Is This the Week That Makes or Breaks Libya?
Before the HoR decision to suspend its participation in UN-backed negotiations on Monday 23 February, various sources indicated last week’s imminent negotiations’ sessions in Morocco as the ‘make or break’ ones, where actors on both sides of the crisis would have been pushed to finally decide whether any positive outcome was to really emerge from the political rapprochement process. However, after the decision by the HoR to retaliate at the political level by recalling its representatives, due to the attack registered in Qubbah, and the rumored promotion of Khalifa Haftar to the rank of Commander in Chief, a post created last week by the HoR, it seems fair to say that Libya has moved back several steps and is now again in the position where every day or week can potentially represent the ‘make or break’ moment for the whole country and its existence.
Besides consolidated patterns of fighting across Benghazi, western Libya and the ‘Oil Crescent’ region, the latest crisis on the national stage continues to be that of Sirte. Contrary to what was stated by several Libya Dawn representatives last week, however, a military assault to retake control of the city and bring it back into the fold of Misratan-led militias has not started. Here, unlike in other parts of the country, tribal negotiations inclusive of all sides involved in the crisis surrounding the city continue unabated, in a bid to reach a political settlement that would avoid transforming Sirte into yet another military battlefield. Paradoxically though, should Misratan tribal leaders agree to a political solution with members of Islamic State cells in Sirte, it is reasonable to expect that this would represent the last nail in the coffin of national-level UN-backed negotiations. Misrata’s ambiguity as to its alliance with radical Jihadist groups and its willingness to conclude political deals with them would ultimately increase resentment in eastern Libya constituencies aligned with the Tobruk-establishment who have been targeted by indiscriminate attacks and targeted killings since the end of the 2011 Revolution.
The possibility of a negotiated settlement between Libya Dawn militias and IS members in Sirte remains nonetheless a long shot, if anything due to the IS unwillingness to settle for negotiations failing to recognize its authority in any of the areas where it operates. Keeping this in mind, it does not come as a surprise that during the past week rumours emerged about the building used by the ‘Religious Police’ affiliated with the IS in Derna being destroyed through a bombing attack in the early hours of the morning of Saturday 21 February. Sources indicate that the ‘Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade’ might have carried out this attack. The Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade is considered the main militia hailing from Derna and ‘heading’ the local Mujahideen Shura Council. If confirmed, this news would further corroborate rumours that Derna is witnessing serious in-fighting between its various Jihadist factions, a dynamic reminiscent of those currently at play in Syria between the IS and other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.
On the other hand, the increasingly strong presence of Jihadist groups throughout Libya still retains still the potential to inspire hysteria among western and regional stakeholders and encourage some of them to pick sides between blocks and provide economic or military supplies to their proteges. Fears among regional parties following Libya are sure to increase after the UN Security Council Panel of Experts on Libya published on Sunday 1 March an updated report focusing on events in the country throughout 2014. Among other things, the panel recommended the UN Security Council to: create a maritime monitoring force to assist the Government of Libya in securing its territorial waters to prevent the trafficking of oil, arms and related materiel. It is not unconceivable that this report will significantly alter the state of international debate surrounding a more pro-active approach towards the Libyan crisis. For the moment, on Monday 2 March, Italy’s navy started naval exercises off the coast of Libya. Despite the suspicious timing, the exercises, known as ‘Mare Aperto’ (Open Sea), are part of annual routine training courses and, according to navy representatives, are in no way connected or influenced by the current Libyan scenario. Nonetheless, the presence at sea of a large number of Italian military vessels is likely to increase the stability and security of the waters between Libya and Italy for the time being. Overall, despite the derailing of UN-backed negotiations and the inconclusiveness of this round of shuttle diplomacy by Bernardino Leon, events in and around Libya continue to flow, will this be the make or break week?