HoR Suspend its Participation in UN Talks
On Monday 23 February, the Tobruk-based HoR voted in favor of suspending its participation in the UN-backed peace negotiations process and re-called its representatives who had already reached Tunisi en route to Morocco, where negotiations are still nominally scheduled to take place this week. The HoR decision came as a response to the attack carried out by Jihadist militants on the town of Qubbah, through a triple car bombing, on Friday 20 February. The attack caused the death of at least 40 people and the wounding of 70 other as explosions struck the city in different moments in what appears to have been a deliberate strategy aimed at maximizing human losses. The town of Qubbah was targeted due to its affiliation with and support for Tobruk-based institutions and the military establishment aligned with it
Since the publication of the video portraying the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Sirte, negotiations between Libyan parties hit a slump and appeared to be hanging by a thread for most of last week. Surprisingly though, it was not Operation Dignity hardliners who pulled the plug of negotiations, as some feared would do by launching indiscriminate airstrikes and attacks on Libya Dawn constituencies, but rather the more ‘moderate’ HoR. Of course, one should not underestimate the considerable pressures HoR members must have been subjected to from local constituencies in eastern Libya in the aftermath of the conquest of Sirte and the attack on Qubbah by Libyan cells of the Islamic State. Nonetheless, even taking local pressures and public reaction into account does not make the decision by the HoR any less shortsighted and detrimental, firstly to Libya as a country and secondly, in the medium term, to the HoR as well. As a matter of fact, by acknowledging that there cannot be any compromise with other groups in Libya and that the only possible solution at this stage is to continue waging war, the HoR and its institutions are placing themselves in the hands of Haftar who, despite his various military shortcomings, seems to be finally attaining a Sisi-like aura across eastern Libya. Furthermore, the other big winners from today’s decision are precisely those Jihadist groups, some of them Islamic State-aligned, that the HoR is trying to eliminate. However, these groups have proved to be thriving and expanding in the current climate of violence and lawlessness marring the country.Furthermore, and even most importantly, derailing the negotiations process was precisely the hope behind the decision taken by these groups to exacerbate tensions through the release of the Sirte’s beheadings’ video and the attack in Qubbah. In short, the HoR appears to have played in the hands of its rivals by abandoning the talks at this stage.
Monday’s development are all the more frustrating if we take into consideration the positive news that had emerged across the weekend. In fact, on Sunday 22 February, in a rather surprising development, the port of Zueitina was suddenly declared to be open and operative by an anonymous Libyan official quoted by Reuters. The port had been closed for almost a year, but, reportedly, has already loaded a Greek tanker, which is now heading towards Italy with 750,000 barrels of crude. It is reasonable to assume that the re-opening of the port has been clouted in secrecy to avoid both a disruption of negotiations between relevant stakeholders and to avoid attracting unwanted attention from armed groups looking to spoil the Tobruk’s establishment capacity to sell crude, be they Jihadists or Operation Shuruq militias. In light of the damage sustained by Sidra terminal and of the persistent insecurity marring the ‘Oil Crescent’ region, the re-opening of Zueitina would have represented a much-needed financial lifeline for Libya. However, now that talks appear to have reached a definitive stop and that the news has been revealed in the public domain, it remains to be seen whether Petroleum Facilities Guards and Operation Dignity troops will have the military capacity to ensure its regular functioning, or if Zueitina will succumb to the same fate of Sidra and Ras Lanuf.
Overall, the ball is now in the court of Libya’s international partners. European countries, the EU, the US and all regional stakeholders, especially those backing Egypt, must adopt all possible measures to pressure the HoR and its affiliated parties to re-join talks. There might not be another chance to save the country from the perilous path that other in the continent have already taken and down which certain groups seem eager to be pushing Libya towards.