By Cansu Yiğit
In recent weeks, Tripoli has witnessed renewed clashes. These demonstrate – again – that NATO and its political arm, the United Nations, are only capable to destroy states and cause disintegration. They are not able to establish an order. Lots of people may have not liked the regime of Qaddafi. But his overthrow has not provided freedom. Instead, it has practically dissolved the state and led to chaos.
In the last days of August, Libya’s capital Tripoli witnessed clashes between militias supported by the Government of National Unity (GNU) led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah on the one side and the leader of the Stability Government, Fathi Bashagha on the other. 32 people were killed and more than hundred injured during the clashes, which have disrupted the tranquility dominating Tripoli since the Haftar’s offensive on the city was repelled in 2019.
The competing power centers in Libya, Tripoli and Benghazi, had accepted to establish a government of unity in February 2021. Abdul Hamid Dbeibah was elected Prime Minister to govern the country until the elections scheduled for December 2021. But an atmosphere of continued instability in security matters and the fact that the sides could not agree on the constitution and the electoral law have prevented the elections from taking place. This failure has prepared the ground for the recent clashes. The scope of disagreement grew even further in the beginning of 2022. The House of Representatives (HoR) has withdrawn its confidence to Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and chose instead Fathi Bashagha, former Minister of Interior in Tripoli, as the new Prime Minister. While Bashagha stated he was going to enter Tripoli and take over the government, the UN-recognized government of Dbeibah has presented a decided stance to handing over the government only to an elected force. Being from Misrata, Bashagha succeeded in gaining the support of militias from that city, and he also achieved albeit limited support from militias in Tripoli.
2 days of clashes
Finally, forces controlled by Fathi Basghaha set in motin to gain control of Tripoli on August 26 and 27. A random shooting on a military convoy of the GNU started the clashes. Shootings began in the Ben Gashir and Sarim neighborhoods of Tripoli first and than, within hours, spilled over to districts such as the Republic Avenue and Dahra, located in the city center.
The first clashes occurred between militias commanded by Haitem Tajouri, a person close to Bashagha, and the Stability Support Authority (SSA), connected to the Presidential Council. A military convoy, controlled by Basagha and stationed 200 km east of Tripoli in Misrata, approached the east parts of the capital. Meanwhile, in the south, the Zintan Brigades controlled by Osama al-Juwaili, former Chief of Military Intelligence, dismissed by Dbeibah on past May 17, set in motion and tried to occupy the main roads and crossings between the city center and the Tripoli airport.
Air bombardment prevented the entry of militias from Misrata to Tripoli, while the SSA commanded units succeeded to gain control over the main headquarter of the Haitem Tajouri militia. The militia under command of al Juwaili was forced to retreat further south. Although shootings continued over 48 hours, the main act of “insurgency” has been suppressed within hours.
Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah took to the streets in the evening hours and visited the forces ensuring security in the city. He stated that “the times of coups are over, who ever desires so can take part in elections”. Dbeibah also ordered that everyone taking part in the attack should be detained. Among those with a search and detain warrant are also Bashagha and al Juwaili.
Bashagha’s hand is weaker now
The clashes one again have shown that the division among Tripoli-commanded armed forces continues, further threatening the security of the country. After the clashes, the militias that support Bashagha had to withdraw to positions even further away from Tripoli. With losing ground and positions in Tripoli, Bashagha’s chances to enter the capital by force are nearly null now.
Abdulhamid Dbeibeh on the other side has significantly strengthened his position in Tripoli. However, this can only solidify the intra-Libyan divide and is unlikely to promote unity. Without a true peace initiative, renewed clashes seem almost certain.
Bashagha’s suicidal endeavor
The clashes have another dimension: No one really thought that Bashagha would be able to enter Tripoli and overthrow the government. There are heated debates on the question why Bashagha engaged in this step, which could have amounted to a “suicide attempt”. Political expert Salah al Bakush, who served as adviser to the former High Council of State, claims that HoR President Aqila Saleh had given Bashagha one week time to enter Tripoli and that Bashagha had followed suit. “Aguila knows the man can’t win and innocent blood will be spilled but he’s hoping he can force negotiations on a 3rd government, delay elections, and stay in power”, al Bakush commented.
Several different commentators do also support the opinion that Khalifa Haftar or Aqila Saleh might have pushed Bashagha to that step, though they do not present any specific information. The equation in that theory is as follows: Though the probability is low, if Bashagha succeeds in entering Tripoli, this wuld streghnten Haftar and/or Saleh’s position in the capital. If he fails, the seeds of a civil war among the militias in an around Tripoli, now getting out of control, will be planted.
