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Libya’s Legitimacy Crisis: Hostage to the Skhirat Agreement

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On 17 December 2015, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) joined Libyan delegations in celebrating the signing of the Skhirat agreement, or Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). Skhirat established the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and was supposed to end the institutional and political split that emerged following the disputed 2014 elections. Instead of unifying the country, the Skhirat agreement has further deepened Libya’s legitimacy crisis, gradually becoming an obstacle to peace. Despite the signing of the agreement by most of the delegates, the procedural and legal aspects of the LPA did not go as intended, creating further institutional and political fragmentation and derailing the country’s transition instead of salvaging it.

The 2014 elections, which established the House of Representatives (HoR) as Libya’s new legislator, were rejected by the Islamist dominated General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli, created following the previous 2012 elections. A few months later, the Supreme Court in Tripoli ruled to nullify the HoR’s establishment following a petition filed by a number of Islamist-leaning and Misratan politicians. The HoR rejected the Supreme Court’s ruling saying it was made under the threat of guns, heralding the institutional split between western and eastern Libya.

In December 2015, the UN Security Council (UNSC) recognised the GNA as Libya’s sole executive authority, but remnants of the GNC in Tripoli and its National Salvation Government led by Khalifa al-Ghwell refused to hand over power to the GNA. At that moment, Libya had three different governments, none of which was able to govern, but each was capable of blocking initiatives by the other two. The Interim Libyan Government in Bayda, headed by Abdullah al-Thinni, refused to hand over power until the GNA was ratified by the HoR, and the necessary constitutional requirements to adopt the agreement into the Interim Constitutional Declaration (ICD) were met.

The ICD is the country’s political roadmap governing the post-Gaddafi transition. On his part, the commander of the eastern-based Libyan National Army, Khalifa Haftar, reluctantly agreed to send his own representative for the Presidential Council of the GNA, Ali al-Qatrani. But Haftar never recognised the Skhirat agreement and considered it a threat to his own ambitions to rule Libya. On two occasions in 2017 and 2020, he declared the Skhirat agreement void. In his latest attempt last month, Haftar also unilaterally declared himself Libya’s ruler by popular mandate.

It is time to move beyond the Skhirat agreement, developing a new mechanism for reconciliation and the formation of a domestically and internationally legitimate government in Libya. Going forward, the international community must avoid hasty conferment of international legitimacy. In the future, legal and binding domestic legitimacy must precede the conferment of international legitimacy. This can be done by ensuring that legal and procedural requirements to ratify any agreement are met before the conferment of international recognition through UNSC resolution to any of the bodies that emanate from a future political agreement.

Additionally, this should entail conditioning international recognition of the rump GNA Tripoli government, in the same way that the international recognition of the HoR in Tobruk back in 2014-2015 was limited to pressure the two sides to the negotiation table, ultimately achieving the LPA in Skhirat. This could be achieved by issuing a UNSC resolution to that effect.

The GNA, although recognised by the UN via UNSC Resolution 2259, which legitimised the LPA, has been a rump institution since early 2017 and now represents only one side of the ongoing conflict. In a similar fashion, the HoR which was also legitimised by the same UNSC Resolution, is also a rump parliament which today suffers from similar legal and institutional shortcomings for legitimacy, notwithstanding its election in 2014.

With regards to the rump Tripoli government, for instance, two of the GNA’s Presidential Council deputies, Ali al-Qatrani and Fathi al-Majbri, have boycotted the Tripoli-based GNA and declared their support for Haftar, and another, Musa al-Koni, resigned in January 2017. Out of the nine members of the Presidential Council of the GNA, only five are currently active. Additionally, Article 1, paragraph 3 of the LPA stipulates that decisions made by the GNA’s Presidential Council are to be issued unanimously by the President and his deputies. A legal quorum that has not been met since January 2017.

With these developments in mind, it is imperative that the United Nations and international actors stop conferring automatic legitimacy and international recognition to the rump GNA in Tripoli while ignoring or sidelining the similarly rump HoR parliament in Tobruk. In this regard, it is important to note that the HoR in Tobruk is also recognized by the same UNSC resolution as the country’s sole legislator. It is the legislator that was supposed to ratify the Skhirat agreement and legitimise the GNA, but this never happened due to its internal divisions and disagreements as well as pressure from Haftar and his allies. The HoR is handicapped. Its 200 members are at the mercy of its Speaker, Agilah Saleh, and has been unable to hold its meetings to ratify the LPA and enact the required legal and constitutional amendments to activate it. The HoR splintered between supporters and opponents of the LPA.

The GNA has exploited and abused its international recognition to make requests for military and counterterrorism assistance and cooperation. Examples include the GNA’s invitation to set-up an Italian military presence in Misrata in the form of a military hospital in 2016, counterterrorism coordination efforts with the US against the so-called Islamic State in Sirte and, most recently, the direct Turkish military intervention to support the GNA against Haftar’s military campaign.

Any such assistance to the GNA should have been conditioned with a clear commitment to a political reconciliation process to end the country’s legitimacy crisis, and stop the coercion and domination of government institutions in Tripoli by the cartel of militias aligned with the GNA. Similarly, recognition of the HoR should be conditioned on the correct and independent performance of its legislative role, free from outside pressure or military threats, including by the LNA.

Interference or undue influence over political institutions, from Haftar or other armed actors in Tripoli or Misrata must be rejected and warrant meaningful action including sanctions by the UNSC, the United States and the European Union. A clear UNSC sanctions mechanism should be put in place to serve that purpose.

