Libya doesn’t need help from NATO – ex-deputy PM of Libya
The turmoil in Libya has been dragged into a second month already, with all diplomatic efforts fruitless in getting military strongman Khalifa Haftar and the government in Tripoli to negotiate. What does the future hold for the war-torn country? We ask Dr. Mustafa Abushagur, the former deputy prime minister of Libya.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Dr. Mustafa Abushagur, the former deputy Prime Minister of Libya. Welcome to the show. It's great to have you with us once again.
Mustafa Abushagur: Thank you for having me.
SS: So Khalifa Haftar hasn't been able to breach Tripoli's defense so far but there is no sign of retreat and he's even called on his troops to battle harder during the ongoing month of Ramadan. You've been saying that he will not be able to take over Tripoli regardless of all the foreign support he enjoys. What makes you think that?
MA: I mean, clearly, first of all, I mean this attack on Tripoli it is really a crime against the Libyan people, and it is done only for one reason for Mr. Haftar to take over the country, to rule the country. So it is done for a personal interest and, of course, I mean, it has been going on now for five weeks and he did not move any further than when he started. And because clearly the people in Tripoli don't want to have their city taken people are defending their city. They are not allowing this criminal to come in. And regardless of all the support because we know, I mean, he spent four years in Benghazi fighting the small group of people there with all the support he got from all his allies. So this is again the same thing. The problem is that innocent people in Tripoli, in Libya, both from Tripoli and also from the troops who came with Haftar, they are dying for no reason but for the personal interest. And this is really the reality of the issue. And so this war can continue for a long time regardless what support he might get because you have about one and a half million people living in the city of Tripoli. And now clearly they are being bombed day and night. Innocent people are dying for no reason.And this is clearly a nonsense.
SS: I understand that. But Haftar has a lot of support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudis and until it dries out he will certainly not give in. Is Libya now bogged down into another years-long tug-of-war?
MA: It can be a war for a long time and also at the same time, of course, as you said, clearly he gets all the support from all these countries plus, of course, France and also some support from Russia and all the support is really... The only result coming out from this is more Libyan people are dying, both those who are defending Tripoli and those who are attacking Tripoli, because both these are Libyans. And those who are supporting Haftar - they don't care about Libya, they don't care about the stability of Libya. The only thing they care about is their own agendas. And so we might be bogged here for a long time, it can be really a civil war that continues for a long time. So there is no chance for Mr. Haftar to take over Tripoli. I mean, this will not happen. And he thought... You need to understand that his allies they should stop supporting him. I mean, he promised them that entering Tripoli will take no time from him, that it will be just a few days, day or two at the most. Now it has been five weeks and he’s still exactly at the same place.
SS: Yes, so I want to talk about the international reaction because the United Nations, the EU and NATO are all calling for a cessation of hostilities in Libya but none of them have openly denounced Haftar. Why does the international community, for the most part, see Khalifa Haftar as a valuable asset?
MA: Some countries in the West see him as an asset because really they would love to see a country ruled by a dictator so they can get whatever they want from him. And, of course, at the beginning he convinced them, I mean, all his allies may be coming out and say “oh no, he did this”. The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates said that Haftar did not take their permission to attack Tripoli. So clearly his allies are now realising, first of all, that he does not have the power that he promised them that he does have, and he cannot take Tripoli in the short time that he promised them to do. So right now clearly in the coming weeks we're going to see a lot of his allies going to back up and probably would stop supporting him. But, of course, they would try to gain as much as they can to keep him... I'm sorry go ahead.
SS: So NATO’s Secretary-General Stoltenberg is rejecting any military solution to the Libyan crisis but offers help in creating effective security institutions. Now taken that NATO is a military alliance first and foremost it is really unclear whether Stoltenberg implies military assistance to either side or diplomatic help. Does Libya need help from NATO? Yes or no.
MA: No. No. I don't think that it does. Again, I mean, of course, I don't have internal information but this is what my understanding of the situation overall. I mean, I think everybody is coming out and saying Libya cannot be... There is no military solution for Libya, Libyans have to have a political solution. And unfortunately we were only about 10 days away from the United Nations General Conference in Libya. And, of course, Haftar at the time if he did not attack Tripoli he would have had a seat at the table and he could have been part of the solution for the future. But right now clearly he does not want to see a political solution. And he thought that he would be able to take over the country so he'd become the ultimate dictator. So he cannot be trusted to be a partner in any political solution in the future.
SS: So let's see, his opponent the GNA’s prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj has been on a European tour lately meeting French, German, Italian, British leaders, obviously trying to gain their support against Khalifa Haftar but all they could give him was ruling out any military solution to the conflict and calling for dialogue. Does the GNA have international support only on paper?
