Though I wrote only last week an op-ed on the shift in the West's policy towards supporting the Libyan National (LNA) led by Field Marshall Khalifa Hafter, the pace of these events is unfolding faster than was expected.
The one year anniversary of the General National Accord (GNA) created by the UN and headed by Prime Minister Fayez Serraj is on the 30th of March. It's timely to observe that that government, one of three, but the only one recognised by the West has achieved absolutely nothing whatsoever to improve or even have a significant impact on Libyan affairs. To compound this abject failure, an acute emergency has emerged in the last 24 hours revolving around further direct sales by Cyrenaica (East Libya) of oil bypassing Tripoli and the West. If this remains unresolved it would be my assessment that the country would be split into two.
To bring readers up to date with some of the details since last week, I list the most significant below, not in order of importance:
1. The city of Misrata seems to be breaking ranks with the various entities in Tripoli as well now there seems to be support in the last few days from Italy's Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano towards Hafter along with the UN Secretary General Antonioni Guterres. A volte face if ever I saw one. In addition the Italian Far Right Northern League MEP Mario Borghezio is championing Haftar in the European Parliament.
2. Militants in Jufra airbase are surrounded and to being starved out. The LNA is claiming that the Jufra airbase occupied by the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) fighters are completely surrounded. The LNA wants to avoid the casualties of an all-out attack and is content to starve into submission the hodge podge of extremists that constitute the Benghazi Defence Brigade (BDB militia) on the airbase. Strategically Jufra is a key node in Libya’s battlespace.
3. In downtown Benghazi, the last remnants of terrorists, the pressure on such extremists is rising and in Sabri attacks by the LNA have intensified.
4. While in the West militias continue to run wild in Tripoli, cramming desperate migrants into overcrowded boats for Italy when they are not shooting each other on the capital’s streets, order has been restored to the East of the country, in the province of Cyrenaica. In the West there are kidnappings, firefights and casual murders: In the East, schools are re-opening, buildings being fixed and, with the extremist militias all but crushed in Benghazi, the people are learning to breath again.
And nothing sums up this tale of two Libya’s better than its two point men on either side, whose personalities and fates could hardly be te more different.
In the East that personality is Khalifa Haftar, finally tasting success against extremists he correctly brands as 'terrorists' after three hard years commanding the Libyan National Army. In Benghazi that army has finally claimed victory over the key stronghold of a mixture of Al Qaida, IS and Ansar Al Sharia - yes, the militia who killed American ambassador Chris Stevens in the same city, after a long hard campaign. That victory comes as the army has tasted another success, smashing yet another extremist militia, Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), and restoring control - and calm - to the big oil ports at Sidra and Ras Lanuf. Across the country people yearn for the kind of control Haftar had brought to the East. Diplomats who once shunned him are rushing to meet him, and the big powers have started to notice, with British foreign secretary Boris Johnson saying the Field Marshall must be brought into a unity government.
Cross to the other side of the country, and the point man there could not be more different. He is Fayez Sarraj, a shambling Tripoli politician named prime minister in an unelected, unloved and crumbling thing called the Government of National Accord (GNA).
In fact, in reality the GNA is no government, just a group of presidency officers, chosen by the UN, most of whom have already quit. On Sunday night militias threatened to storm its headquarters at Tripoli naval base, only to find that everyone had fled, everyone but Sarraj. The only force he can trust are Italian commandos based in the nearby embassy. Faced with the militia threat, he agreed to read a statement on live television on Sunday praising them and condemning Haftar. Not because he wanted to, more because he had no choice.
And don’t take my word for it: Read the British Conservative Party’s Middle East Council report which I wrote about in last weeks oped and which was based on the findings of one of Britain’s rising star MPs, Kwasi Kwarteng, vice chair of the council. He did what few MPs have done, and went to see for himself, meeting Haftar at his Libya headquarters early this month. Back in London, his report, authored with CMEC director Leo Doherty who travelled with him are unequivocal: As Boris Johnson says, Haftar must be allowed to play his part.
Their report, which will be on the desks of Johnson and his boss, Prime Minister Theresa May, pulls no punches, calling for a radical re-think of Western policy which, until now, has favoured shambling Sarraj over Haftar.
Kwarteng found Haftar astute, focused and committed, a military man who “sees his mission as fighting jihadist terrorism.”
The report contrasts the order and calm of eastern Libya with the militia anarchy of the west, concluding “Despite being under pressure, the East remains stable while the West is plagued by disorder and insecurity...dominated by warlords.”
Instead, says the report, it is time to connect with both Haftar and the elected parliament to which he reports in Tobruk, saying the present Western policy is doomed. “The UK should reconsider it’s vie of the GNA and acknowledge its limited capacity to deliver any kind of governance or security for Libya.”
Seems now obvious to all that eastern Libya has the upper hand on western Libya. Game over!