Libya on ceasefire watch

The current (as of November 25) state of play in the Libyan Civil War: red is controlled by Tobruk, green by Tripoli, blue by local groups in Misrata, gray by ISIS, and gold by Tuaregs (Wikimedia | Alhanuty and NordNordWest)

Over the weekend, that potential agreement to end Libya’s civil war got a bit of a boost, but new information suggests that the whole thing might be a bunch of smoke and mirrors. A bunch of world powers, 17 of them in fact, signed a letter supporting the deal that was (supposedly) tentatively reached last week in Tunis between Libya’s two warring governments, calling for an immediate ceasefire, and promising to bring international pressure to bear on any factions that don’t agree to go along with the deal. The UN has set Wednesday as the date for both Libyan governments (the internationally recognized–sort of–one in Tobruk, and the Islamist-dominated one in Tripoli) to sign the agreement, which would create a national unity government and (hopefully) finally end this 4+ year long war.

The international community (which in this case, at least, mostly means “Europe and the US”) has considerable motivation to lean on the Libyan parties in order to get a deal. ISIS has been focusing heavily on developing Libya as its second base of operations after the Syria-Iraq region. A stronger presence in Libya would give the organization someplace to go if things in Syria-Iraq become untenable, and potentially it would also allow them easier access for moving fighters and equipment into Europe than they have right now. It is virtually impossible to root ISIS out of Libya without ending the chaos caused by the civil war, so ending that war seems to have become a priority in the wake of the Paris attack.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem with the Tunis agreement–specifically, that the guy who represented the Tripoli government there may not actually represent the Tripoli government anymore:

Representatives from Libya’s two rival parliaments – Salah Makhzoum of the General National Congress (GNC) based in Tripoli, and Mohammed Shoaib from the Tobruk-based House of Representatives – announced in Tunis they will sign a deal on Wednesday to create a national unity government.

But that is not the reality.

What Al Jazeera understands is that Makhzoum no longer represents the GNC. In fact, sources say he has been sacked.

And what we also understand is that the majority of the Tripoli-based institution is not onboard – the GNC is backed by Libya Dawn, an alliance of powerful armed groups.

If Makhzoum really doesn’t represent the GNC anymore, then obviously that throws the whole deal into question, and you kind of have to wonder why he, or the Tobruk government, or the UN, wasted their time with the Tunis negotiations.

However, there’s a good reason to take any Al Jazeera reporting on this story with many grains of salt. Al Jazeera is, of course, owned by the Qatari government, and while their reporting is generally good in my opinion, you can’t entirely rely on them when they’re covering a story in which Qatar has a direct stake. And Qatar has a very direct stake in this particular story. That “Libya Dawn” group you just read about in that quote is financed and supplied by…you’ll never guess…the Qataris (and Turkey, but let’s take one problem at a time here). Qatar, which has been backing Islamist movements all around the region since the Arab Spring started, sends weapons and aid to Libya Dawn via Sudan, which I’m sure gets something for its troubles, and Eddie Levine of Newport will bring in the Pennino Brothers, Dino and Eddie, for a piece–I’m sorry, I lapsed into the Godfather Part II for a second there. Funny, isn’t it, how these complex international relationships don’t look all that different from the way the mafia used to do business.

Hyman Roth
This man is not in charge of running weapons to Libya Dawn. At least not as far as I know.

Anyway, Qatar loves it some Libya Dawn and hates it some Tobruk government, and you sometimes see that reflected in Al Jazeera’s reporting on Libya. For example, in its earlier reporting on the Tunis deal, Al Jazeera made special note that the deal didn’t mention Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, whom the website called “one of the most divisive figures in post-revolutionary Libya.” Haftar was appointed, or maybe appointed himself, the commander-in-chief of Tobruk’s forces in early March, and that was after he’d spent most of 2014 helped to kick off the latest round in the war by attacking Islamist forces affiliated with Libya’s previous General National Congress, the one that was eventually replaced by the government now in Tobruk before the Libyan Supreme Court ruled the Tobruk government illegitimate. He’s definitely a problematic figure. You’ll notice that Reuters story up there also describes him, word for word, as “one of the most divisive figures in post-revolutionary Libya,” which is…a pretty odd coincidence? I guess?

Haftar has his issues. For one, he was a close Muammar Gaddafi ally for nearly two decades before he broke with the former dictator in the late 1980s. For another, it’s pretty clear that he’s been a force for more violence and more chaos rather than less. For a third, it really isn’t clear whether Tobruk can rein him in if and when the time comes. So I’m not saying that Al Jazeera was wrong to describe him as “divisive,” just that it seems a little…one-sided, let’s say, to point out that Haftar is “divisive” but make no mention of the equally divisive Libya Dawn. Doha supports Libya Dawn, and coincidentally (or not) you won’t find (or at least I haven’t been able to find) too much negative coverage of the role that Libya Dawn has played in Libya in Al Jazeera’s reporting.

Qatar’s support for Libya Dawn isn’t just about Doha’s foreign policy agenda or throwing its financial muscle around; it’s also about grappling with some strong intra-GCC disagreements. Qatar, because it backs the Tripoli government, has been waging a neat little proxy fight in Libya with its neighbors in the UAE, who genuinely fear and loathe political Islamism and are therefore backing the “secular” Tobruk folks. That Qatar-UAE spat has helped to prolong and worsen Libya’s war, which I guess is fine with the Qataris and Emiratis, who get to play out their rivalry at the expense of Libyans, rather than themselves. It’s not like their oil wells are being set on fire or whatever, am I right? It’s not clear if the recent surge in attention to the ISIS problem has motivated either or both of the two Gulf states to moderate their positions in Libya. But Qatar may well have reason to cast doubt on Makhzoum’s role in the GNC, if that works to the benefit of some faction within the Tripoli government that’s more closely aligned with Doha.

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