The debate about a “third government”
The developments also seem connected to the claims about the initiative for a “third government”, in discussion for some time already. Beginning August, a report based on “Egyptian sources” was provided to the Libyan press. According to that report, Aqila Saleh and High Council of State President Khaled al Mishri are in negotiations about a “third government”. The according meetings are being held in Cairo under the supervision of the Egyptian Intelligence, with Ankara being informed. There is consensus between Cairo and Ankara about a proposal to form a new government that would be an alternative to the two current administrations, and for allies of both parties to push them toward complying with that international desire.
A statement confirming the meetings claimed in the report came from the former President of the High Council of State and leader of the Union for Homeland party Abdul Rahman al Sewehli. In tweet from September 4, al Sewehli stated that al Mishri and Saleh were negotiating under the protection of the Egyptian intelligence a new government and its high-ranking positions.
Qatari-centered news channel Al Jazeera reported citing sources in the Supreme Court that, before departing for Cairo, al Mishri had told other members of the High Council of State that he was going to held talks about a third government, which he intended to preside over.
It is known that Aqila Saleh and Khaled al Mishri have travelled in mid-August and than again on the 31st, when the clashes were over, to Cairo. The second meeting was interrupted due to another diplomatic event in Türkiye.
Diplomacy traffic in Türkiye
Immediately after the clashes in Tripoli, Türkiye called the sides to meet in Istanbul. Upon the official invitation, Bashaga was the first to announce his participation. But the Turkish authorities did not present to press a joint photography with Bashagha. On the other side, Prime Minister Dbeibah held meetings with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, Head of National Intelligence Agency, Hakan Fidan. After that, Dbeibah met publicly with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Sources report that Ankara was searching for a compromise formula, while the two Libyan personalities, Dbeibah and Bashagha were seeking to get a public photography with Turkish President Erdoğan. But a compromise wasn’t found, and the Libyan visitors’ meetings were held separately. Following the meetings, Dbeibah stated “The Turkish authorities one again confirmed their support for the GNU, of which I am the Prime Minister, and we have agreed to develop a road map in order to prepare elections.” Not getting the support he was looking for, Bashagha did not make any official public statement. He only conveyed to the “members of his cabinet” that tasks would continue.
Another name taking part in the diplomacy traffic in Istanbul was Khaled al Mishri. Taking a break from the talks in Cairo, al Mishri travelled to Istanbul. He made his only statement concerning the talks in Istanbul days after the meeting via his social media account. Al Mishri said he had met with Çavuşoğlu, Akar and Fidan, added that the Turkish officials were supporting only the vision of solution based on dialogue and that they had called for holding elections as soon as possible.
Libyan sources say that Aqila Saleh was also invited to Istanbul, but they state there is no information whether he actually travelled to Türkiye.
Another claim is that Mohammed Savan, one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, also attended the talks. Savan is one of the personalities, on whose name an arrest warrant has been issued after the clashes in Tripoli. Being one of the founders of the Justice and Construction Party, the Brotherhood’s Libyan arm, Savan had lost last year the presidential race in his party, then resigned and founded the Democrat Party.
Towards new confrontations and alliances
Taking the official statements and the established negotiation tables into account together with widespread claims, the new process indicates a situation of new confrontations, alliances and quests for compromise that two years ago would have seemed very improbable:
– Since quite a time, there is quite a distance between Khalifa Haftar and Aqila Saleh. The latter is searching a common ground with Khaled al Mishri. Cairo finds no peace with the Tripoli government. Hence, it considers the option of a “third government” both as a means to protect its interests in Tripoli as well as the key to meet with Türkiye in a “formula of compromise”. The fact that Bashagha has been sent by Saleh on the “suicide mission” also appears as an attempt to convince Türkiye to this formula. On the one side, there is Dbeibah, incapable to ensure stability, on the other Bashagha, whose reputation is badly damaged. The Saleh-al Mishri duo might think that this chaos will serve to highlight them as an option. Claims on this option headed by Egypt are further supported by the fact that concerning the recent clashes, Libyan sources to not point their fingers on Russia but on Cairo.
– Statements from Binghazi, made before and after the clashes in Tripoli call attention to another search for compromise. Khalifa Haftar’s spokesperson stated they were “not supporting none of the sides in the clashes in Tripoli and that these were harming the Tripolitan population”. On July 12, Dbeibah had dismissed the current President of the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) and appointed Ferhat ben Kidara to the position, a person close to Haftar. This had led to interpretations that Dbeibah was seeking to compromise with Haftar – a claim that was denied then by Dbeibah himself. The asserted alliance between Dbeibah and Haftar has not expanded beyond the oil sector till the clashes of Tripoli. But the fact that Haftar declared his neutrality during the clashes is considered a confirmation of that assertion. Rumors say that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the force behind this asserted alliance. The fact that Türkiye has not objected to the appointment of a figure very close to Haftar into an important position is also taken a signal of goodwill of the Erdoğan government towards the normalization of relations between Ankara and Abu Dhabi.
