On the Brink of the Third Failure


BERLIN/TRIPOLI (Own report) - Berlin's efforts to influence developments in Libya are on the brink of failure. The "Government of National Accord," installed in Tripoli on behalf of the United Nations by the German diplomat Martin Kobler, is on the verge of disintegration. Following an Islamist militia coup attempt in October, its "Prime Minster" Fayez al-Sarraj, the West's main partner, was barely able to retain his position against insurgents within his ranks, earlier this year. Last fall, his strongest opponent, General Khalifa Haftar, who is cooperating with the elected Libyan parliament, has conquered Libya's most important oil shipment port and seems to be able to extend his power base. In case al-Sarraj and the "Government of National Accord" cannot hold their ground, Berlin and the EU would not only loose their main Libyan partner for warding off refugees. They would also loose ground in Libya to Russia's advantage, which had recently begun to cooperate with Haftar. As in Syria, this cooperation is based on a common struggle against Islamist militias.

"Not Quite Legal"

Berlin's attempt to install a viable "Government of National Accord" in Libya with the help of the United Nations was doomed to fail from the outset. The German diplomat Martin Kobler, the UN Secretary General's Special Representative for Libya since November 4, 2015, has played a key role in promoting Berlin's endeavor. The "Government of National Accord" under "Prime Minister" Fayez al Sarraj, backed by Kobler since late 2015, was always fragile. At the beginning, it had not been recognized by the two most powerful factions of the disintegrated Libya: neither the Tobruk Parliament ("House of Representatives"), which was elected in 2014, but expelled from the capital by Islamist militias, residing in the East Libya's Tobruk ever since. Nor has it been recognized by the Islamist militias, who have taken power in Tripoli and formed a counter "National Salvation Government." Experts sharply criticized Berlin's attempt to install a government from abroad, bypassing the country's most powerful forces.[1] He cannot claim legitimacy under international law, if he disregards the elected "Tobruk Parliament." In March 2016, Kobler had to concede that "all this is not quite legal."[2]

Brawl at the Naval Base

With the support of Germany and the EU, the "Government of National Accord," which had been installed from abroad, succeeded in late March 2016 in establishing itself at a naval base in Tripoli and gradually driving the Islamist counter government out of the capital. In mid-July 2016, it was even able to use some of the official government buildings for its activities in spite of persisting Islamist militia resistance. In its name and with the help of the US Air Force, Libyan militias expelled IS from the city of Sirte last fall, where it had been entrenched. In October, however, the Islamist counter government sought to overthrow the "Government of National Accord" and continues to pose problems. At the turn of the year, an open power struggle erupted within the "Government of National Accord." One of its members used "Prime Minister" al-Sarraj's trip to London to take control of the "government." Immediately following his return, al-Sarraj reclaimed his position. There are divergent reports concerning the January 8 meeting with Kobler at the Tripoli naval base. A brawl is reported to have taken place between the bodyguards of al-Sarraj and those of his rival. Kobler denies that al-Sarraj was injured and had to be taken to a hospital.[3]


Whereas the practically powerless "Government of National Accord" is virtually disintegrating, the "Tobruk Parliament" under General Khalifa Haftar has been gaining strength for some time. Haftar, who, in 1969, at the side of Moammar Gadhafi had helped overthrow the Libyan monarchy, rose to the highest rank in the military. Because of dissention with Gadhafi in the confusion of the war in Chad in 1987, he joined the CIA-initiated exile opposition in the USA. In May 2014, he began combat against the al Qaeda allied jihadis in Benghazi, leading him to become the most powerful military leader in Libya's East. In September, he successfully recaptured from warlords four important ports for shipping oil at the Gulf of Sirte. Since mid September, greater shipments of oil have begun again to be exported. In the meantime, the oil production, which prior to Gadhafi's overthrow, had been around 1.6 million barrels/day, has increased from a mere 200,000 - in the summer of 2016 - to 700,000 barrels/day. Haftar hopes soon to achieve 900,000 barrels/day. The German Wintershall AG - earlier one of Libya's most important oil producers - is one of the beneficiaries. Following the imposition of a long lull in production, the production could be resumed in September. It is not ruled out that the Haftar-led "Tobruk Forces" will begin to advance into West Libya.

