Libya’s UN-backed prime minister and the country’s most powerful military commander held indirect talks in Cairo on Tuesday to end more than two years of civil war which has brought chaos to the country.
But doubts remained last night about whether a meeting in Cairo between the head of the Government of National Accord, Fayez Al Sarraj and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar would go ahead. Egypt has urged the two men to come together to resolve a political impasse between the GNA, based in Tripoli, and the country’s House of Representatives parliament based in Tobruk, to which Field Marshal Haftar is allied.
While the substance and extent of Tuesday’s negotiations were unclear, GNA spokesman Ashraf Al Tulty said the talks would see a “180-degree turn” if Field Marshal Haftar, who has previously rejected the GNA, agrees to take a role within its governing structure.
Until now the GNA has refused to guarantee a role for Field Marshal Haftar, leading the House of Representatives to reject a UN plan, the Libya Political Agreement, which would see the GNA established as a unity government with parliament fulfilling the role of national legislature.
Egypt is spurred by a desire, in common with neighbours Algeria and Tunisia, to end the civil war which is causing instability across the region. Cairo says militants armed with Libyan weapons are battling its security forces in the Sinai peninsular. Tunisia, on Libya’s western border, has similar anxieties after a string of attacks by ISIL fighters trained in Libya.
Equally concerned is Italy, which is coping with record levels of migration through Libya across the Mediterranean. Rome accepted a record 180,000 migrants last year, mostly transiting through Libya from Sub-Saharan Africa, and the issue has become politically sensitive in both Italy and the European Union as a whole.
Italy, together with Malta, current holder of the rotating EU presidency, has begun talks with Mr Al Sarraj about joint action both to intercept migrant smugglers at sea and to break up powerful militias who profit from the trade on land.
But EU diplomats say that, with militias battling each other in Tripoli as well as fighting Field Marshal Haftar’s forces further east, there is no effective way of policing the migrant trafficking routes.
Field Marshal Haftar, commander of the country’s most powerful military force, the Libya National Army, is regarded by diplomats as the key to any peace process working.
He has already secured strong support from Russia. On January 11, he was invited aboard Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, steaming off the Libyan coast, for a telephone conversation about joint military cooperation with Moscow’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu.
This week Italy’s ambassador to Libya, Guiseppe Perrone, called for Field Marshal Haftar to have a role in a “unified military organisation” which can tackle both migrant traffickers and ISIL units in the country.
Mr Perrone’s comments echo those of British foreign secretary Boris Johnson, another key GNA-backer, who said last week: “That’s the crucial question: how to make sure that Haftar is in some way integrated into the government of Libya.”
But there is no agreement yet on what role Field Marshal Haftar should have. The House of Representatives in January last year refused to agree the Libya Political Agreement unless it retained the power to appoint the country’s commander-in-chief, with Field Marshal Haftar its preferred candidate. His capture of four central oil ports, giving the House of Representatives command of Libya’s biggest oil region, known as the oil crescent, last September saw them promote him to Field Marshal, Libya’s highest military rank.
But Mr Al Sarraj is unlikely to win support from all members of the GNA in Tripoli to give Field Marshal Haftar such a role, and the city’s militias, fearing for their future, are also likely to reject the move.
Nevertheless, Cairo will feel it has at least made the first move in encouraging the sides to talk, with the United Nations Support Mission for Libya (UNSMIL) having failed to achieve unity through its own talks process, and Egypt is likely to continue to press Mr Al Sarraj and Field Marshal Haftar to communicate in the coming days.
The UN is taking a back seat in the Cairo talks, with uncertainty over who will replace its outgoing chief, Martin Kobler, after Washington rejected the proposal of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres that it be former Palestine prime minister Salam Fayyad.
Meanwhile, fighting continues in Libya on several fronts. On Friday the Libya National Army said it destroyed 40 vehicles belonging to a militia, the Benghazi Defence Brigades, which it said was threatening the oil crescent near the town of Hun. In Benghazi, the Libya National Army continues battling militias in two city centre enclaves, while in Tripoli a new militia alliance, Libyan National Guard, is battling rival militias in several districts of the city.