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
Getting Away With Murder: The New U.S. Intelligence Report on the Khashoggi Affair
It was October 2, 2018 when a man walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate to collect some documents he needed for his impending marriage. He had been there earlier on September 28, and had been told to allow a few days for them to prepare the needed proof of divorce from an earlier marriage.
So there he was. His Turkish fiancée had accompanied him and he asked her to wait outside as it would only take a minute or two. She waited and waited and… waited. Jamal Khashoggi never came out.
What went on inside is a matter of dispute but US intelligence prepared a report which should have been released but was illegally blocked by the Trump administration. Mr. Trump is no doubt grateful for the help he has had over two decades from various Saudi royals in addition to the business thrown his way at his various properties. “I love the Saudis,” says Donald Trump and he had kept the report under wraps. It has now been released by the new Biden administration.
All the same, grisly details of the killing including dismemberment soon emerged because in this tragic episode, with an element of farce, it was soon evident that the Turks had bugged the consulate. There is speculation as to how the perpetrators dispersed of the corpse but they themselves have been identified. Turkish officials also claim to know that they acted on orders from the highest levels of the Saudi government. They arrived on a private jet and left just as abruptly.
The egregious killing led to the UN appointing a Special Rapporteur, Agnes Callamard. She concluded it to be an “extra-judicial killing for which the state of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible.” She added, there was “credible evidence” implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other senior officials.
Now the US report. Intelligence agencies conclude Jamal Khashoggi was killed by a Saudi hit squad under the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. They add that the latter has had unitary control over Saudi security and intelligence organizations and thus it was “highly unlikely” an operation of this nature would have been possible without Prince Mohammed’s authorization.
Mr. Biden’s reaction is plain. Although the Crown Prince is the de facto ruler with his father the King’s acquiescence, Mr. Biden has not talked to him. He called the king and emphasized the importance placed on human rights and the rule of law in the US.
President Biden is also re-evaluating US arms sales to the Kingdom with a view to limiting them to defensive weapons — a difficult task as many can be used for both, a fighter-bomber for example.
There are also calls for sanctions against the Crown Prince directly but Biden has ruled that out. Saudi Arabia is after all the strongest ally of the US in the region, and no president wants to jeopardize that relationship. Moreover, the US has done the same sort of thing often enough; the last prominent assassination being that of the senior Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, by the Trump administration.
US intelligence report leaves Saudi Arabia with no good geopolitical choices
The Biden administration’s publication of a US intelligence report that holds Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi creates a fundamental challenge to the kingdom’s geopolitical ambitions.
The challenge lies in whether and how Saudi Arabia will seek to further diversify its alliances with other world powers in response to the report and US human rights pressure.
Saudi and United Arab Emirates options are limited by that fact that they cannot fully replace the United States as a mainstay of their defence as well as their quest for regional hegemony, even if the report revives perceptions of the US as unreliable and at odds with their policies.
As Saudi King Salman and Prince Mohammed contemplate their options, including strengthening relations with external players such as China and Russia, they may find that reliance on these forces could prove riskier than the pitfalls of the kingdom’s ties with the United States.
Core to Saudi as well as UAE considerations is likely to be the shaping of the ultimate balance of power between the kingdom and Iran in a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to Central Asia’s border with China.
US officials privately suggest that regional jockeying in an environment in which world power is being rebalanced to create a new world order was the key driver of Saudi and UAE as well as Israeli opposition from day one to the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran that the United States together with Europe, China, and Russia negotiated. That remains the driver of criticism of US President Joe Biden’s efforts to revive the agreement.
“If forced to choose, Riyadh preferred an isolated Iran with a nuclear bomb to an internationally accepted Iran unarmed with the weapons of doom,” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and founder of the National Iranian American Council. Mr. Parsi was summing up Saudi and Emirati attitudes based on interviews with officials involved in the negotiations at a time that Mr. Biden was vice-president.
As a result, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel appear to remain determined to either foil a return of the United States to the accord, from which Mr. Biden’s predecessor, Donald J. Trump, withdrew, or ensure that it imposes conditions on Iran that would severely undermine its claim to regional hegemony.
In the ultimate analysis, the Gulf states and Israel share US objectives that include not only restricting Iran’s nuclear capabilities but also limiting its ballistic missiles program and ending support for non-state actors like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and Yemen’s Houthis. The Middle Eastern states differ with the Biden administration on how to achieve those objectives and the sequencing of their pursuit.
