Vienna Libyan summit deal may not be all it seemed

Vienna Libyan summit deal may not be all it seemed

US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Libyan Prime Minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj (L) arrive to address a press conference on May 16, 2016 in Vienna, Austria. — AFP

Ambiguity may be the stuff of diplomacy but it carries risks. On Monday there was a Libya summit in Vienna, attended by 21 countries, including the Kingdom. At the end, a communiqué said that the United Nations would be asked for a partial lifting of the five-year-old weapons embargo to arm the UN-backed government of Prime Minister Fayez Serraj. The purpose would be to allow the Libyans themselves to take on and defeat Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS) which has established itself along some 300 kilometers of the Libyan coast around Muammar Gaddafi’s old hometown of Sirte.

There seemed nothing ambiguous about the statement to which Russia was a party. But shortly after the communiqué had been read out, a Russian diplomat was telling journalists that there was no guarantee that the UN Security Council would find agreement on how the weapons were to be supplied. Moscow, of course, holds a permanent seat on the Council and has a veto on any proposal.

It is indeed clear that the international community is concerned that any weaponry permitted to be sold to Libya legally could be used in the civil strife between Libyan factions rather than against the terrorists.  The communiqué specifically stated that the weapons and equipment would be for the Presidential Guard currently being formed, as well as for “other vetted forces throughout the country”.

The identity of those forces and how they would be vetted and who would do it was not made clear. But this clause has the fingerprints of Moscow on it. The Russians back the UN-brokered Government of National Accord but insist that, as stipulated by the Libyan Political Agreement which created the GNA, the new government has to be approved by the House of Representatives. This was freely elected in 2014 but was forced to flee to Tobruk after the Muslim Brotherhood-instigated Libya Dawn rebellion in the capital Tripoli. 

Some in the HoR want the GNA to guarantee Khalifa Haftar as head of the armed forces. Haftar, a former Gaddafi general, has all but destroyed Daesh terrorists in Benghazi and is now moving toward Sirte from the east. But Haftar is roundly hated by the Misratans in the Serraj government.

It could, of course, be argued that the UN arms embargo is irrelevant since both Libya Dawn and Haftar have been receiving weapons, overtly in the case of forces in the east, covertly by Libya Dawn.  For decades, most of the weaponry in Libya  has been of  Russian origin. When the Security Council comes to debate the partial lifting of the arms embargo, Russia can be expected to argue that Haftar’s forces are as important in the fight against Daesh as the new Presidential Guard. Indeed, they have a proven record of success while the new Guard is currently vaporware and likely to be made up of the selfsame militiamen who have held the country to ransom for the last two years. Therefore, the Russians will almost certainly say that Haftar’s forces, designated by the HoR as the Libyan National Army, should  also be vetted.

 And, of course, Moscow is likely to want one more concession from the Security Council, which is that since historically Russia has supplied Libya with its arms and equipment, it should win the lion’s share of the new Libya order.