MA: I mean clearly the GNA has a limited international support. And because those countries that you have mentioned, I mean, some of them are not immediately a part of this conflict. I mean, clearly in Britain they are more busy with their Brexit, the Germans they never take any real position politically in this. And, of course, when it comes to Italy and France - these are clearly conflicting partners and each one of them look at Libya as a place of interest for them. And so I don't think that their support... Clearly the support that can be done from the international community is really to tell Mr. Haftar to back up, to stop this nonsense, to stop killing these innocent people, both from... these are all Libyans and it really makes a difference... They’re all Libyans. They're all dying for him.
SS: Can I ask you something? Do you think the international community really wants the conflict to stop? Do you think they're really interested in this conflict to stop?
MA: Yes, I believe, many of the international community are interested to see this stop. Some of them, of course, who support him and who have bankrolled the supplies of the military equipment - maybe those would like to see the conflict to continue. But I think many of them are realising that Khalifa Haftar cannot take over Tripoli, he cannot be able to do this. And so I expect them in the coming days and weeks to back up and he will lose a lot of his international support. And I think that international alliance that he has is starting to crack.
SS: So Libya is obviously key for the West in preventing uncontrolled migration from Africa to Europe? Can this be the reason for the Western powers’ staying on the sidelines, to abstain from taking sides maybe?
MA: Of course, Mr. Haftar promised them that he will take over, he will stop this illegal immigration and so on. And, of course, that's clearly a problem for Europe itself, but, of course, the instability and what's going on right now is going to make the illegal immigration increase. I mean, of course, if you look at the the last couple of months or so, I mean, the Libyan navy were blocking a lot of those immigrants and returning them back into Libya. And so, of course, right now that is not going to happen. And those people would be very desperate because of the war that's going on, because of all... I mean, as we know, Khalifa Haftar’s forces have attacked some of the detention centers for the illegal immigrants and killed a number of them. So a lot of those people now are so desperate and they might just go and try to take the risk to cross the Mediterranean to go to Europe. So clearly it is not in their favor. I mean, stable Libya can provide protection for all of that. And I think the instability and the war that's going on is not really helping in this issue.
SS: So France has been a long time sympathiser of Haftar and now the GNA has threatened to suspend operations of 40 foreign companies in Libya with the French oil giant Total standing on to suffer the most. It looks like Prime Minister Sarraj is hoping to bend Paris to its cause. Has he chosen the right strategy?
MA: First of all, I think France are not a sympathiser, they are a real supporter. I mean, clearly they have supported Haftar during the war in Benghazi and we know very clearly that some of French troops have been killed in that fight. And, of course, they're supporting him again in this war in Tripoli because that's what they are doing. And clearly France has a lot of economic interest in Libya. I mean, Total and many other companies which are working in Libya. And France does not help to stop this conflict. I mean, I don't see the Libyans will accept to see the French companies working in Libya and making money and at the same time they are causing them to die and helping the person who wants to kill all Libyans just to take power.
SS: So you say that the only way to stop the Libyan turmoil is if the international community under United Nations’ leadership puts pressure on Haftar. But earlier this month just hours after the UN called for a truce Haftar called on his troops to fight even harder. Does it ever make sense to rely on UN’s help here when nobody really seems to be listening to them?
MA: I think it is... I mean, Libyans, they have lost trust in the United Nations because over the last number of years they have not helped Libya to be able to get out of this instability. I think, there is a number of countries in the world - it is the United States, Russia, France, Britain and so on, - who can really play a major role. And it is in their own best interest because a stable Libya is a country that can be a very important ally to all of them both for fighting terrorism which right now because of this war that's going on and the instability terrorism can increase and those people from ISIS/ Daesh and so on they can find places to move easily, and also at the same time a stable Libya which needs to be developed can open a lot of opportunities for all these countries and their companies. So I think it is in the best interests of the international community especially the major countries, the major powers of the world to come to help the Libyan people and to stop this conflict, to stop this war. And clearly Libyan people will be able to remember who will stand next to them and who will be helping those who are going to be killing them.
SS: But in your opinion can any sort of consensus be reached between Al-Sarraj and Haftar at this point without a third party mediator?
MA: No, I think, it needs a mediator. And that's what the United Nations is supposed to do - to become a really unbiased and fair mediator. But, of course, unfortunately, Mr. Ghassan Salame, his ties with the United Arab Emirates do not make him feel that so he might be able to help in that way.
SS: Emmanuel Macron says he wants to meet Haftar to discuss a ceasefire and resume peace talks. Will Haftar listen to Macron?
MA: No, Haftar now is very desperate. I doubt it. I mean, clearly Mr. Macron gave Haftar a stage more than once and then he sees that now he did not listen to him. According to, of course, the French, they said also that Haftar did not ask them when he attacked Tripoli even though there is evidence that he did. But anyway, I don't think that Haftar right now sees that his ambitions, his life goal to be able to become the dictator of Libya is diminishing and might not ever happen. So he is desperate, unfortunately, only the forces that fight for him, for his name are the ones who are paying the price.