Even so, the Gulf states are likely to realize as Saudi Arabia contemplates its next steps what Israel already knows: China and Russia’s commitment to the defence of Saudi Arabia or Israel are unlikely to match that of the United States given that they view an Iran unfettered by sanctions and international isolation as strategic in ways that only Turkey rather than other Middle Eastern states can match.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE will also have to recognize that they can attempt to influence US policies with the help of Israel’s powerful Washington lobby and influential US lobbying and public relations companies in ways that they are not able to do in autocratic China or authoritarian Russia.
No doubt, China and Russia will seek to exploit opportunities created by the United States’ recalibration of its relations with Saudi Arabia with arms sales as well as increased trade and investment.
But that will not alter the two countries’ long-term view of Iran as a country, albeit problematic, with attributes that the Gulf states cannot match even if it is momentarily in economic and political disrepair.
Those attributes include Iran’s geography as a gateway at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe; ethnic, cultural, and religious ties with Central Asia and the Middle East as a result of history and empire; a deep-seated identity rooted in empire; some of the world’s foremost oil and gas reserves; a large, highly educated population of 83 million that constitutes a huge domestic market; a fundamentally diversified economy; and a battle-hardened military.
Iran also shares Chinese and Russian ambitions to contain US influence even if its aspirations at times clash with those of China and Russia.
“China’s BRI will on paper finance additional transit options for the transfer of goods from ports in southern to northern Iran and beyond to Turkey, Russia, or Europe. China has a number of transit options available to it, but Iranian territory is difficult to avoid for any south-north or east-west links,” said Iran scholar Alex Vatanka referring to Beijing’s infrastructure, transportation and energy-driven Belt and Road Initiative.
Compared to an unfettered Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE primarily offer geography related to some of the most strategic waterways through which much of the world’s oil and gas flows as well their positioning opposite the Horn of Africa and their energy reserves.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s position as a religious leader in the Muslim world built on its custodianship of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, potentially could be challenged as the kingdom competes for leadership with other Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim-majority states.
On the principle of better the enemy that you know than the devil that you don’t, Saudi leaders may find that they are, in the best of scenarios, in response to changing US policies able to rattle cages by reaching out to China and Russia in ways that they have not until now, but that at the end of the day they are deprived of good choices.
That conclusion may be reinforced by the realization that the United States has signalled by not sanctioning Prince Mohammed that it does not wish to cut its umbilical cord with the kingdom. That message was also contained in the Biden administration’s earlier decision to halt the sale of weapons that Saudi Arabia could you for offensive operations in Yemen but not arms that it needs to defend its territory from external attack.
At the bottom line, Saudi Arabia’s best option to counter an Iran that poses a threat to the kingdom’s ambitions irrespective of whatever regime is in power would be to work with its allies to develop the kind of economic and social policies as well as governance that would enable it to capitalize on its assets to effectively compete. Containment of Iran is a short-term tactic that eventually will run its course.
Warned former British diplomat and Royal Dutch Shell executive Ian McCredie: “When the Ottoman Empire was dismantled in 1922, it created a vacuum which a series of powers have attempted to fill ever since. None has succeeded, and the result has been a century of wars, coups, and instability. Iran ruled all these lands before the Arab and Ottoman conquests. It could do so again.”
Back to Strategic Hedging and Mediation in Qatar Foreign Policy after the Gulf Reconciliation
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt ended the land, air and sea blockade on Qatar last January. While the way how the crisis ended revealed the control of the Saudi and Emirati decision-makers on the evolution of the issue, the process of isolation by its GCC neighbors reconstructed Qatar foreign policy within a loss of trust mode and directed the Qatari decision-makers to question the country’s hedging strategy in the region. Following the reconciliation in January 2021, Qatar seems to practice its mediation policy again at the regional conflicts beside bringing back to the hedging strategy towards Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The blockade, which lasted three years and half, since the June 2017 increased the level of distrust of the Qatari decision-makers to the regional states, and to realize the significance of strengthening Qatar’s regional security standing and international status. While economic wealth helped the country to utilize the outcomes of the blockade for political purposes, it pushed the country to establish, or strengthen, relations with alternative allies and economic partners, particularly Iran and Turkey.
Strategic hedging, as a concept developed after the Cold War period in contrast to the bandwagoning, balancing or buck-passing, has been the major foreign policy tool of Qatar as a small state aware of its security needs. It illustrated the Qatar’s aim of finding a middle ground while insuring the potential security risks of the regional actors to its national security. By hedging the risky adversaries,namely Saudi Arabia and Iran, in the region, Qatar avoided a security dilemma and minimized the risks of being threatened.The Qatar foreign policy discourse revealed not only cooperative elements but also the confrontational ones which gradually paved the way forSaudi Arabia and the allies to build a rationale to imply blockade on the country in June 2017.
