably providing some kind of logistical and intelligence support. So is Italy - I mean, the defense minister of Italy declared that it will support the Tripoli government militarily. How far is that going to happen - I don't know.
SS: Libya's foreign minister has been also calling on the international community to exert pressure on Haftar. What does that mean? I mean, should there be another foreign intervention, what do you think?
HG: I don't think so. I mean, the world is not ready for another intervention. I think, everybody pretty much regrets what happened in 2011 to some level. I think, even those who don't admit it, even in the United States there is a great deal of regret about what happened in 2011 and they feel that they were dragged, as President Obama said, into this blindly by some European and some Arab allies. So there is a lot of skepticism here. I don't think they're going to take anybody's word for it anymore. I don't think they're willing to commit American troops in a civil war like Libya and especially with the Trump administration which does not feel that it needs to be on the international scene that strongly. I think, what you're seeing is a lot of commitment to support the government of Tripoli politically and diplomatically. That can go as far as, for example, indicting Haftar as a war criminal. For example, the prime minister of Libya, which, whether you like him or not, is essentially the official recognised by the world, has submitted a formal request to the International Court of Justice requesting the indictment of Haftar as a war criminal and providing some evidence of Haftar’s bombing of civilian areas and so on. So I think that's what you're going to see more than any military intervention. Any military intervention will probably be just simply logistical and intelligence, but not any active role.
SS: Also, I just wonder if there is any leadership at all that the Libyans will be more or less happy with because, you know, not all Libyans would see Haftar as a legitimate leader because of his past under Gaddafi or ties with foreign powers. That's fair enough. But then Prime Minister Al Sarraj has his critics as well, who say virtually the same, that he was installed by foreign powers. So, what do you think, is there anyone that Libyans actually would be happy with?
HG: There are some strong indication, but they have not really came out to the scene as they should, to be honest, because this is their probably best chance to unify the country. I'm speaking specifically of somebody like Saif Gaddafi, for example. I think, he can be a very strong contender and a unifier. I think he can attract a lot of the tribal leaders who were the allies of his father in the past. I think from both sides, I mean, you know, Saif’s mother, for example, comes from a very strong tribe in the east, one of the strongest supporters of Haftar, in fact. His dad comes from the Qadhadhfa tribe which is in Sirte and in the south of Libya. So, I think, on a tribal level Saif is probably a safe bet. Also internationally, I think, a lot of actors internationally, including the five permanent members of the Security Council, had dealt with Saif to some extent at one level in the past and they have liked him. And I think, he had some good reputation and credibility internationally. He also has very strong ties in Europe. However, the trouble is Saif has not come out publicly himself to say he is interested, or he did not put forward any proposals for the future, or given his supporters an opportunity to support him. I think, if he, for example, comes out with a video in the next day or so and lays out a vision for unifying the country and moving beyond what happened in 2011, and, you know, sort of comes across as a man of peace in his willingness to forgive the past and rise above it and move forward, - I think, he will see an incredible amount of support for him.
SS: Very interesting. It was great talking to you.Thank you for this insightful interview. We were talking to Hafed Al-Ghwell, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University, discussing the crisis in Libya and the future of the war-torn country.
HG: Thank you.