Qatar Rift Threatens Prospects of Final Union Deal in Libya

Forces loyal to Gen. Khalifa Haftar in eastern Libya. (Photo: AFP)

Three years ago, 200-member Libyan Parliament, so-called world’s first ‘floating assembly,’ had to flee capital Tripoli after Qatar-backed Islamist militant groups conquered the city. The lawmakers escaped to a city called Tobruk, an easternmost town on the Egyptian border, and had to hold its sessions in a Greek cruiser.

Those desperate days for the Libyan parliament, which is part of an eastern statelet commanded by Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, are over. But when Saudi-led coalition started imposing an embargo on Qatar for allegedly “funding terrorism” in the region, the LNA jumped on the board.

Media outlets funded by Qatar and other Gulf nations have started an information war over who is more destabilizing in Libya, a nation that has been a theater of rivaling factions and unceasing violence since Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in a NATO intervention six years ago.

The political impasse, complicated by a number of small-scale tribal wars, is so intractable that former U.S. President Barack Obama even called it a “shitshow.” Since the ouster of Col. Gaddafi, numerous peace talks have failed and the country’s most powerful faction led by Gen. Haftar is refusing to recognize a U.N.-backed government in Tripoli.

Military support by the United Arab Emirates, backed by Saudi Arabia, was crucial to shore up Gen. Haftar’s air force and his recent successful military campaign. Libya’s eastern government wrested large swathes of territory from Qatar-backed Islamist factions in the past year, including key towns in Benghazi, a flashpoint of 2011 Libyan revolution.

The intricate situation on the ground also clouds web of alliances, backed by foreign governments, and Qatar’s involvement in the country may not be as clear as it is claimed by the Gulf states.

A senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Karim Mezran, told The Globe Post that the Qatar rift has not had any significant impact on the complicated political environment of Libya. Yet.

“So far, I don’t think we have seen much change,” he said. “If you ask me: ‘what are the main consequences?’ It is too early to see.”

Mr. Mezran noted that the situation would depend on Qatar’s further actions and whether or not Doha will withdraw or increase its support to Libyan forces.

On June 23, Qatar received a 13-point ultimatum from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE. The countries demand Doha curb ties with Iran, shut down Al Jazeera news channel, and close a Turkish military base. In addition, Qatar is required to stop supporting extremists in Syria, Libya and elsewhere in the region.

A former official in charge of Libya policy at the US Department of State, William Lawrence, told The Globe Post that Qatar has not offered much military aid to western Libya since 2011-2012. Meanwhile, the UAE has been offering a lot of military support to the East, including airplanes, military vehicles, and training.

“Certainly any shift or prolongation of the Qatar crisis would not really tip the balance either way in Libya because I doubt that Qatar support for some western Libya militias is that substantial,” Mr. Lawrence, who is currently a professor at George Washington University, said.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir said on Tuesday that the demands from Qatar were non-negotiable. Meanwhile, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Thani called them “unacceptable” and not based on evidence.

On June 19, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said the countries, many of which are Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, were prepared to continue Qatar’s isolation “for years.”

“If it the Qatar crisis continues, it will have a devastating effect on the region, because the GCC needs to act as a one… Any division within the GCC weakens the position of all the GCC members and makes every crisis worse: makes Yemen worse, makes Syria worse, makes Iraq worse, makes negotiations with Iran worse,” Mr. Lawrence said.

He noted that Libya could ultimately be negatively affected too since Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE’s support is necessary for an eventual unity deal for the country.

“But if Haftar believes that he doesn’t need to make a deal because he has got backers, and those backers don’t want to make a deal because of a larger geopolitical issues, that, long-term, will have a bad impact on Libya because it makes a final peace deal harder,” Mr. Lawrence explained.

In May, tensions flared up in Libya, when the Third Force militia, which is loyal to the U.N.-backed government, attacked an airbase in southern Libya used by Gen. Haftar’s LNA. Some 140 people were killed in the standoff. The GNA has stated that it did not order the assault, which was under investigation.

“It is unclear whether it will go from a cooler conflict to a hotter conflict, but certainly the lack of consensus in the Gulf doesn’t help,” Mr. Lawrence concluded.

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