Joint Repulsion of Refugees

For Berlin, this is a serious setback in two respects. On the one hand, the EU and Germany's efforts to gain the "Government of National Accord" and its coast guard's support in thwarting North African refugees from crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, is now in jeopardy. Defense against the influx of refugees was one of Berlin's most important motives for installing a partner "government" in Tripoli. The EU, in cooperation with the "Government of National Accord," has begun training the Libyan coast guard, which is notorious for its brutal mistreatment of refugees. In Mid-October, for example, up to 30 refugees lost their lives during a Libyan coast guard operation.[4] At the beginning of the month, Italy became the first western country to reopen its embassy in Tripoli. Since then, it has not only insisted on carrying out joint patrols in Libyan territorial waters with the Libyan coast guard, it additionally insists on reaching an official agreement with the "Government of National Accord" on stopping refugees. Negotiations are currently being held under the auspices of Malta, which, since January 1, is presiding over the EU. Tripoli is placing its bids high, in order to get the best deal.[5] The negotiations, however are overshadowed by the fact that the "Government of National Accord" is in the process of disintegration, and Haftar is steadily gaining influence.

Talks in Moscow

At the same time, Haftar, who is known as a determined enemy of the Islamist militias, is not only being supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirats, because he is also fighting Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated militias. Kairo and Abu Dhabi have been long-standing enemies of the Muslim Brotherhood. Haftar is also finding that Russia's doors are open to him. He first visited Moscow in June to discuss military support. In the meantime, it is said that the Russian government is not only "printing money for a branch of the central bank in the Haftar-loyal east, but is also supplying military experts."[6] In late December, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov called on the UN to give up its - to a large extent Berlin-imposed - obsession with the al-Sarraj "Government of National Accord," because Haftar, in the meantime, has assumed a leading role in Libya. Last week, Haftar was received on the Russian aircraft carrier "Admiral Kuznetsov," as it crossed the Mediterranean, where he spoke to Russian Defense Minister, Sergey Shoygu, by video conference. However, he refuses to enter negotiations with Kobler. "That would only be a waste of time," Haftar declared in late December.[7]

Military Bases in the Mediterranean

At the end of last week, Malta's Foreign Minister George Vella sounded the alarm in the name of the EU presidency. Haftar is gaining influence, Vella noted, and it cannot be excluded that, together with his allied militias from Zintane, in West Libya, he could eventually also conquer Tripoli, taking power over the entire country. Referring to Haftar's growing relations with Moscow, Vella added: "We all know the Russians' dreams have always been to have military bases in the Mediterranean.”[8] Following its successes in Syria, Russia is, slowly but surely, strengthening its position in Libya. NATO prepared the space for Russia by destroying the country in its war in 2011, and by its disastrous support for the largely powerless "Government of National Accord" in Tripoli, installed at Germany's instigation. Libya could therefore become the third country - after Ukraine and Syria - wherein Berlin's efforts to expand its own hegemonic sphere of influence along with other western powers could fail, leading to Moscow's gaining ground.

[1] See Krieg um die Gegenküste.
[2] Libysche Regierung soll Arbeit ohne rechtliche Legitimation aufnehmen. derstandard.at 18.03.2016.
[3] Reported fracas during Kobler's visit to Serraj. www.libyaherald.com 08.01.2017. PC member storms into closed meeting between Martin Kobler and Fayez Al-Sirraj. www.libyaobserver.ly 08.01.2017.
[4] EU-Training für libysche Küstenwache: Menschenrechte über Bord. www.proasyl.de 31.10.2016. See Against Terrorism and Migration (II).
[5] Karin A. Wenger: Libyen akzeptiert Abkommen mit Italien nicht. www.nzz.ch 13.01.2017.
[6] Stepan Kravchenko, Henry Meyer: Russia Urges Libya Leadership Role for UN-Defying Military Chief. www.bloomberg.com 26.12.2016.
[7] Libye: Haftar snobe Kobler. www.jeuneafrique.com 13.01.2017.
[8] Eric Maurice, Nikolaj Nielsen, Andrew Rettman: Malta raises alarm on Russia in Libya. euobserver.com 13.01.2017.