On 14 January, Libyan strongman General Khalifa Haftar walked away from a peace summit in Moscow, Russia. This summit, co-sponsored by Russia and Turkey, was aimed at settling a conflict that has been raging on and off for the best part of nine years. The failure of the summit will likely have strong ramifications for the Libyan peace process, and for the lives of Libya’s citizens.
Libya’s civil war has been fought, in one form or another, since 2011. Jubilation following the fall of Qaddafi faded as divisions emerged along sectarian, tribal, and regional lines. In 2014, the country found itself split between two rival governments competing for legitimacy – the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, and the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk. Despite the GNA securing UN recognition, the HoR has secured considerable international backing based largely on its opposition to political Islam.
Haftar is a powerful figure and de facto leader of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), the military wing of the HoR. The GNA is led currently by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.
The most recent phase of the war has seen an LAAF offensive on Tripoli largely blunted by GNA forces, although not without considerable losses. Russia, which backs Haftar’s forces, and Turkey, which backs the GNA, called for a ceasefire and peace negotiations, which have now run into difficulties due to Haftar’s reluctance to commit to peace terms.
The stalling of talks in Moscow now means a shift in focus to talks in Germany. These talks will bring together most of the interested parties in the region in an attempt to produce a lasting settlement.
Securing peace in Libya is an imperative. According to the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, as of late 2019 more than 820,000 people require humanitarian aid, more than 300,000 people are internally displaced, and more than 640,000 have sought to migrate.
What are the implications of the failure of peace talks?
Russian sources are keen to stress that although the talks have stalled, they have still achieved something valuable – bringing rival parties together to discuss terms. Russian Senator Alexei Chepa argued that Haftar’s departure was merely part of the negotiating process. Turkey views the impasse in more negative terms however, stressing Haftar’s obstructionism. The UN mission in Libya has highlighted the humanitarian aspect of the conflict, pointing out that diplomatic efforts could forestall a humanitarian disaster.
Whilst Moscow is right to suggest that bringing hostile parties together can have a positive impact, it is worth bearing in mind that Libya’s nine-year civil war is littered with failed attempts at negotiation. The lesson to be learned here, however, is not that that negotiations are bound to fail – indeed, there is hope for a peaceful way forward, one that corrects the mistakes of the Russo-Turkish process. First, one must identify what it was that pushed Haftar away from discussions – an issue on which there is still some uncertainty – such that negotiations can meet the needs of both parties (within limits). Second, the peace process must involve all interested groups, not just the GNA and the LAAF. The conflict in Libya is incredibly complex, drawing in actors including Italy, France, Qatar, the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, in addition to Turkey and Russia. Third, there must be some commitment on the part of the international community to ‘peacebuilding’ in Libya – in other words, ensuring any agreements made are kept. Had this commitment been in place in 2014, the current stage of the war may have been avoided.
As the conflict nears its tenth year, the need for a durable solution in Libya is more evident than ever. Unless Haftar can be brought back to Moscow and back to the negotiating table, the future of Libyan peace seems to depend on events in Berlin. The process is likely to be a slow one, with many false starts. We must not expect a rapid solution to a complex and evolving conflict. However, history has shown us that a negotiated path to peace is possible, so long as a suitable arrangement can be found. This is the task that now faces the international community – for the sake of Libya’s people, it is a task they must take seriously.
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