For any attempt at political reconciliation to succeed in Libya, the international community should demand and enforce a ban on outside interference in Libya’s conflict and stop the flow of arms in violation of the UN-embargo. Equally important, the United Nations should introduce mechanisms of oversight and auditing over the assets of Libya’s Central Bank (LCB) and National Oil Corporation (NOC) to bring greater financial pressure on both sides to come to the table and form a truly inclusive, unified government.

The UN’s continued recognition of the GNA despite its limited control over the country is problematic because the GNA lacks any form of domestic recognition in Libya, given that it was never ratified by the country’s sole legislator, the HoR. Moreover, according to the Skhirat agreement, the length of the GNA’s mandate is limited to two years, ending in December 2017. The continuation of such recognition without limits and controls will impede any progress for reconciliation efforts in Libya.

Moreover, the GNA used its UN recognition to formally invite Turkey into the Libyan conflict, taking foreign interference in Libya to a whole new level compared to previous interventions, in clear violation of the UNSC’s own resolutions. The implementation of the security cooperation agreement signed between Turkey and the GNA in November 2019 violates resolution 1970 and has opened the door for further systematic violations of UN sanctions imposed by the 2011 resolution.

This development will invite further escalation from Haftar’s foreign backers, especially the UAE and Egypt, and will likely open the door for greater Russian influence in eastern Libya. Turkey’s overt intervention in support of the GNA with the deployment of Arab-Syrian mercenaries, Turkish military experts, advanced air defence systems and combat drones, mirrored similar interventions by Haftar’s foreign backers in Egypt, the UAE and Russia, but it did not deal a decisive blow to Haftar’s forces, which are presently being resupplied with more mercenaries, advanced air defence systems and fighter jets in a bid to reverse the GNA’s recent advances in western Libya.

The United States and others in Europe should drop the belief that the Turkish intervention in Libya will create balance on the ground, eventually pressuring Haftar and his patrons to accept a return to the negotiating table. In fact, the opposite happened. On 30 April, the GNA emboldened by recent military successes against the LNA rejected a unilateral truce offered by Haftar, presumably out of a belief that it could move forward and capitalise on its territorial advances, further weakening Haftar in western and southern Libya.The GNA made a huge mistake for the country and the entrapped citizens of Tripoli, and thus must accept responsibility for that decision.

Since then, the GNA has made significant advances against Haftar’s LNA in western Libya, signaling further escalations and conflict. Meanwhile, Haftar and his foreign backers are feeling the heat from the Turkish intervention and are stepping up their own war efforts, including the indiscriminate bombing of Tripoli. Escalation has only invited more escalation in Libya.

The GNA has interpreted international recognition as a signal that they can monopolize national political authority and control over the country’s wealth, while at the same time diminishing its propensity for compromise or negotiations given its veneer of international legitimacy. In that sense, blanket expressions of international support for the GNA are counterproductive.

For its part, the eastern camp spearheaded by Haftar and Agilah Saleh, the president of the rump HoR in Tobruk, have similar deficiencies. The eastern camp has been embroiled in its own internal crisis since Haftar’s military advance slowed and his declaration to rule by popular mandate sparked an unprecedent crisis between him and his allies in eastern Libya. Although enjoying a level of international recognition as per UNSC resolution 2259, the HoR in Tobruk is divided and lacks legal quorum for meetings, and tens of its members have defected and set up a parallel body in Tripoli allied with the GNA.

However, the eastern camp has led a successful campaign to prevent the GNA from gaining formal domestic legitimacy or recognition through a legal vote in the HoR. The April 2019 Tripoli offensive by Haftar was designed to complete the LNA’s streak of territorial gains that started in 2015, in a clear attempt to take control of the CBL, NOC and other key governing institutions headquartered in Tripoli.

The April Tripoli offensive was launched by Haftar ten days before a national conference planned by the UN was supposed to take place, demonstrating that Haftar had little or no regard for the UN-led political process in Libya. He launched his offensive exactly when UN Secretary-General António Guterres was in Tripoli seeking to unite the country, launch a reconciliation process, agree on a constitution and hold democratic elections.

Calls by the international community for a humanitarian truce during the month of Ramadan and due to the COVID-19 pandemic have not been heeded by conflict parties and their external patrons. The Berlin process failed to reverse the downward spiral and the massive escalations on both sides despite the commitment by all countries intervening in Libya. The United States is the only actor able to exert pressure on Turkey and the UAE and influence their behaviour but has so far been unable or unwilling to use that influence to stop the escalation in Libya.

External support and access to Libya’s financial resources fuel the crisis in Libya and enable both sides to continue with their violent escalation and access to advanced weaponry. The international community and especially the US should take urgent steps to enforce the arms embargo in Libya and stop the delivery of weapons by sea, air and land. Support for the EU’s Mediterranean naval operation ‘Irini’, which aims to enforce the UN arms embargo, is a good start.

International actors should further consider means of limiting the access of Libya’s conflict parties to financial resources from Libya’s oil revenues and foreign currency reserves to cover salaries, subsidies and the needs of critical sectors, but only with some form of international oversight and audit mechanisms.

Ultimately, international actors invested in Libya must stop falling into the legitimacy trap that has been exploited by Libya’s conflict parties and their external backers. They should also question the almost automatic support for the never fully implemented Skhirat agreement and begin devising new mechanisms able to place equal pressure on both sides, increasing the propensity of actors across Libya to resume a true and legitimate negotiation process.

From our partner RIAC

Independent Libyan affairs analyst and researcher, co-founder of Libya Outlook for Research and Consulting, Foreign Policy Magazine's Libya contributor (2014–2017)

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Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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