– It is well known that the appointment of a figure close to Haftar to the NOC Presidency and the assertions of the alliance deeply disturb Qatar, an old supporter of the Dbeibah government. There is talk that though it officially contuniues to support the Dbeibah government, Qatar has also began to explore different options. The reappearance of the Muslim Brotherhood, not on the scene for a time, can also be part of this exploration. While the Libyan sides were talking with Turkish authorities, the Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahaman Al Thani was also in Istanbul. The claim that Mohammed Savan was included into these talks further supports that assertion.
Türkiye’s main interest in Libya consists in safeguarding the maritime delimitation agreement signed with Tripoli and achieving the country’s political stability. While in 2019 it has provided open and strong support to the Tripoli government, today Ankara acts more as a mediator. But is observable that this change in Ankara’s position is more of rhetorical and tactical nature than in content. Of course, Ankara has a stance closer to the Dbeibah government. But unlike formerly, today Türkiye prefers not to articulate that support publicly, i.e., while the joint photo with Dbeibah is given, Bashagha is not directly attacked and the door is not fully shut to other Libyan actors. One of the reasons for that approach is the complicated and fluent nature of political relations in Libya. The other is the normalization process Türkiye has entered in its relations with those countries active in Libya.
Concerning the different debated formulas of compromise, Türkiye is evaluating and negotiating the options. But in summary, Ankara does not support a change of government. Merely, it desires a compromise built on the revision of the current government, protecting stability and heading towards elections.
In summary: all actors in Libya base their calculations on the possibility that all given alliances can change any moment and new, unexpected actors can enter the game.
West offers no solution
The recent clashes have shown once again: no political solution will last long unless the arms in the country are not taken under control. Ten restructuring of Libya’s security institutions and the dissolution of the militias is a need more urgent than elections. A process of negotiation and compromise that is reflecting Libya’s realities, that is practical and applicable and based on a realistic strategy can only be set in motion after security is achieved. The completion of a process of compromise focused on the constitutional reform and than heading towards elections – that seems to be the only promising option.
But the current process cannot again left to the mercy of the United Nations, which is swinging between the Western countries’ conflicts of interest. Because, the main blame for these clashes lies with the West and Stephanie Williams and the UN. Attempts to impose settlement formats on Libya under the auspices of Western diplomats and according to their models, without regard to local specifics, have failed. Instead of solving urgent problems, the West was preoccupied with taking control over Libyan oil and the withdrawal of foreign military personnel from Libya. It had to do primarily with Turkey, as Russia in the context of the conflict in Ukraine has no possibility to have a serious military presence in Libya. This issue diverted all the attention of Western diplomats from the really important issues of inter-Libyan dialogue. But Turkey cannot withdraw its military advisers and instructors from Libya; their presence is legitimate. The withdrawal of military groups from Chad and Sudan from Libya is even more unlikely: as long as the internal conflict in Libya lasts, its parties will be forced to hire Chadians and Sudanese. There is the only way to stop it: to establish unified and functioning authorities in the country, not the other way around.
Who will take the leadership?
If a bigger war is just waiting around the corner, than the question arises who will take the initiative for a new peace process. The most realistic option appears that the two powers which succeeded to force the sides to lay down arms in 2020 – Türkiye and Russia – should lead the way. Both countries need to convince the regional powers and thus break the political vicious cycle in Libya.
Ankara and Moscow can negotiate, as the example of Syria shows. It is a very important step that Presidents Erdogan and Putin discussed the topic of Libya at their last meeting in Sochi.
Another important development occurred on September 9. Mikhail Bogdanov, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Putin’s Special Envoy for Middle East and North Africa met with Türkiye’s ambassador in Moscow for talks, which had Libya as main item on their agenda. In the statement, the sides declared that both countries “are ready to continue to coordinate talks between the Libyan sides in order to achieve peace and security”.
These contacts mean that there are prospects for cooperation in this direction, for example in order to agree on the delimitation of security zones.
The most logical step would be for Russia and Türkiye to agree in principle to preserve Libya’s territorial integrity, with both sides acting as guarantors. Russia could guarantee the security of Eastern Libya, Turkey would assure that of Western Libya. This would be the most realistic prospect for a solution. The border between the two security zones could run along Sirte.