Prior to the 2017 crisis, hedging strategy helped Qatar to compensate its smallness and offset the potential security threats from Iran. Qatar had signed a security cooperation agreement with Iran in December 2010 including the exchange of specialized and technical committees, expand cooperation in training and naval exercises, as well as conducting joint campaigns against terrorism and insecurity in the region. Beside cooperating with Iran at the security and economy fields, Qatar avoided to challenge Saudi Arabia and shared the common regional security worries of the GCC towards Iran. It aimed at balancing its relations between these two regional powers and at the same time remaining neutral as much as it can by employing a discourse of mediation as a foreign policy tool.
While simultaneously positioning itself alongside the GCC, Qatar decision-makers gave credits to keeping ties with Iran. Qatar allowed Turkey to open a Turkish military base in its territory even before the crisis. While already securing its national security through a US military air base, Qatar’s decision for opening a Turkish military base was highly criticized by its GCC neighbors and its removal became one of the demands of Saudi Arabia and the allies to end the blockade. Qatar’s decision to boost domestic defense capabilities was understandable to enhance its security during the crisis. Resuming its dialogue with Iran helped Qatar to maintain the peaceful development of the natural-gas fields of Qatar shared with Iran. Moreover, getting militarily, economically and politically close to Turkey allowed the country to diversify its military dependency from the US and the Europe. At the domestic sphere, the economic wealth helped Qatar to survive and keep the Qataris more attached to the regional desires of the country, during the crisis, all of which worked for breaking free from the Saudi influence on the foreign policy decisions of Qatar.
The GCC crisis was an opportunity for Iran to present itself as an alternative ally to Qatar than the GCC members which was observed in the enhancement of the Iranian export to the country as well as Iran’s decision to allow the Qatar airways to operate by Iranian airspace. In 2017, the Iranian exports to Qatar was $250 million,$225.25 million in 2018, and $214.17 million in 2019, according to the United Nations database. China also upgraded its security partnership including selling military technical exports, major importer of LNG of Qatar.
As a result ofregionally being isolated, Qatar had a break from hedging strategy in the region while callingSaudi Arabia and the allies for a diplomatic dialogue to solve their problems. The crisis raised the sense of respect to state sovereignty at Qatar foreign policy, and eventually increased the loss of trust at the perception of the Qatari decision-makers towards the GCC members. Ironically, the chronicsecurity threat perception of Qatar towards Iran was replaced with the distrust to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates at security realm.
The crisis enabled Qatar to gainmore security and influence in the region than before as a small state. As the regional conjuncture does not promise to go back to the conditions in pre-Gulf period giventhe more multifacedregional threats, Qatar became aware of the fact that it cannot rely on the GCC or the US alone military and economically. Hence, it announced the resume of its dialogues and cooperation with Iran which signaled the continuity of the hedging strategy of the Qatar foreign policy. Despite this strategy can be considered as part of escaping the possibility of new threats from Iran,it works for undermining the regional power of both Saudi Arabia and Iran through economic, diplomatic and institutional instruments.
In post-reconciliation period, it seems that Qatar manages to gain a high degree of freedom of sovereign action within the GCC. This helps Qatar to maintain its strategic interests and decide with whom to cooperate at the times of crisis or peace. Qatar is more aware of the impact of the structural features of power in domestic politics and regional security, hence pays importance to build counter alliances towards its neighbors at the same time cooperating with them, and without challenging them rhetorically or materially. The Gulf reconciliation did not weaken the Iran’s potential ally status to Qatar, in contrary, Qatar announced that it will keep Iran in the game and, moreover, willing to mediate with Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Qatar is not anymore looking for minimizing threats to its stability and survive in the multipolar dynamics of the region. The decision-makersarenow motivated to pursue the Qatar’s own strategic interests, and mediate Saudi Arabi and Iran, Iran and the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Qatarwould to like to achieve the rewards of its bilateral military and economic establishments during the blockade over the changing attitude of the Gulf neighbors towards its rights as a sovereign state beside strengthening its regional status and international standing. As the al-Ula GCC summit in January was far from directly addressing the major roots of the Gulf crisis, it is exposed to give birthto the new conflicts at the foreign policy and regional security perception of the states at different shapes, and pave the way for the Qatari decision-makers to present the country as a mediator of the region again.
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