11/12/2018, 18.07
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Marshal Haftar’s absence might scuttle the Palermo Conference

by Pierre Balanian

Haftar’s presence at the Palermo Conference is crucial to a lasting political solution. Both France and Russia are pursuing their respective interests. Jumpstarting the economy is crucial. Libya is still split between east and west at the mercy of 1,500 militias and 200,000 fighters.

Benghazi (AsiaNews) - The International Conference on Libya opened today in Palermo. Various officials from Libya and other governments will take part in discussions over two days to support efforts by the United Nations to achieve pacification and political reunification.

At present, Libya remains divided between east and west at the mercy of some 1,500 militias and 200,000 fighters paid by the official government but under militia control.

The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez Al-Sirraj, was set up in February 2016 on the basis of the Skhirat agreement in Morocco, signed under the auspices of the United Nations on 17 December 2015.

GNA officials were the first to arrive in Palermo. Libyan sources told AsiaNews that Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who was set to come, decided to boycott the meeting after receiving guarantees from the Russians and the British.

The Italian government still hopes he may still come. A Libyan writer in Cairo, close to Haftar, contacted by AsiaNews, said that the marshal might arrive late in Palermo, but he is likely to refuse any talk with Al Sirraj, which was a remote chance to start with.

With Italy as its main sponsor with US backing, the Palermo Conference comes in the wake of the mistakes of an international conference in Paris and the likely failure of scheduled Libyan elections in December.

According to many Libyan analysts, Italy, seeing the weaknesses of the Paris conference, invited to the conference all interested parties, despite their divisions, including Algeria (which backs Libyan unity), Tunisia and Egypt, as well as Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

France, one of the countries that most contributed to the "Libyan Spring" has sought to reap political and economic benefits. But the Libyan crisis ended up pitting it against Italy.

For the French, who recognise the Al Sirraj government in Tripoli, the winning card is the 75-year-old Field Marshal Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) who controls Cyrenaica and is now backed by Russia.

No agreement on Libya can work without the agreement of all the main figures on the ground, and Marshal Haftar is one of them, given his many local and international ties.

Italy, unlike France, has preferred the role of mediator. The Conference is in fact "For and With Libya" and could be a once-in-lifetime opportunity for direct dialogue between the parties.

The presence of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is a clear sign that France backs the Italian initiative. But it is too early to know whether this means the end of Italian-French rivalry, which is something the Americans would like to see. Meanwhile, Russia, the new player in the area, has plans for two military bases in eastern Libya.

The head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya Ghassan Salamé, from Lebanon, will also be present. Like General Haftar, he is very close to Paris, but this time he will have his deputy with him, Stephanie Williams, of the United states.

People close to the UN envoy told AsiaNews that Salamé, under pressure from Washington, plans to invite all the Libyan parties to a national conference early next year, focused on economic reform rather than elections, which was the main focus of the meetings in France and Morocco.

Rebooting the economy would weaken the militias, the source said, whilst presidential elections in a divided and unstable country like Libya could only worsen the crisis.

If Marshal Haftar is a no show, the Palermo Conference is not likely to provide any solution to the Libyan crisis but it would still leave its mark. Paris and Rome are now forced to seek a deal as a result of Russia coming into picture and the threat of a returning Islamic State group in Libya’s central coastal region.

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