By Sami Zaptia.
London, 4 April 2019:
Faiez Serraj, head of the Presidency Council and Government of National Accord, in his role as Supreme Commander of the Tripoli-based Libyan National Army, announced a state of alert yesterday in response to the encroaching Libyan National Army (LNA) forces and threats to enter Tripoli militarily.
Serraj, never mentions Hafter nor the LNA by name in his statement, but the message is clearly directed at them. He condemned the ‘‘provocative’’ and ‘‘escalating’’ language and statements made by Hafter and his LNA ‘‘to purge the western region’’ and to ‘‘liberate’’ Tripoli which he said did not help accord or reconciliation.
He said such language destroys Libyans’ hope for stability and, in a veiled threat, ‘‘underestimates’’ all other parties.
Serraj said that this escalation comes a few days before the UN-brokered National Conference (@multaqa.libya) set to be held in Ghadames from 14 to 16 April. He added that Libyans view the conference with a glimmer of hope and as an exit out of Libya’s current crisis, an opportunity to unify the country’s split institutions and as the means to elections. However, the LNA’s inflammatory and escalating statements will undermine all of this, Serraj added.
Serraj warned that he had in the past chosen to exercise restraint to such intended crisis-precipitating actions, but that in the face of such persistence to follow this aggressive policy that he thought had been long bypassed, he has ordered and announced a state of alert to all military and security forces to prepare to respond and deter any threats aimed at destabilizing security in any area of the country. This destabilizing threat could be terror or criminal organizations, rogue groups outside the law, mercenaries, or anyone who threatens any Libyan city.
In conclusion, Serraj repeated the oft quoted mantra that there is ‘‘no military solution’’ to the Libyan crisis. He added that ‘‘war only brings destruction to the country and suffering to the people’’, urging Hafter and the LNA to ‘‘stop the language of threats and menace and to take on the language of reason and wisdom’’.
It will be recalled that the Serraj state of alert announcement comes after a clear and deliberate ratcheting up by the Hafter LNA and their regional allies spanning from Sabrata to Gharian. In fact, critics and analysts would say that Hafter has been on a military campaign for months if not years. His manoeuvres in the south of Libya in February and March are seen as preparations for a military ‘‘liberation’’ of Tripoli – an aim Hafter has never made a secret of.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was yesterday’s announcement by the LNA’s General Command issuing orders to move to the western region which the announcement said was ‘‘controlled by outlaw groups and militias’’. The announcement was accompanied by footage claiming to show heavily armed forces crossing the Brega area and the central Oil Crescent area and allegedly moving towards the west of the country.
The statement said that the ‘‘operation aims to cleanse the country, which remains with terrorist and criminal group found in its hideouts in the western region’’ It added that the Libyan armed forces are aware of the safety of citizens and public property in the country.
On the other hand, Tripoli’s and the Western Region Forces have not sat idle. On 31 March the Tripoli Protection Force (TPF), a coalition of Tripoli’s main militias aligned to the Serraj Presidency Council, had announced on 31 March the unification of the Tripoli and Western Region Forces. Video footage of its forces allegedly heading towards the south of Tripoli have also been circulating.
The Faiez Serraj Ministry of Interior (MoI) had also announced the readiness of its forces to protect the areas under its control. Today it also announced a state of alert and warned its employees not to take orders from any forces outside the authority of the Presidency Council.
Political manoeuvres ahead of Ghadames National Conference
As Faiez Serraj suggested in his state of alert declaration, these military manoeuvres by Hafter and his LNA and aligned forces in north western Libya come days before the 14 April Ghadames National Conference kicks off.
The military manoeuvres suggest they are a political dance and jostling by all the status quo parties ahead of any redivision of the power cake at Ghadames. It is partly fear of loss of a strong position or even annihilation and part the laying down of a marker. None of the parties want to enter the Ghadames conference and come out worse off. There is no doubt a fear of a loss of power if elections are indeed agreed as it would throw the power chips up in the air with an unknown outcome.
From the point of view Hafter, the LNA and his allies, there is the need to posture and project a position of power and strength on the ground. Hafter has been on this campaign for months if not years. His south of Libya military campaign has been a well-orchestrated manoeuvre to position himself favourably for elections or Ghassan Salame’s National Conference which has been long announced as part of his Libya Action Plan. Hafter has often proclaimed that he controls 90 percent of Libya’s territory. He hopes this is reflected in his slice of the power cake in Ghadames.
International reaction – calls for restraint
All this has come to a head at the exact time that the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, arrived in Tripoli yesterday.
In a tweet on his official Twitter account, announcing his arrival in Tripoli yesterday, Guterres expressed his full commitment to supporting the Libyan-led political process which would lead to peace, stability, democracy and prosperity for the Libyan people. “The United Nations aims to stabilize Libya and unite ranks of its army, governments and any other” he said.
In a tweet from Tripoli this morning, the military escalation meant that Guterres had to change his tone. He expressed his deep concern over the military movements taking place in Libya and the risk of confrontation. “There is no military solution. Only intra-Libyan dialogue can solve Libyan problems. I call for calm and restraint as I prepare to meet the Libyan leaders in the country, ” he said.
The British outgoing ambassador Frank Baker tweeted that he was ‘‘Deeply concerned by military movements in Libya and risk of rhetoric leading to miscalculation. Urge all parties to show restraint. Focus should now be on upcoming National Conference as best chance to achieve a better future for all Libyan’’
The US Embassy posted that it ‘‘Libya strongly condemns the increase in violence in Libya and reiterates the UN’s call for restraint’’.
The EU in a fuller statement said that it was ‘‘deeply concerned by the military build-up underway in Libya and the escalatory rhetoric which seriously risks leading to an uncontrollable confrontation. We urge all parties to immediately de-escalate tensions and cease all acts of provocation. There can be no military solution to the Libyan crisis.
The Libyan people deserve to live in peace and security. The current situation requires decision makers to act responsibly and finally put the national interest first.
The EU fully supports the mediating efforts of UN SRSG Ghassan Salame including the meetings recently held in Abu Dhabi. The upcoming National Conference scheduled in a few days offers an historic opportunity for all segments of Libyan society to agree on the political roadmap that will end the transition. We urge all parties to seize the opportunity of the visit of UN Secretary General António Guterres to engage in a spirit of compromise in order to avoid further bloodshed and build a better future for all Libyans”, it concluded.