UN-backed Libyan government ‘leaves much to be desired’, Vella warns

Until there is a clear resolution of the United Nations Security Council or a specific call from the Libyan government, no country will send troops on the ground

UN-backed Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Serraj (left) shaking hands with Khalifa Haftar
UN-backed Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Serraj (left) shaking hands with Khalifa Haftar

Fayez Serraj, Libya’s United Nations-backed prime minister, needs international help to impose order in his country, but until there is a clear resolution of the United Nations Security Council or a specific call from the Libyan government, no country will send troops on the ground.

Speaking to MaltaToday on the present situation in Libya, Foreign Affairs Minister George Vella also argued that not much progress has been registered in Libya, in a timeframe where more should have been delivered.

“The level of progress one was anticipating under Serraj has not been met. We still hope he will move forward but, as yet, the Libyan government has left much to be desired… we are not seeing the effects of [Serraj’s] policies,” Vella said.

He conceded that Serraj had however managed to acquire the allegiance of a number of important militias.

Serraj leads the Government of National Accord, which has pledged to defeat the Islamic State presence in the North African country. But for the GNA to do so, there needs to be a unified army. According to the Libya Herald, Serraj said IS could only be defeated if the unified army is made up of military forces from all over the country.

Even today, Serraj – whose government operates from the Abu Sittah navy base – fails to enjoy complete control over Tripoli. The rival Government of National Salvation headed by Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell is also based in Tripoli. 

A ‘third’ power in Libya is General Khalifa Haftar, commander of Libya’s armed forces who are loyal to the Tobruk-based House of Representatives. 

The Libya Herald reports that Haftar’s position has been a key sticking point between Tripoli and Tobruk: “Parliament wants Haftar to stay. The west, particularly the Misratans, want him out”.

Reports have now emerged that Haftar held talks with Russia’s Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, including weapons deliveries. 

Sputniknews.com reported that it was the Russian ambassador to Libya who confirmed Haftar’s presence in Moscow and the nature of discussions.

“Haftar is the elephant in the room,” Vella told MaltaToday, arguing that no one had a clear vision of his intentions. “The image surrounding him is one of division but enigmatic at the same time”.

While arguing that it was unclear who was behind Haftar, Vella said many were left surprised when US secretary of state John Kerry told a meeting of diplomats in Vienna that Haftar was an important part of the equation.

“Haftar had been mentioned by two or three countries during this meeting and Kerry said that we had all ‘agreed’ that he had a role to play, with Serraj, for the future of Libya.”

Haftar, a former Gaddafi ally, devoted “two decades” to toppling the former Libyan dictator and returned to Libya in 2011, during the uprising.

Vella, who believes that weapons are being trafficked by land corridors, questioned Haftar’s presence in Moscow; at the same time he also questioned what would Haftar do with the weapons.

“There are fears that he could launch a military attack to take over Libya… but no one knows. However, I don’t think Russia would accede to his request when there has been a decision by the Security Council.”

The Security Council unanimously authorised a crackdown on arms smuggling in the high seas off Libya by allowing the inspection of vessels to seize and dispose of illicit weapons.

The minister went on to add that no one knew what Haftar’s moves were: was he waiting around until the conflicting forces kill themselves out and then move in to take over Misurata and Tripoli? “It’s all legitimate speculation,” he added.

Meanwhile, the European Union is seeking a mandate from the UN Security Council to crack down on illegal arms shipments off Libyan shores. 

Led by the EU’s top foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, an appeal was made to the Security Council “to enforce the UN arms embargo on the high seas, off the coast of Libya”.

The arms that cross the Mediterranean often end up in the hands of militias beyond the prime minister’s control that rule eastern Libya, according to the United Nations.

Martin Kobler, the United Nations mediator for Libya, has argued that the number of weapons floating around in Libya was more than three times its population of six million. “These weapons do not fall from the sky, but come in increasingly through illegal shipments by sea and by land,” according to Kobler. “These shipments must end if there is to be any serious hope of bringing peace to Libya.”