SS: So in early April U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was calling on Haftar to call off his offensive. But just a few weeks later Donald Trump talked to Khalifa Haftar over the phone and, according to the White House statement, “praised his role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya's oil resources”. Does that mean that Washington is now betting on the Marshall?
MA: Washington has many different positions in this case which are very conflicting. We have seen the Congress, the foreign affairs committee, they had a meeting, they have a hearing and clearly they condemned what Haftar was doing and even some of them have threatened that they’re going to ask the Attorney General to investigate Haftar's war crimes in Libya since he is a U.S. citizen. And clearly they are going to ask the FBI and also Attorney General to do that. So there is a movement in Washington which might change the position. And, of course, we have seen many times that Mr. Trump changed his position on his first instinct that took place.
SS: But Trump doesn't like to be on the losing side. We all know this by now. So is Washington support a sign that despite the fact are Haftar’s army has met stiff resistance he’s actually on a path to winning?
MA: No, I don't think they're betting on him winning. I think, things might change in Washington itself. And there is a lot of movement right now with the different factions between the Congress and the State Department which are really looking very closely to this. And I don't think they believe that Haftar is going to win because he is not. I'm sure they understand this.
SS: But when it comes to Libya foreign powers have been meddling in its affairs since the troubles began in 2011. Now Khalifa Haftar has political and military backing from Egypt, like we said, the UAE, Saudi Arabia while Qatar and Turkey have thrown their weight behind the GNA. So is the current conflict really a proxy war or foreign actors rather than a merely domestic standoff?
MA: I mean it did not get to that point when it becomes a proxy war but it can be because if you look at the position of the president of Turkey and the foreign minister of Algeria... For Algeria Tripoli is a very symbolic position because they supported the revolution and now they see that Tripoli is being bombed by other forces. So I don't... Right now it is not a proxy war yet but I am worried that this can be very long war that might become a proxy war between these countries and maybe others.
SS: Now you've been telling me that the foreign interference is only exacerbating tensions in Libya but despite a number of resolutions the U.N. has passed imposing arms embargoes and defying any foreign interventions in Libya's affairs weapons still flow into the country. Could a UN peacekeeping mission help here? I mean, why wouldn't the GNA request a GNA peacekeeping mission?
MA: Oh, yeah, clearly you’re right. I mean, clearly there is an arms embargo on Libya and weapons has been flowing in Libya especially from Egypt and Arab Emirates and others and the United Nations are not taking a very serious position to really enforce this embargo there. So clearly the United Nations is becoming a very weak institution and does not have much to offer to the Libyan people or to the others. And because of the dispute that is taking place inside the United Nations, of course, we know, the Security Council is completely split between those members and so they cannot even come to agreement to even issue a resolution anymore. They just issue very diplomatic statements which doesn't really help.
SS: Haftar has succeeded where the GNA failed - in Libya’s chaotic south, rallying the local tribes around him. Why do you reject the idea that he can actually unify the whole Libya?
MA: No, he cannot unify Libya because, first of all, he is a dictator and he is not welcomed. Libyans they would like to see a country which is democratic and civil. We are tired of being ruled by military dictators. We have been going through now 40, almost 50 years of this. So the Libyans they would like to see a civil government. I'm not saying it is the GNA is the perfect government for that but they would like to see a civil government. They would like to see real participation. They would like to see a real change of power peacefully. Haftar did not win the south. I mean, the south right now is back as it was, I mean, it is in chaos. And also when he was in the south his forces committed a lot of war crimes against civilians in the south. So, first of all, if you look at the so-called Libyan national army of Haftar it is made of a few small groups of real army people but the rest are militias who they call the ‘supporters’. And so he is not capable of doing that. He is not capable of stabilising the country.
SS: So in a larger picture however we've heard the cost for everyone to get together and work out a way to unify Libya for 8 years now and peace and stability it looks as elusive now as it did in 2011. What's the better scenario for the country - a Gaddafi-like strong man who would be able to drive the country towards at least a semblance of stability or a new civil war?
MA: Clearly we don't have only these two options that you mentioned - either a strongman Khalifa Haftar or a civil war. I mean there is another option which is a political solution to the country. And the first thing that the world needs to do is to stop those countries who are intervening in the country, who they are supplying the war with weapons and so on and leave the Libyans alone. I mean, Libyans if they were left alone they will be able to come to a peaceful sort of... they will be able to work together to overcome this and to have a civil country, a civil government. But again this is where we are today and I hope that Libyan people in both parts of the country and all parts of the country will come to their senses and stop their children from going to war against one another. That’s the first thing to be done and it has to be done by the Libyans themselves.
SS: Thank you so much for this interview. Well, we were talking to Dr. Mustafa Abushagur, the former deputy prime minister of Libya discussing the conflict in the country and whether it's going to end anytime soon.